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Rethinking Democracy ebook

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"There's never been a more pressing time to question every aspect of our inadequate democracy"- Polly Toynbee "This important book shows the many challenges democracy faces in a world of populism and radical digital change" - Margaret Hodge 2018 saw celebrations of the centenary of the Representation of the People Act which marked a decisive step towards full universal suffrage - this collection of essays explores the problems of democracy and suggests ways it might now be extended and deepened. * Investigates if democracy is an unfinished revolution and if democratic politics is currently in retreat * Demonstrates how democratic politics is once again under attack - this time from populist nationalists, authoritarian rulers and new forms of political communication * Argues that if we lose the art of active citizenship, we will lose the freedoms and the rights which democracy has bestowed

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Table of Contents


Notes on Contributors

1. Introduction

2. Democracy and Its Discontents


3. Feminist Reflections on Representative Democracy


Defining democracy

The biases of democratic citizenship

The treatment of women as individuals

Slow change: the presence of women in democratic politics

Substantive representation: women’s policy agendas

Discussion: the masculine bias of political institutions



4. Why is Democracy so Surprising?

5. Constitutional Reform: Death, Rebirth and Renewal





6. Three Types of Majority Rule

A UK trio: 2010, 2015, 2017

What is so good about majority rule?

The Westminster system

Double majority government

The issue-by-issue majority

Second chambers



7. Rethinking Political Communication

The problem and the question

Communication, party and people

The form of the content



8. Protecting Democratic Legitimacy in a Digital Age


9. Rethinking Democracy with Social Media

What do we know? The value of small things

Scaling up—or not

Losing control of democracy

Democratic grief

Examining the evidence for the death of democracy

Taking back control? Building transparency and accountability back into democracy

Stabilising democracy in the social media age


10. Post-Democracy and Populism

Why the popularity of xenophobic populism?

Populism as a problem



11. Relating and Responding to the Politics of Resentment


The imperfect foundations of politics

Class, identity and politics

Politics and competence

The politics of resentment

Finding a new political vehicle: a radical devolution?




12. A Hundred Years of British Democracy



End User License Agreement

List of Tables

Chapter 6

Table 1 Relation of popular vote to legislative outcome



Table of Contents

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Edited by

Andrew Gamble

Tony Wright

This edition first published 2019

© 2019 The Political Quarterly Publishing Co. Ltd.

John Wiley & Sons

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

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ISBN 9781119554226

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Cover design by Rob Bowker

1 2019


our grandchildren, citizens of the future.

Notes on Contributors

Vernon Bogdanor is Professor of Government, King’s College, London.

Colin Crouch is Professor Emeritus, University of Warwick; external scientific member, Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies, Cologne.

Alan Finlayson is Professor of Political and Social Theory in the School of Politics, Philosophy, Language and Communication Studies at the University of East Anglia.

Andrew Gamble is Professor of Politics at the University of Sheffield and Emeritus Professor of Politics at the University of Cambridge. He is a former editor of The Political Quarterly.

Joni Lovenduski is Professor Emerita at Birkbeck and Chair of the Board of The Political Quarterly.

Helen Margetts is Professor of Society and the Internet at the University of Oxford, a Turing Fellow and Director of the Public Policy Programme at the Alan Turing Institute for Data Science and Artificial Intelligence.

Martin Moore is Director of the Centre for the Study of Media, Communication and Power, and Senior Research Fellow at King’s College London.

David Runciman is Professor of Politics at the Department of Politics and International Studies (POLIS), University of Cambridge.

Gerry Stoker is Chair of Governance, University of Southampton and Centenary Research Professor, University of Canberra.

Albert Weale is Emeritus Professor of Political Theory and Public Policy in the School of Public Policy, University College London.

Tony Wright is a former Labour MP and former editor of The Political Quarterly, now Professor of Government and Public Policy at University College London.



2018 IS THE centenary of the 1918 Act which introduced universal suffrage for all male citizens over twenty-one and all female citizens over thirty. Women had to wait another ten years until 1928 for that anomaly to be corrected, but the fundamental principle of universal suffrage for all citizens had been conceded. This reform marked a decisive stage in the emergence of a full democracy in Britain and seems a good moment for some stocktaking and rethinking. Has democracy delivered what those who fought so hard to establish it hoped for? How far is it an unfinished revolution? The present time is a difficult one for democracies everywhere. The populist surge, from Brexit to Trump, and now Italy, has raised questions about the condition and conduct of representative politics; and democratic politics is under attack on several fronts and in a range of places. There is much to discuss and to rethink about democracy.

