WHAT IS DEMOCRACY?
The origins of the term 'democracy' can be traced back to Ancient Greece. Like other words ending in
'cracy' - autocracy, aristocracy, bureaucracy and so on -democracy is derived from the Greek word
kratos, meaning 'power' or 'rule'. Democracy thus stands for 'rule by the demos', demos meaning 'the
people', though it was originally taken to imply 'the poor' or 'the many'. However, the simple notion of 'rule
by the people' does not get us very far. The problem with democracy has been its very popularity, a
popularity that has threatened the term's undoing as a meaningful political concept. In being almost
universally regarded as a 'good thing', democracy has come to used as little more than a 'hurrah! word',
implying approval of a particular set of ideas or system of rule.
Perhaps a more helpful starting point from which to consider the nature of democracy is provided by
Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, delivered in 1864 at the height of the American Civil War. Lincoln extolled
the virtues of what he called 'government of the people, by the people, and for the people'. What this
makes clear is that democracy serves to link government to the people, but that this link can be forged in
a number of ways - government of, by and for the people. Nevertheless, the precise nature of democratic
rule has been the subject of fierce ideological and political debate. The next section will look at alternative
models of democracy. For the time being, however, the terms of the democratic debate are explored.
This boils down to the attempt to answer two central questions:
Who are the people?
In what sense should the people rule?
Who are the people?
One of the core features of democracy is the principle of political equality, the notion that political power
should be distributed as widely and evenly as possible. However, within what body or group should this
power be distributed? In short, who constitutes 'the people'? On the face of it the answer is simple: 'the
demos' or 'the people' surely this refers to all the people, the entire population. In practice, however, every
democratic system has restricted political participation, sometime severely.
As noted earlier, early Greek writers usually took demos to refer to the disadvantaged and usually
propertyless masses; democracy therefore implied not political equality but a bias towards the poor. In
Greek city-states, political participation was restricted to a tiny proportion of the population - male citizens
over the age of twenty - thereby excluding all women, slaves and foreigners. Strict restrictions on voting
also existed in most western states well into the twentieth century, usually in the form of a property
qualification or the exclusion of women. Universal suffrage was not established in the UK until 1928,
when women gained full voting rights, in the United States not until the early 1960s when blacks in many
Southern states were able to vote for the first time, and in Switzerland not until 1971 when women were
eventually enfranchised. Nevertheless, an important restriction continues to be practised in all democratic
systems in the form of the exclusion of children from political participation, though the age of majority
varies from 21 to as low as 15 (Iranian presidential elections). Technical restriction are often also placed
on people like the certifiably insane and imprisoned criminals.
How should the people rule?
Most conceptions of democracy are based upon the principle of 'government by the people'. This implies
that, in effect, people govern themselves, that they participate in making the crucial decisions that
structure their lives and determine the fate of their society. This participation can take a number of
different forms, however. In the case of direct democracy, popular participation involves direct and
continuous involvement in decision making, through devices such as referendums, mass meetings, or
even interactive television. The alternative and more common form of democratic participation is the act
of voting, the central feature of what is usually called representative democracy. When citizens vote they
do not so much make the decisions that structure their own lives as choose who will make those
decisions on their own behalf. What gives voting its democratic character, however, is that providing
elections are competitive, it empowers the public to 'kick the rascals out' and so makes politicians publicly
On the other hand, there are models of democracy that are built upon the principle of 'government for the
people', allowing little scope for public participation of any kind, direct or indirect. The most grotesque
example of this was found in the so-called 'totalitarian democracies' which developed under fascist
dictators like Mussolini and Hitler. The democratic credentials of such regimes were based upon the
claim that the 'leader', and the leader alone, articulated the genuine interests of the people, implying that a
'true' democracy can be equated with an absolute dictatorship. Although totalitarian democracy is a
travesty of the conventional notion of democratic rule, it highlights the tension that can exist between
'government by the people', or popular participation, and 'government for the people', rule in the public
interest. Advocates of representative democracy, for example, have wished to reduce popular
participation to the act of voting precisely because they fear that general public lacks the wisdom,
education and experience to rule wisely on its own behalf.
Direct and representative democracy
Direct democracy (sometimes participatory democracy) is based on the direct, unmediated and
continuous participation of citizens in the tasks of government. Direct democracy thus obliterates the
distinction between government and the governed and between the state and civil society; it is a system
of popular self-government. This was achieved in ancient Athens through a form of government by mass
meeting; its most common modern manifestation is in use of the referendum.
