Democratic Theory in Practice

Arguments for Democracy

  • Democratic control over professional elites – ‘Who guards the guardians?’ – capacity to remove politicians at election time – note that 145 MPs stepped down at 2010 general election – and the use of recall votes – Eric Ilsley.
  • Lord Acton – “power tends to corrupt, absolute power corrupts absolutely” – use of MPs’ expenses scandal – Ilsley prosecuted for fraud, however. Checks on power. Blair not forced to stand trial on Iraq though.
  • Basis of protective forms of democracy – regular, free and fair elections – essence of all western liberal democracies. Are they really ‘fair’?
  • Process of democratic accountability – elections, referendums, initiatives and recall votes – do they all work? Should they be used more frequently? Most recent referendums – Welsh Assembly March 2011 and AV. Local referendums on local mayors – leave system as councillors electing mayor or change to people voting for mayor?
  • E-petitions – direct democracy in action. MPs forced to debate on issues people vote for online.
  • Moral claim for participation – Rousseau – political freedom based on participation in the law making process – rejected representative democracy though.
  • Locke and natural right to representation through property ownership – extended to universal suffrage. Universal suffrage extended from property owning to equal worth of all citizens.
  • Improves social cohesion – social capital – measure of engagement with political system. Mill and suffrage promotes harmonious society – all have stake in society – BUT coalition of protestors in recent uprisings – will this last? Awful tuition fees protests.
  • Provides sense of public interest and community values – development of civic culture in Eastern Europe, Iraq.
  • Ability to combine capitalist competition and social welfare – Fukuyama and appeal of western liberal democracy – however, wealthiest 400 in America have the sum of 150 million poorest.
  • Improves development of citizenship – Rousseau and civic virtue based on adhering to General Will – dangers of Nimbyism (Not in my back yard) e.g. wind farm protests.
  • Elevates need of society above selfish interests – are MPS selfless? Ilsley? Professional politicians?
  • Encourages responsible citizenship as all have stake in society through the ballot box and opportunity to engage in political process – does this allow violent direct action? No.
  • Despite rise in electoral apathy (60, 61, 65% in past three elections) and decline in party membership (Cons. 500,000 Lab. 261,000 (1991) Cons. 177,000 Labour 190,000 (2011), rise in democratic participation through pressure groups and other pluralistic organisations (Dahl and polyarchy). Average U.K. citizen now member of 3.5 non-government organisations.
  • Engine for social change – democratic protests encourages political and social reform – process of structuring democratic constitution in Egypt.
  • Removes legitimacy of force as an engine for change – Good Friday Agreement and end to Sinn Fein’s policy of the “armalite rifle and the ballot box”.

Against democracy

  • Government requires a specialised elite – elitist critique – Plato – society based on a division of labour thus politics to be undertaken by “philosopher kings”. In practice there are glass ceilings of elite rule though.
  • Modern elite theory – Schumpeter and elite competition for votes (limited democracy) – same narrow social class who hold the strings of power. Michels – “iron law of oligarchy”.
  • Principle of permanent civil service elite in British politics – chipped away but still difficult for working class to rise to the upper echelons of civil service. Similar to Supreme Court – one female and many public schooled.
  • Narrow socio-economic and educational background of politicians and closed policy communities controlling policy making.
  • Limitations of the electorate – “The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter” Churchill. Suggests that elections for parties are something they just grin and bear – don’t care about electorate. E.g. Brown and ‘Bigot-gate’ – dismissive attitude to the average voter.
  • Mill – inability of uneducated to participate in electoral politics. Plural voting – worried about the tyranny of the majority (uneducated masses). U.S. used to have an educational threshold but removed as seen as discriminating against African Americans.
  • Pre-20th Century unpropertied masses seen as irresponsible.
  • Dangers of selfish voting – Bristol and council tax and Edinburgh and congestion charge.
  • Inability to understand complex issues –EU referendums on constitution and complexity of issues such as quantitive easing.
  • Majority tyranny and liberal concerns – de Tocqueville and ‘majority tyranny’ leading to dull conformity (Mill). Ulster example of Catholic rights continually denied.
  • Gasset – democracy as overthrowing civil society etc. etc. base interests – arts funding sacrificed to Olympic funding in the run up to 2012.
  • Talmon’s fear of mass democracy resulting in ‘totalitarian democracy’.
  • Necessity to constitutionally protect against populism – controversial issues such as immigration, homosexuality and punishment have limited involvement from citizenship – therefore rejection of referendums over re-introduction of death penalty.
  • Too much focus on political democracy – Marx and true inequality economic. Political democracy seen as a sham democracy – were the interests of the tax payers sacrificed to save the banking sector (state pensions reduced to deal with bank bail outs)?
  • Neo-Marxists – Gramsci – democracy is bourgeois hegemony – capitalist elites who control productive wealth. Consider role of military industrial complex in distorting the policy making process – over 50% of Tory funding comes from financial institutions and donors and over 80 from corporate sector.
  • Lack of focus on other forms of inequality e.g. radical feminists see democracy reinforcing patriarchy – Friedan – less than 1 in 10 CEOs of the FTSE 100 companies are female.