This collection of essays is a response to these issues and concerns. We asked our contributors to write pieces which would reflect on one or more aspects of democracy. We did not assign them a particular theme or set of questions but asked them to explore the issues in the way they thought most appropriate. In the tradition of Political Quarterly, we also asked that the essays should not be narrowly academic but written for an informed and non-specialised readership.

They did not disappoint us. The essays collected here explore the problems of democracy from many different perspectives, and although some of the contributors address similar themes, they do so from different angles. Each contributor develops an argument which sheds new insight on the current state of democracy. Some suggest ways it might be improved, some dissect myths that have grown up about how democracy operates, while others analyse the developments which are undermining democracy and could conceivably threaten its survival in the next hundred years. We think our democracies are now so well established that they have become permanent and irreversible, but in politics nothing is guaranteed to last for ever, and what seems solid and impregnable in one era can seem fragile and vulnerable in the next. Democracy is not a finished state. It is a living process and if there is no longer the will or the belief in its value then it may not endure. If we lose the art of active citizenship, we will lose the freedoms and the rights which democracy has bestowed.

This is one of the key themes of Tony Wright’s opening essay, pointing out that democracies can die and when they do, it is norms not institutions which are the key factor. If important aspects of a democratic culture weaken, if the civilised management of disagreement is lost, then the will to sustain the institutions of democracy can decline also. He notes that there has been an explosion of accountability in recent times but governments are accountable for less and less, which means that elected governments are often perceived as no longer delivering for their citizens. But the essay ends on an optimistic note. Representative democracy can be renewed and enriched in ways that were not possible before, including through the new digital media, but it also needs a culture of democratic citizenship, one that is pluralist and encourages civility. Without it, the greatest risk is not that democracies will collapse but that they will steadily deteriorate.

Joni Lovenduski is more pessimistic about the possibilities of renewing representative democracy. All democratic governments notionally support equality for women, but none have achieved it. She argues that the political institutions of representative democracy pre-dated the mobilisation of women, and as a result, women were trapped in the private sphere. The operating institutions of representative democracy have always been unable to accommodate both ascribed and real differences between women and men. Democracy raises expectations of inclusion and equality, but in reality, women have been ignored and have often been absent in both the theory and practice of democracy. One hundred years after the breakthrough in securing votes for women, they are not yet citizens on the same terms as men.

David Runciman asks why democracies are so surprising. In many recent results of elections and referendums, the winners have often been as taken aback as the losers. Part of this is because representative democracies are no longer very representative. The political class has become increasingly divorced from those it represents. The tremors that were an early warning of the later earthquake were ignored. Voting behaviour is driven by tribal loyalties and voting against someone is often more important than voting for someone, which makes differential turnout a very important factor in elections. Some element of surprise is good for democracy and forces the political class to listen, but too many surprises make good government much harder to achieve.

Vernon Bogdanor looks at the history of constitutional reform over the last hundred years and why, after the lively debate before 1914 on Ireland and the suffrage, the constitution was little discussed for fifty years until it became once more a major issue with the return of the old question of Ireland, the new question of Europe, and the eruption of Scottish nationalism. He explores the introduction of the referendum into British constitutional practice, arguing that the 1975 referendum established the precedent that for fundamental decisions, a vote in Parliament is no longer enough. The people also have to be consulted. In the Brexit vote the sovereign people have triumphed over the sovereign Parliament. Brexit is coming about against the wishes of both government and Parliament. The crisis of British representative democracy, he argues, is that the constitutional reforms of the Blair government shared power amongst the elite but did little to transfer power from the elites to the people. What is now needed is a major reform of local government to energise citizens once again. The age of pure representative democracy is coming to an end.

Albert Weale picks up on another aspect of the practice of representative democracy in the UK, the greater difficulty parties currently have in forming majority governments. The electoral system no longer delivers the parliamentary majorities of the past: two of the last three elections have produced a hung Parliament. Weale argues that there are good reasons why this is not likely to change and that this makes it urgent to find fair and open ways to make possible political negotiations among different groups in order to achieve strong and effective governments. He supports the principle of double majorities, seeing it as desirable that governments should command a majority both in Parliament and in the electorate. The coalition government of 2010–15 satisfied that principle, while the May government does not.

Alan Finlayson reflects on the nature of political communications in contemporary democracies and the impact of digital media, a theme which is also the focus of several other essays in this collection. Finlayson considers digital media and the digital public sphere, noting the anxieties which have arisen around fake news, irrationality, and hate speech. He argues that rather than just bemoaning these things, we need to develop new strategies to combat them. He discusses the effectiveness of some of the right-wing bloggers, noting that nothing similar exists on the left. What is required are new forms of egalitarian self-education, and new ways of communicating political messages, using the new styles of the digital media.

