Democracy: value it and use it
22 October 2017
It’s a privilege to live in a democratic society. Of the world’s 7 billion plus inhabitants, under half (3 billion) live in free, fully democratic countries. Put simply, this means that citizens of a democratic country are empowered to run government, either directly or through their elected representatives. The rest are unable to, or have limited, influence over the governing power. Interestingly, all but four of the world’s 196 countries claim to be democracies, but the reality is there are over 100 countries that are either just partly democratic or not democratic at all. Only four states declare themselves as non-democratic – Vatican City, Saudi Arabia, Burma and Brunei (source: Nobel Prize).
Democracy is one of the four British Values that underpin our nation’s society. All too often, we take it for granted and, increasingly, there seems to be an air of despondency over how it works. We’re going through a very interesting time at the moment as we struggle to negotiate our way out of the EU. As a nation, we voted in favour of Brexit, but only just. Nevertheless, the democratic process affirmed Britain’s decision to leave with 51.9 per cent of voters approving Brexit. However, our current crisis also reveals some of the fragilities of a democracy. Some people may argue that it hasn’t worked properly for Brexit because:
- only 71.8 per cent of voters turned out for the referendum;
- Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain and are being forced to leave;
- according to some recent research, over £1 million voters regret their leave vote (interestingly, we don’t appear to know how many people regret voting remain);
- only 64 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted compared with 90 per cent of over-65s.
Nobody is claiming that every democratic country is perfect. Brexit is an exceptional moment in our history. One of the real benefits of a democracy is that the people can change their leaders, their government and its policies. They can vote for a manifesto and, five years later, they can change their minds if they wish. It’s hard to imagine there’s any going back after the Brexit deal is concluded. It’s a one-off, permanent decision which makes it a rare and interesting feature of democracy in my view. It’s no wonder it has sparked so much controversy.
Our democracy may be going through a bumpy ride right now but this is because of the democratic system we have, not because of the concept of democracy itself. We’re not alone. Take a look at the USA, for example. Donald Trump became President with nearly 3 million fewer votes than his rival, Hilary Clinton because of the democratic system they use over there. Does this seem democratic to you? Fewer than 55 per cent of eligibile voters bothered to turn out for the US presidential election. In the UK, there was a 69 per cent turnout in this year’s general election. Are these turnouts sufficient to support good democratic processes?
It’s fair to say we can pick holes in democracy all day long, but what’s the alternative? The message from me, especially to young apprentices, is that you have a responsibility to take your democratic rights seriously. You don’t have to become terribly political but you should understand the issues and exercise your democratic rights by participating in elections. Don’t take democracy for granted, or unexpected things can happen!