Liberal democracy

  • See definitions and key criteria.
  • Elitist perspective – see Schumpeter, C. Wright Mills – e.g. dominance of certain insider pressure groups – CBI.
  • Radical democrat – Bottomore – system is a sham creating gulf between electors and elected – however, genuine demands for democratic action rarely happen. Recent cases: October 2011 demands for EU referendum by Tory backbenchers ignored by government; proposed Greek ref. on EU bailout rejected by major powers. – Need for true grass roots democracy and decentralisation of power – note Rousseau’s criticism of UK democracy.
  • Marxist – rejection of democratic route to socialism. Some see it as a stepping stone however but others believe it is a smoke screen and offers nothing. Some say that even though there was a progressive Labour government for 13 years, there has been an increase in division between rich and poor. Damning legacy of Blair = rise in inequality.

Tensions between liberalism and democracy

  • Liberal aspects – emphasis on individual rights and sanctity of property. Limitations on the scope of government involvement in the lives of the individual (J.S. Mill simple principle) through written constitutions and decentralising power. Idea of self and other regarding actions. In practical terms, the more we know the more we expect government to do about it – e.g. availability of drugs on NHS. Where do you draw the line on that government’s expectation to protect someone’s right to life? Theoretically able to afford all drugs but in practice it’s impossible. Regarding self-regarding actions – BMA proposals for banning smoking in car even if on own. Unfair? Locke “government should be a night watchman” – should protect from fear and threat only.
  • Democratic aspects – based on the location of the state’s power and political equality – critics – what’s the point have a vote in you’re not economically equal? FPTP – supposedly we freely determine who shall govern – not in practice.
  • Tension over majority rule – de Tocqueville, Mill – restricts individuality by elevating will of the majority over the minority. Can minorities who dissent have an equal say and what guards against the rule of a permanent majority?
  • Equality versus liberal individualism – defining democracy beyond political to social democracy conflicts with individual rights – ownership of property – does property rights conflict with equality? Some more equal than others. Political democracy of one man one vote for traditional liberals raises tyranny majority fears. Berlin’s positive conception of liberty does allow for some enhancement of individual liberty through state involvement.
  • Liberal democracy solves the paradox of democracy – democracy is seen as liberating the individual in allowing articulation of personal interests yet can enslave the individual to the will of the majority (paradox). Liberal democracy solves this by limiting intervention of the state and the majority will through constitutional means.
  • Tension in practice – liberal democracy offers compromise between democratic and liberal principles but does this compromise always work?
  • US and racial discrimination in Deep South – lack of black rights held up by individual state law. Infringe rights and pandered to majority.
  • Anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.K. post 9/11 – introduction of contentious terrorist laws. Glorification. Freedom of expression limited to protect majority view. Climate of fear which allowed unfair laws against minority – e.g. Guantanamo prisoner exonerated.
  • Gurkha and Joanna Lumley – protects rights of minority – majority view of immigration though.

How liberal democratic is the UK?