Martin Moore also analyses the impact of digital media, looking in particular at election campaigns as communication campaigns. He notes that there have always been exaggerated fears and hopes around the political effects of every major change in communication, but he accepts that some of the changes introduced by digital media do pose real challenges to established democratic principles and protections, such as safeguarding the secrecy of the vote and shielding voters from undue influence. He uses the recent revelations about Cambridge Analytica to pinpoint the dangers and what might be done about it.

Helen Margetts looks at a different angle of digital media and democracy. She examines the evidence of the impact of digital media on political behaviour, noting that up to now this has been hard to research because researchers cannot access the data which the big platforms hold. This means we actually know very little about the relationship between social media and democracy, but that has not prevented many people speculating as to what that relationship is, and reaching sometimes apocalyptic conclusions. Margetts focuses on what we do know, such as the way the new digital platforms have transformed the costs and benefits of every kind of political participation, which has both good and bad effects. She seeks to dispel some of the myths which have gathered around social media and argues that these new media platforms need to be accepted as part of the democratic system, and that although many political institutions have not yet adjusted, eventually they will. To speed up the process, we need to separate fact from myth and analyse in much greater depth the scale and scope of the democratic pathologies such as fake news with which digital media have become associated.

Almost every piece in this collection touches on populism and the final two chapters make it their main focus. Colin Crouch contrasts two concepts of democracy, liberal and populist, and relates them to his thesis of postdemocracy which he first advanced more than ten years ago in 2005. Postdemocracy was the process by which democracies were being hollowed out and the political class divided from the mass of citizens, leading to feelings of anger and resentment. Crouch identified xenophobic populism as one possible response to the increasing detachment of the political class, but he did not think back then that it would become the dominant one. He analyses the consequences of xenophobic populism in the vote for Brexit and the vote for Trump.

Gerry Stoker takes up the theme of the politics of resentment and shows how rooted it is in the geographical, educational and generational divides of modern Britain. Reinforcing some of the arguments of Wright and Bogdanor, he argues that the right democratic response to the politics of resentment is not to condemn it but to understand it, and to mobilise a new politics of place and identity to counter it. One of the implications is that liberal democracies, if they are to survive and contain and even roll back the populist insurgencies which are currently besieging them, need to pay much more attention to democratic accountability exercised locally. Citizens need to regain a stake in their local communities and influence over the decisions that most immediately affect them.

Andrew Gamble’s concluding chapter surveys the progress and the setbacks to democracy in Britain over the last hundred years and identifies some of the things which need to change if democracy and the public domain which supports it is to be preserved and extended in the future.

The editors would like to thank the contributors and also the Political Quarterly Editorial Board for their assistance in the writing of this book. Special thanks also go to Emma Anderson for production, Clara Dekker for the copyediting and Anya Pearson for organising events around the book.

2.Democracy and Its Discontents


‘THAT’S DEMOCRACY.’ This is the claim routinely heard as political opponents exchange verbal blows, with each side asserting their occupancy of the democratic high ground. In Britain, it is the contested claim between those who see the EU referendum as the definitive expression of popular democracy and those who regard it as a threat to its representative version. In the battle for control inside the Labour party, an assertion of the democratic primacy of an activist membership collides with a more pluralist conception of democracy. In Catalonia, the assertion of democratic rights by the separatists is met by the assertion of democratic rights by other Spaniards. In the United States, the democratic authority of a rogue president rubs up against the kind of checks-and-balances democracy of the Founding Fathers. In Russia, Putin wins an election and claims democratic legitimacy. Such examples could be endlessly multiplied. All kinds of regimes, including many oppressive ones, have wanted to call themselves democracies. If everybody can make the claim of ‘that’s democracy’ to support their position, it suggests that democracy is both potent and promiscuous.