The merits of direct democracy include that it:
heightens the control that citizens can exercise over their own destinies, being the only pure form of
creates a better informed and more politically sophisticated citizenry, and so has educational benefits;
enables the public to express its own views and interests without having to rely on self-serving
ensures that rule is legitimate, in that people are more likely to accept decisions that they have made
Representative democracy is a limited and indirect form of democracy. It is limited in that political
participation is infrequent and brief, being reduced to the act of voting every few years; it is indirect in that
the public does not exercise power itself, but merely selects who will rule on its behalf. Such a form of
rule is democratic only insofar as representation establishes a reliable and effective link between the
government and the governed, sometimes expressed in the notion of an electoral mandate.
The strengths of representative democracy include that it:
offers a practicable form of democracy, in that direct popular participation is only achievable in small
relieves ordinary citizens of the burden of i decision-making, so making possible a division of labour in
ensures that government is placed in the hands of those with better education, expert knowledge and
maintains stability by distancing ordinary citizens from politics, thereby encouraging them to accept
Democracy in the UK
The UK is usually classified, along with most other Western systems of government, as a liberal
democracy. This means that democracy is based on representative principles and operates essentially
through the electoral process. The core features of liberal democracy are as follows:
Liberal democracy is an indirect and representative form of democracy, in that political office is gained
through success in regular elections, conducted on the basis of formal political equality.
It is based upon competition and electoral choice, ensured by political pluralism, tolerance of a wide
range of contending beliefs, conflicting social philosophies and rival political movements and parties.
There is a clear distinction between the state and civil society, maintained by the existence of
autonomous groups and interests, and the market or capitalist organisation of economic life.
The UK can, nevertheless, be further classified as both a parliamentary democracy and a pluralist
democracy. Parliamentary democracy is a form of democratic rule that operates through a popularly-
elected deliberative assembly, establishing an indirect link between government and the governed.
Democracy, in this sense, essentially means responsible and representative government. Parliamentary
democracy thus balances popular participation against elite rule: government is accountable not directly to
the public, but to its elected representatives. The attraction of such a system is that representatives are,
by virtue of their education and their opportunity to deliberate and debate, supposedly better able than
citizens themselves to define their best interests. In its classical form, associated with J.S. Mill and Burke,
parliamentarians are required to think for themselves on behalf of their constituents. Modern party
politics, however, has fused the ideas of parliamentary democracy and mandate democracy
Pluralist democracy is a form of democracy that operates through the capacity of organised groups and
interests to articulate popular demands and ensure government responsiveness. (Pluralism, as a theory
of the distribution of political power, holds that power is widely and evenly dispersed in society rather than
concentrated in the hands of an elite or ruling class.) Pluralist democracy can thus be seen as an
alternative to parliamentary democracy. The conditions for a healthy pluralist democracy include:
a wide dispersal of political power amongst competing groups, specifically the absence of elite
a high measure of internal responsiveness, group leaders being accountable to members;
a neutral governmental machine, sufficiently fragmented to offer groups a number of points of
Concerns about the effectiveness of the UK’s democratic system include the following:
Key political offices are not elected (e.g. the House of Lords and the head of state (monarch))
The Westminster electoral systems results in a system of plurality rule (more people vote against
the winning party than vote for it)
Parliament is weak and executive-dominated
Non-elected bodies, notably powerful pressure groups and especially major businesses, often
dictate to elected governments
Public policy in the UK is increasingly influenced by the EU, which suffers from a ‘democratic
deficit’ (its only elected body (the European Parliament) is its weakest institution)
Referendums are used infrequently and cannot be instigated by the general public
The wider use of referendums in the UK since 1997 has re-ignited the debate over the value of
referendums and over whether they strengthen or weaken democracy. A referendum is a means by which
the electorate can express a view on a particular issue of public policy. It differs from an election in that
the latter is essentially a means of filling public office and does not provide a direct or reliable method for
influencing the content of policy. The referendum is therefore a device of direct democracy, typically used
not to replace representative institutions but to supplement them. Referendums may nevertheless be
either advisory or binding; they may raise issues for discussion (initiatives), or decide policy questions
(propositions or plebiscites).
Amongst the advantages of referendums are that they:
check the power of elected governments, ensuring that they keep in line with public opinion;
*promote political participation, helping to create a more educated and better informed electorate;
strengthen legitimacy by providing the public with a way of expressing its views about specific issues;
provide either a means of settling major constitutional questions or gauging public opinion on issues
not raised in elections because major parties agree.
Their disadvantages include that they:
leave political decisions in the hands of those who have least education and experience and are most
susceptible to media and other influences;
provide, at best, only a snap-shot of public opinion at one point in time;
allow politicians to absolve themselves of responsibility for making difficult decisions;
tend to simplify and distort political issues, reducing them to questions that provide a yes/no answer.