  • Heywood criteria – indirect system, competitive elections, political equality, pluralist, capitalist, constitutional guarantees of individual freedoms.
  • Competitive elections – only between major parties but there is pluralism.
  • Political equality – doesn’t work due to FPTP – wasted votes. Wider range of candidates though.
  • Individual freedoms – HRA but parliament remains sovereign.
  • Garnett criteria – formal constitution, separation of power, constitutional guarantees of individual freedom, free associations outside of the state, free media and economy, legal equality and representative politics based on free and fair elections.
  • Formal constitution – ambiguous in UK.
  • Separation – increased due to Supreme Court and separation of House of Lords.
  • Legal equality – rule of law.
  • Free media and economy – actions of newspapers e.g. issues such as the Stephen Lawrence murder. Also shows a willingness to re-consider its loyalties. “Who guards the guardians?” – Leveson inquiry.
  • Westminster model: government by mandate, parliamentary sovereignty, ministerial responsibility, judicial independence, political pluralism. Ministerial – head of the U.K. bored agency civil service questioned by select committee instead of Theresa May. Accountability blurring. HOWEVER, Liam Fox resigned. So did Jeremy Hunt but he hasn’t been prosecuted. Got off lightly?
  • Punnett “the overriding feature of the British system is that of mutual consent and this alone justifies the claim that the system is fundamentally democratic”.
  • UK democratic deficit – mandate – unrepresentative nature of FPTP, increasing voter disillusionment and ambiguity over voting intentions. Parliamentary sovereignty – growth of executive power, power of the whips and undemocratic nature of the Lord. Ministerial responsibility – rise of presidential style premierships, politicisation and direct accountability of civil service. Judicial independence – narrow social background and increasing political intervention of judiciary. Pluralism – decline of party membership unequal influence of insider pressure groups and pressure group distortion of political process, influence of media owners and dumbing down of political coverage.
  • Jones “state of British democracy is not healthy. We have an apathetic and disenchanted electorate, a legislative system creaking at the seams...”
  • Problem with institutional and procedural criteria but UK still seen as possessing climate of liberal democracy enshrining a belief in a liberal individualism through a free media, freedom of expression, toleration of minorities and increasingly unregulated economy.
  • Also recent growth in constitutional guarantees – FOI, HRA, Note that Labour encroached upon civil liberties with terrorism etc. Increased separation of powers (2005 Constitutional Reform Acct) and decentralisation, potential for a partially/fully elected upper chamber (Clegg).

Has liberal democracy triumphed?

  • Fukuyama – “what we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War but the end of history...the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human development”.
  • Criticisms – liberal democratic values not universally applicable to all cultures – undervalues collectivist values in many societies (Jowett).
  • Thesis is outdated – written against backdrop of collapse of Soviet Union..
  • Potential alternative ideologies – rise of religious fundamentalism rejecting liberal values. Continuation of authoritarian regimes in Asia rejection pluralism. Development of anti-globalisation movements in the west rejecting capitalism – occupation of St. Paul’s Cathedral.
  • Have all ideologies lost relevance? Post-modernist critique that all ideologies have failed. Evidence of society increasingly managerialist and declining in civic participation (Putnam). UK evidence of declining party divisions, rise of populist style politicians focusing on delivery and declining political engagement.


  • Wider use of referendums since the ratification of the Lisbon treaty without a referendum.
  • Wider use due to the participation crisis Power Report (2006) – turnout too low. #
  • Attlee called referendums a “device so alien to all our traditions” – this hints at deeper meaning – UK is representative not direct. Under the representative model – doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty ensures that no further authority need to be sought from the citizenry before bringing such measures onto the statute books. Referendums therefore seen as unnecessary.
  • Case for – removes the growing gulf between government and people through invigorating grass-roots democracy. Bottomore highlights views of Rousseau and J.S.Mill in calling for improvements in civic virtue and education citizens to participate – the more people are encouraged to vote on issues that affect them. SUBSIDIARITY – decisions taken by lowest form of government where possible. Element of this in rep. democracy with loca decisions made more by local government.
  • E-petitions still elitist with panel considering them on their merits – conflict between rep. democracy and participatory democracy.
  • Referendums serve to articulate the growing particularisation of politics, evidence for public desire to be consulted – good turnouts e.g. Good Friday Agreement 79%. Declining trust in politicians
  • Against – low turnout – voter indifference – elected mayoral referendums averaging 35%. Do voters understand issues? Selfish – Bristol. Cynical use of referendums – promise of them under Labour used to appease public opinion, mask internal party divisions and delay decision making.