It also means that any discussion of it can easily become muddled. Consider, for example, the latest version of the Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual Democracy Index, an audit of the state of democracy in every country in the world. In its most recent report, the United Kingdom’s democratic score has improved from the previous year, largely on the basis of the high turnout in the 2016 referendum on the EU. In one sense this makes sense, as electoral participation is an important measure of democracy. Yet does it mean that the quality of democracy in Britain has improved? This seems unlikely. It would be difficult to claim that the referendum campaign produced a more informed electorate. For example, an Ipsos Mori survey shortly before the referendum found that Leave voters overestimated the number of EU immigrants by a factor of four (and Remain voters by a factor of two). As for the turnout boost produced by non-voters voting, the political science evidence on non-voters is that ‘however ignorant voters tend to be, non-voters—adult citizens who are eligible to vote but choose to abstain —tend to be worse’.1

None of this diminishes the significance (or validity) of the result, but it does illustrate some of the difficulties about the discussion of democracy. These difficulties were already there in the origins of the democratic idea in the city states of ancient Greece. Democracy combined ‘demos’ (the people) with ‘kratos’ (control), but who were the people and what were they controlling? The different answers to this question meant that ‘there was no such thing as ancient Greek democracy—no one single thing, that is’.2 Citizenship excluded women and slaves, but even beyond this exclusion the ‘demos’ might mean people in a broad sense or the rule of the many poor. It was this latter sense, with its association of mob rule and the prospect of the propertyless expropriating the propertied, that was to identify democracy as a bad word for much of its history. How a bad word became not merely a good word but the defining source of political authority in the modern world is a remarkable story.

The reinvention of democracy took the idea of the people ruling themselves and put it into the idea of people ruling through their representatives. Not only did this overcome the problem of scale (the face-to-face direct democracy of Athens was only possible because of a citizen body numbered in the thousands), but also mitigated the problem of majoritarian tyranny that so exercised the minds of such nineteenth-century figures as Tocqueville and Mill as they contemplated the advance of democracy. Government through representatives was the best insurance against democratic excess and the best guarantee of good government. The equal right to vote for representatives became the key democratic demand, a right slowly gained by all citizens (with Britain in the slow lane, not getting there until 1918, and even then, not quite).

However, it soon became apparent that a democracy required something more than voting. The rise of fascism in the interwar years showed that people were quite capable of voting for tyranny (hence Clement Attlee’s oftquoted verdict that he could never consent to ‘a device so alien to our traditions as the referendum, which has only too often been the instrument of Nazism and Fascism’). This did not happen in Britain, but there was much discussion on the left about whether the conflict between a capitalism in crisis and the demands of a democracy could be reconciled by constitutional means. When the post-1945 world talked about democracy, therefore, it was not just representative democracy but ‘liberal’ democracy. In other words, democracy was shorthand for a whole bundle of attributes that constituted decent government. Elections certainly, free and fair, but also much more, including freedom of expression, the right of opposition, the protection of minorities, a free media, basic human rights, the rule of law and an independent judiciary, along with all the other constitutional checks and instruments of accountability. A democratic government is one that can be kicked out, but also one that can be kicked while it is in. Elections are a necessary but not sufficient condition for democratic government.

It was the failure to understand that democracy is not a single event but a dense and continuous process that allowed the claim to be made (‘that’s democracy’) by the Brexit camp after the EU referendum that ‘the people’ had spoken and therefore any further discussion of the issue was somehow illegitimate. In fact, there is not a single ‘people’ (as the referendum clearly showed) and it is dangerous to claim that there is. And democracy goes on. As the political theorist John Dunn has observed, political legitimacy is strengthened by the fact that in a democracy, losers can believe they may be winners next time and so stay in the game.3 The referendum was an expression of democracy; but so is the campaign to revisit it. It is also dangerous for democracy when a newspaper denounces independent judges as ‘enemies of the people’ for deciding that a government must operate through parliament, not least because that phrase has been the chilling language of tyrants everywhere.

But these are, nevertheless, local issues, while the contemporary challenges facing democracy are more general ones. The consolidation of democracy after 1945 was reinforced after the 1989 collapse of communism, bringing new countries into the democratic European fold and enabling it to be reliably announced that the final triumph of liberal democracy had arrived. It was only a matter of time before other countries in the world developed in a democratic direction as their economies and societies progressed. How different it all looks now. Western democracies are in trouble, as mainstream politics is confronted by the populist surge, while non-democracies (notably China) confidently reject the democratic model of development. Even in Europe, there is democratic decline, with countries like Hungary and Poland embracing an ‘illiberal democracy’ of conservative nationalism that restricts freedoms and interferes with the courts. Democratic advance has gone into reverse. The number of ‘full democracies’ in the Democracy Index has fallen sharply (with the United States dropping into the ‘flawed democracy’ category).

Something serious is happening. The most recent Pew Centre Survey, covering thirty-eight countries, revealed that while support for democracy remained strong ‘large numbers in many nations would entertain political systems that are inconsistent with liberal democracy’.4 About a quarter of people in a cluster of established democracies—including Britain and the United States—would support the idea of a strong leader able to make decisions without interference from a parliament or a court. Against this kind of background, it is not surprising if the current condition of liberal democracy is the subject of much anguished investigation and rethinking. What has gone wrong? And how might it be put right?

Just as democracy came to grief in the conditions of the interwar years, it is not accidental that its current troubles have coincided with a period of rapid economic and social dislocation, culminating in the financial crash and its austere consequences. Democracies have to be able to deliver for their citizens. Joseph Chamberlain had famously described the ‘ransom’ that would have to be paid by the propertied classes to a democratic electorate; and the assumption was that a democracy would be required to produce both a better and a more equal life for its citizens. ‘The logic of universal suffrage’, wrote Harold Laski, ‘is either an equal society or such a continuous expansion of material welfare as softens the contrast between rich and poor.’5 The post-1945 generation of social democratic politics, with its rising living standards and diminished inequality, seemed to exemplify this logic. The fact that today’s world is so sharply different is fundamental to democracy’s current condition. As the financial journalist, Philip Coggan, sums up the evidence: ‘Some modern democracies today look more like tyrannies of the rich than tyrannies of the poor, with income and wealth inequality increasing, and the beneficiaries using their wealth to buy access to politicians.’6

At some point, this would bring its political consequences. Democracy had proved to be quite compatible with an acceleration of inequality, but there were consequences nevertheless. Those individuals and communities left behind by globalisation, their real incomes declining and their services eroded, increasingly divorced from a class of the super-rich, would eventually produce a response. Initially, it was evident in the developing disengagement from the institutions and practices of democratic politics, a process described by Peter Mair as ‘the hollowing of Western democracy’.7 The populist revolt may be more recent, but its roots were already there. When the revolt came, exemplified by Brexit and Trump but going much wider, it took the form of a general attack on the elites who had been running the system. Although this kind of anti-elitism is the stock-in-trade of all populist rhetoric, along with simplistic solutions, the fact is that the elites had a lot to answer for. In this sense, democracy was doing its job, by enabling people to send a signal that all was not well with their lives and that they wanted something done about it.

Simply to denounce the populist threat to democracy without responding to its causes is therefore an abdication. Populism is democracy’s fire alarm. Nor is it adequate simply to claim that populists exploit fears about culture and identity, especially in relation to immigrants, when this is not the ‘real’ issue. Of course, they seek to exploit such fears, often in crude and dangerous ways, but this does not mean that issues of culture, identity and place do not matter. They matter hugely, and always have done. If an elite of ‘anywheres’ (in David Goodhart’s nice phrase)8 seems not to understand this, then people will look elsewhere. For example, it is not irrational for people, especially those at society’s sharp end, to be concerned about the impact of immigration, or to think that a country should be able to decide for itself who can live and work in it. (If the EU had been more sensible about this, then events may have been different, with Britain leading those countries wanting a less integrationist European Union.) The proper response of democratic politics to a crude populism is to attend to the circumstances in which it can flourish.

In a similar way, only those who are politically tone deaf could fail to understand the potency of the appeal of democratic self-government in the EU referendum campaign. Many people clearly felt, despite all the warnings about the damaging economic consequences, that they would like to govern themselves. They regarded the nation state as the maximum arena of accountability. Of course, all this may be illusory, since supranational power clearly requires a supranational response, but it is potent nevertheless. It requires a better answer than it received during the referendum campaign, when the argument about democracy was never really engaged with by those wanting Britain to stay in the EU club.

Its importance was recognised by Theresa May (or whoever wrote her speech) when she stood in Downing Street after the referendum, having just become Prime Minister, and declared that her intention was to ‘do everything we can to give you more control over your lives’. The fact that she did not seem to have any idea what this meant in practice, as has become clear since, did not detract from its significance. The ‘demos’ was being promised its ‘kratos’. This played to a pervasive sense that control had been lost. People might feel empowered as consumers, bombarded with invitations to buy the latest gadgetry, but disempowered as citizens. Their jobs might be lost because of a decision taken on the other side of the world and their services might be provided by companies over whom they had neither knowledge nor control. Regulators and quangos had taken over functions from the politicians and public officials. Markets had implanted themselves into the public realm. The effect of all this was a sense of control lost and responsibility dissolved.