Rule of Law

  • Rule of law provides a powerful barrier against arbitrary rule and an effective check on excessive government power. Values: justice, legal equality and judicial independence – promote restraint and responsibility in executive action and seek to ensure that governments act legitimately.
  • Because the U.K. does not have a written constitution, without the rule of law an unrestricted government could act as an “elective dictatorship” Lord Hailsham.
  • Many governments have bypassed and ignored the rule of law – Labour’s replacement of the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act in 2005 saw replacement of detention in prison with ‘control orders’. HR group Liberty stated that this represented an “unsafe and unfair system for dealing with terror suspects outside the normal rule of law”.
  • However, there is evidence to support idea that courts are checking power of the government – Labour in 2004 forced to amend its anti-terror legislation after the HOL ruled that it was incompatible with HRA (indefinite detention of foreign terror suspects without trial).


  • “The relationship through which an individual or group stands for, or acts on behalf of, a larger body of people” Heywood.
  • Is representation desirable? “Who can represent me? I am myself”. DH Lawrence Rousseau argue sovereignty cannot be alienated ‘the English people believes themselves to be free; they are only free at the time of election’. Sovereignty should be inalienable but it is alienated in UK due to parliamentary sovereignty and representation.
  • Trustee – Lenin and vanguard party representing proletarian interests. Danger of trustee pursuing selfish interests.
  • Delegate – use of recall votes – Illsley.  Criticisms that MPs lack leadership and Parliament rejects national interests in favour of sectional interests.
  • Mandate – EU parliament elections – don’t elect individual, elect party. Does exist to a degree.
  • Resemblance – statistics on MPs – 27 ethnic minority MPs, 22% women, 18% Labour MPs privately educated.

Representation in practice

  • Elections elections every five years, possible recall votes, problems with concept of mandate (proportionality vs. majority government) – 66 sear majority on 36% of vote in 2005 (Labour) – elective dictatorship.
  • Are all MPs accountable? Safe vs. marginal seats. Yvette Cooper 17% swing against Labour but still won constituency seat.
  • Improvement with e-petitions. Uproar recently on fuel duty petition. When debate came it was not whipped by the parties. The Sun was very critical of lack of regard and arrogance of the MPs – merely window dressing?
  • Parties – membership of parties less than 2% of the population. Under representation of ethnic minorities, females and other social minorities (note positive discrimination attempts have been criticised – Cameron’s A List).
  • Internal democracy vs. strong leadership – some people think internal is healthy – others think it shows weakness and party divisions (electoral weakness) – McKenzie thesis. Tony Blair was strong leader, and Brown tried to bully people into submission.
  • Influence of sectional interests on policy formulation – all parties have been seen to accept dollar from dodgy people. Party funding and corruption scandals – no longer allowed overseas donations though. Calls for disallowance of large party donations – Labour in support of this as Conservatives get their dollar mostly in bulk whereas Labour receive large amount from TU membership donations and thus is only small amounts at a time.
  • Do modern parties offer ideological choice? Battle for centre ground of British politics. Only real choice are fringe groups – BNP / Green party.
  • Pressure groups – alternative vehicles for representation of the multiplicity of interests (Madison) – over 17,000 significant pressure groups in UK – benefits of polyarchy (see impact of environmental movement and achievements of Live8).  J.S.Mill – in favour of range of different viewpoints being expressed – need wide multiplicity or representative democracy fails. Public sector strikes – using PGs as a forum when they feel under represented.
  • Lack of internal group democracy and over influence of some section groups e.g. chequebook groups such as Greenpeace – warnings of neo-pluralism (influential groups who hold government to account) see insider status, gridlock and bias.