Yet there is something of a paradox here, since in many respects the accountability of governments has dramatically increased in recent times. The traditional vertical structure of formal political accountability—in which representatives are accountable to electors, ministers accountable to parliament, officials accountable to ministers—has been supplemented by a vast network of horizontal accountability actors and mechanisms. Some of these are formal, established within the political system, but many are informal and exist outside it. The new communication technologies have had a major impact on this process. The effect is that the operation of government is scrutinised more closely and intensively than ever before. The political theorist, John Keane, has coined the term ‘monitory democracy’ to describe this development, arguing that ‘the constant public scrutiny of power by hosts of differently sized monitory bodies with footprints large and small makes it the most energetic, most dynamic form of democracy ever’.9

Indeed, some have even begun to question whether this process has gone too far, with results that are inimical to good government. The suggestion is that it can merely provide ammunition for an increasingly aggressive partisan battle, or that it inhibits the capacity to govern effectively. The fact that accountability is good does not mean that ever more accountability is even better. What matters is having the right kind of scrutiny and accountability, a matter of quality and not just of quantity. Accountability should keep government on its toes, not knock it off balance. This argument aside though, the key point is that the explosion of accountability that has taken place has not been accompanied by a strengthened attachment to, or trust in, the institutions of democratic government, as might have been expected. In fact, the reverse has happened. No doubt there are many reasons for this—some cultural, some about a changed environment, some about expectations and performance—but it is significant nevertheless. Government itself is far more accountable than it used to be, but at the same time, accountable for less and less.

However, this evolution in how democracy operates also provides a reminder that the character of representative government is not static. It not only takes different institutional forms in different places, but also evolves over time in response to new demands and pressures. This is not always recognised by those who are so exercised by the infirmities of representative democracy that they enthusiastically write its obituary, sometimes accompanied by a proposal that it should be replaced with something else. Thus recently, the author of Against Democracy recommends a return to Plato and ‘the rule of the knowers’ because the electorate is too ignorant; while the author of Against Elections wants to ‘democratise democracy’ by also returning to the world of Athens and replacing elections with the lottery of random selection.10 The problem with all such proposals is not that they are without interest, but that they end in a kind of fantasy universe of their own making.

Stripping away some of the fantasies about democracy is the purpose of another recent work by two American political scientists. In Democracy for Realists they argue that ‘conventional thinking about democracy has collapsed in the face of modern social-scientific research’.11 They assemble a vast body of this research on electoral behaviour to demonstrate that voters do not perform the role that classical democratic theory attributes to them. Voters are as they are; and it is merely romantic to construct democratic theories on a false view of what they are like and how they behave. In their view, Schumpeter was on to something when he observed that, compared with the rest of life, ‘the typical citizen drops down to a lower level of mental performance as soon as he enters the political field. He argues and analyses in a way which he would readily recognise as infantile within the sphere of his real interests’.12 Those proposals which suggest that the remedy for democracy’s ills is more democracy are therefore misguided. It is not more democracy that is needed, but better democracy, at least if the purpose is good government.

This is a sober analysis. It presents a particular challenge to those who pin their hopes on a more participatory kind of democracy. It means an acceptance that most people do not want to pay a great deal of attention to politics because they have far too much else in their lives to attend to. Once elected, they just want politicians to go away and not bother them again for a few years, when they will then decide—on the basis of how they feel at the time—whether they should be kept on or booted out. That is why political ignorance is so widespread. It would be good if citizens were better informed, or at least kept a watching eye on what was going on, but there should be no unrealistic expectations about this. In many respects, representative democracy is deliberately founded upon this sort of division of labour between voters and politicians.

This is not quite as dispiriting as it sounds, unless democracy is thought to consist entirely of elections. Even then, it certainly beats some of the populist politics that is now in evidence, and which seems to be the contemporary challenger of representative democracy. It also leaves plenty of scope for making representative democracy work better. As A.C. Grayling writes in his recent anti-Brexit philosophical polemic:

[T]he political history of what we can call the ‘Western liberal democracies’ is the history of the development and application of a compromise aimed at resolving the dilemma of democracy—the dilemma of finding a way to locate the ultimate source of political authority in democratic assent, without democracy collapsing into mob rule or being hijacked by an oligarchy.13

Representative democracy was the form of that compromise. It is now under attack and needs defending—but also developing.

It is not necessary to embrace the current death literature about democracy to feel anxious about its contemporary condition. A generation ago, Francis Fukuyama famously announced the final victory of liberal democracy; but now his message is that all political systems are prone to decay and therefore: ‘No one living in an established liberal democracy should … be complacent about the inevitability of its survival.’14 Reformers who have taken liberal democracy for granted and saw only its democratic limitations, wanting to go ‘beyond’ it to something better, are now obliged to become its defenders and protectors. As Al Gore has put it: ‘People who took liberal democracy more or less for granted are now awakening to a sense that it can only be defended by the people themselves.’15 In established democracies like Britain, those political reformers who casually describe the political system as ‘broken’ (or worse) might usefully reflect on what a broken liberal democracy is actually like.

This is emphatically not an argument for the status quo. Democracy must always be work in progress. The task of making representative democracy thicker and richer is a permanent one. In a country like Britain, where political power is traditionally concentrated and centralised, there is ample scope for institutional reform of various kinds. Democratic experiment should also be encouraged and nourished. Direct democracy can never substitute for the complexities of policy making that only a representative system can negotiate, but this does not mean that there are not issues where (with a clear framework of rules) direct democracy might play a role. In Ireland, for example, it has unlocked social issues, and could do the same in Britain on an issue like assisted dying. The same applies to selection by lot, as a supplement to election. There is particular scope for democratic experiment at a local level, where people have a more direct knowledge of the issues (and people) involved. The new means of communication have opened up new participatory possibilities, especially if sustained by a real commitment to civic education and the hard work by citizens that a more engaged democracy requires.

It is not enough, though it is necessary, to defend liberal representative democracy without also exploring how it can be strengthened and improved. This has received too little attention. ‘The fact is that during the past two hundred years we have thought little about the institutional design of democracy’, write leading political scientists, adding: ‘Since the great explosion of institutional thinking, when the present democratic institutions were invented—and they were invented—there has been almost no institutional creativity.’16 The only real exception is in relation to proportional electoral systems, and that was in the nineteenth century. There is no reason to think that the present form of representative government is democracy’s last word; and every reason to apply some institutional imagination in exploring how it might be developed. This is particularly necessary in Britain, where the institutional landscape has remained remarkably the same and where muddling through has been preferred to principled reform.

Yet in many ways this institutional focus is misleading. It is always tempting to think that a problem with democracy can be remedied by an institutional reform or a new piece of political machinery. Institutions certainly matter; and they have important consequences. A striking example is offered by the 1918 legislation that brought near-universal suffrage to Britain. The Speaker’s Conference on which this legislation was based had included a recommendation for an electoral system of proportional representation. However, this was opposed by the Conservatives and not introduced, which as a result ‘produced a Conservative hegemony in British government until 1945’.17 Institutional forms are important. However, it is too easy to respond to democracy’s current difficulties simply by reciting a list of desired institutional and constitutional reforms.

For example, it is often suggested that Britain is democratically deficient because it lacks a written constitution (though actually it is uncodified rather than unwritten). This cannot be true, since Britain is conspicuously more democratic than many countries with written constitutions. It is the quality of democracy that matters, not the possession of a paper constitution. Indeed, constitutional entrenchment has been found to make it more difficult to bind national minorities to democracy. The written Spanish constitution ensured confrontation with the separatism of Catalonia by making independence referendums illegal, while the unwritten British constitution enabled a politically agreed referendum in Scotland. In the United States, a written constitution has protected the dominance of politics by money and prevented reform. There is much to be said for deciding political issues politically, not judicially, and having the flexibility to respond to changing circumstances. This is not an argument against writing constitutions down; but it is an argument for not thinking that writing a constitution down is a guarantee of an effective democracy.

Similar considerations apply to the never-ending discussion in Britain about the House of Lords. Everybody seems to agree that some kind of reform of this preposterous house of patronage is needed, but there is no agreement on what this should be. To some reformers, it is self-evident that it should become an elected body, because that is what democracy demands. How, in a democracy, can you have a chamber of parliament that is not elected and accountable? This is a strong argument, but it is not conclusive. For example, it might be decided, democratically, that it is conducive to good government to have a second chamber of appointees, informed and independent, whose job is to scrutinise legislation and advise on improvements. Such a body, a chamber of scrutiny, could only advise, deferring always to the elected chamber, but nevertheless performing a useful function. Other variants could be explored. This would not be ‘undemocratic’; indeed, its purpose would be to improve the quality of democracy.

Nor is it always the case that ‘more democracy’ is the remedy for democracy’s difficulties, at least if the objective is good government (which presumably is what most people want). For example, there are good democratic reasons for electing judges, or for having them appointed by those who have been elected. Both practices are features of American democracy. Yet in Britain, we are right to think that good government would be ill-served by the democratic politicisation of the judiciary. On a different front, the leaders of all the political parties in Britain are now elected by the votes of their membership instead of by the votes of an electoral college of parliamentary colleagues, as was the previous practice. This is ‘more democratic’, but it may not produce better leaders, especially when party memberships are tiny and unrepresentative. This is a reminder that democracy is both a virtue and a mechanism, something to be valued for itself but also designed to produce good government.