For and against existence of parties and pressure groups

  • Pluralist theory – power fragmented and dispersed and power based on bargaining and negotiating decisions. Madison and multiplicity of interests. Dahl and rule of polyarchies – New Haven study. Emphasis on level playing field and open access to decision making process. Galbraith and ‘countervailing powers’ produce a dynamic equilibrium between competing groups. Classic model of pluralist theory – e.g. smoking ban came after consultation from wide range of groups – ASH and BMA etc. Government sits in the middle – clear example of pluralism.
  • Neo-pluralism – growth in concern that power not so evenly distributed. Later writings of Dahl suggests that major capitalist organisation hold sway over decision making process but essentially group politics still necessary for democracy. Core insider groups contradicts classical pluralist theory. Olson argues groups are selfish in their aims and can distort democracy through bias, capture and exclusion and gridlock – building a neo-marxist critique of PGs.
  • The case for – modern society heterogeneous (varied/mixed) reflecting complexity of sectional interests. Practicality – parties provide the basis for representative politics and choice at election time. Pressure groups seek to represent and articulate the diverse nature of modern society. A fundamental plank of liberal democracy is the existence of PGs and PPs.
  • Case against – rise of independents – discontent with whipping nature and lack of freedom of speech in parties. Discontent expressed through declining turnout. Rousseau argued for rejection of sectional interests – society to be based around small homogenous communities – Cameron’s ‘big society’ – almost as Britain has become too heterogeneous – if you have to create something artificial it won’t work. Rousseau would find this impossible. Probably works in rural England but not urban areas.
  • Beneficial? Case for – articulation of sectional interests – freedom to assemble with like minded individuals – key principle of liberal democracy. Organise and mobilise public opinion, provide channel of communication with an assist in educating electorate. Recognition of time and ability constraints of the citizenship. Nature of group politics changing from party involvement to PG involvement.
  • Cast against – encourage citizens to disengage with politics leading to greater apathy. Loss of individual sovereignty. Evidence of corruption that was inevitable according to Rousseau. Disproportionate influence through insider and outsider status and ruling elite (Marxist and traditional elite perspectives).

Representation and popular sovereignty

  • Popular sovereignty resides with the people as opposed to a single institution. Rousseau argues its will is ascertained through adherence to General Will.
  • Most clearly seen in the US where people are seen to be ultimate arbiters of power. Use of referendums.
  • Can sovereignty be represented? Rousseau sovereignty is inalienable.
  • Parliamentary sovereignty is monocentric – weakening in the UK from top (imposition of the EU) and bottom (institutions like devolved assemblies and referendums/e-petitions). Popular is polycentric.
  • Parliamentary is based upon traditions of indivisible sovereignty articulated through a single voice thus centralising power Mill – parliament can do anything except transform a man into a woman.

Direct democracy

  • Modern use of direct democracy – popular sovereignty, Town Hall democracy – consultation on local issues e.g. U.K. and free schools. Referendums. E-democracy. Community action projects – e.g. big housing redevelopment in Birmingham – gave community control over its spending. ‘Big society’.
  • Modern problems – apathy, population sizes, complexity of problems.


  • Two contrasting views of function of competitive elections (Harrop/Miller). ‘Bottom-up function’ – mechanisms through which politicians are called to account. ‘Top-down’ – slightly Marxist approach – enable governments to maintain control.
  • Elections are a visible manifestation of the ‘public interest’, but many wonder whether this is the best way of recognising it. Problems also with possibility of ‘tyranny of the majority’.
  • Voting seen by Downs as an expression of self-interest (voter = consumer). Others state voters act irrationally.
  • Referendums also can be used to supplement elections.
  • Theoretically we’re in an era where politicians are at pains to show they are not miracle workers. Why they look to localised democracy decision-making and e-petitions. Elections are now where issues can be managed, almost fulfil a business role – electing CEO who delegates power to the lower levels (electorate). Managerial role.
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