Democracy is not just (or primarily) a set of institutions. It has a character and a spirit. It is a way of doing politics that involves the civilised management of disagreement. The ability to settle differences without violence, and for opponents not also to be regarded as enemies, is a considerable historical achievement. Democracy is a culture, requiring nurture and protection. A recent study of How Democracies Die identifies norms, not institutions, as the key factor: ‘Without robust norms, constitutional checks and balances do not serve as the bulwarks of democracy we imagine them to be.’18 In the United States, democracy is in trouble not because of constitutional deficiencies, but because a political culture of aggressive partisanship has undermined the conventions which made the system work.

In Britain, politics has been rooted in conventions. These were seen as much more reliable in terms of good government than words in constitutions. They carried with them expectations about behaviour, with consequences if these expectations were not met. It is no longer possible to be so sanguine. The EU referendum has exposed the frailties of a system which did not know what its constitution was, or what rights its parliament had (with judges called upon to try to find out). A culture of divisiveness has descended, shredding conventions. Now judges are denounced, the civil service impugned, the BBC attacked and experts dismissed. This is what happens when the norms and conventions that sustain democracy are eroded.

It is because democracy is fundamentally about culture, a way of doing politics (there are other ways), that this is where attention should be directed. We recognise this when we talk about the need for a culture of citizenship, but it applies more widely. Institutions and culture should be mutually reinforcing. Surveys regularly report that people say they like democracy, but not politics or politicians. Of course, it is much easier to dismiss politics and politicians (‘they are all the same’) than to engage with them, but this nevertheless suggests that there may be something about the activity of politics that produces democratic discontent.

Politics should inspire, but it also disappoints. There is always a gap between rhetoric and reality. Policy making is complex and difficult, because that is what many problems are, and it is often the least bad option that has to be taken. It might help if this was openly acknowledged by politicians, instead of the pretence that they are in command of every issue and can magic up solutions. Once out of office, and in memoir mode, they frequently tell a more truthful story. Thus Nick Clegg, former Deputy Prime Minister, declares that politicians are ‘trapped in a fatal pretence: that they are in complete control, when everyone knows they are not’.19 This kind of pretence was much in evidence in the EU referendum, only shattered by the negotiations that followed. If the business of politics is conducted on the basis of a pretence, then it is hardly surprising if people come to feel pretty disillusioned about it.

This is not the only problem about the way politics is conducted. It seems almost designed to put people off. The endless repetition of banalities is bad enough, but when accompanied by the compulsory party point-scoring, it is even worse. Arguments should be real, not routinised. The frenetic pace of contemporary politics contributes to the problem; a slower democracy would be a better one. Critics have long lamented the sterile adversarialism of the British way of doing politics, but it is a culture that is embedded and resistant to change. It is supported by an electoral system that institutionalises adversarialism (although there is no evidence that democratic discontent is less in countries with other electoral systems). Reformers usually identify the unfairness of this system, but a more serious charge against it at present is that it consolidates division and prevents compromise and agreement. As David Runciman has expressed: ‘It produces a reckless, cavalier politics that panders to popular discontent rather than trying to channel and ameliorate it.’20 A different kind of politics needs a different electoral system; but a different electoral system also requires a different kind of politics.

It is not enough to criticise politicians though. It often seems that the only popular politicians are dead ones, but it is the living ones we should be interested in. It is remarkable how much energy goes in to the politicianbashing business, but how little goes in to the task of encouraging good people to enter political life. Good governments require good politicians (in the several senses of ‘good’), yet these are in permanently short supply—and perhaps especially so at present. There will never be a shortage of bad (or self-important) people who want to get themselves elected to public office, some of whom manage to do so through the opaque party selection processes. But in a system where governments are formed out of the tiny gene pool that is the majority parliamentary party, it is essential for good government that there are enough good people to go around (and Prime Ministers routinely lament that there are not). We should therefore be far more interested in the whole business of political recruitment than we currently are.

The same applies to political leadership. The fact is that the quality of political leadership in a democracy matters hugely. A leader who has the capacity to tell a convincing story about the direction of travel, and can articulate a positive vision, can inspire confidence and trust. In the absence of this, democratic discontent will grow and with it the appeal of varieties of populism. In troubled times, the quality of democratic leadership becomes even more important, as the current experience of different democracies shows. Democracy and leadership are not antithetical, as some (particularly on the left) are inclined to believe. People look to leaders who can steer a course they can believe in, and in whom they can invest trust. This has never been more necessary than at present.