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The Nature of Democracy: What is Politics

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This essay will focus on democratic politics, the core issues it currently faces and how they are manifesting in the macro and micro sociological political arenas. It will examine the nature of the perceived problems in both politics and democracy using empirical data to underpin its assumptions. Its main focus outside of this will be the extent to which the balance of power within the United Kingdom contributes to these issues.

By definition the problem with politics lies within itself, with discourse between elected officials no longer civil but corrosive, one that has seemingly filtered to an already divided electorate, that it is this manner along with the perception that “for the many rather than just a few [politics], has become a dirty word conjuring up notions of sleaze, corruption, greed and inefficiency” (Flinders, 2010:309). It could be argued that this is the underlying cause of the negative image of politics, that the public no longer trust those elected to serve their best interests, rather to pursue their own goals irrespective of public opinion or demand, that there is no trust between the two.

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A view seemingly supported by David Blunkett (2014, cited in Rutter, 2014:1) who purports that” Politicians must be more honest: firstly, about what their role is in what is after all a global political environment; secondly, speaking in a language that people understand; and thirdly, seeking to engage people in solutions rather than top-down ‘vote for us and we’ll provide the answers ‘. This view of politics is contrasted by the view of democracy which “remains an incredibly positive notion…. [in]that large sections of the public want “democracy” but without the “politics” Flinders (2014, cited in Rutter, 2014:1).

So why is politics viewed so negatively and democracy so positively? To begin to understand this, it is necessary to briefly look at both these concepts and the use of the terms in their everyday form.

To begin with politics, is a term that there has been much debate about regarding its exact meaning with Bernard Crick in his book In Defense of Politics defining it as “the activity by which differing interests within a given unit of rule are conciliated by giving them share in power in proportion to their importance to the welfare and the survival of the whole community” Crick (1993 as cited in Heywood, 1997: 9).

Democracy can be traced to the Ancient Greek Poleis to the words “Demos” and “Kratos”, with the former translating to “the people” and the latter to “power”. In modern terms this translating to “the power of the people” (Ober, 2007: 2). According to Crick (2002) the Greek word “Polity”, is what he understands as the meaning of Democracy, a political ruling system that compromises between differing views in society and can settle them peacefully.

So how is this power of the people achieved and distributed? In modern liberal democracies the power above is distributed using democratic governance, a relatively new concept of the early 20th century, which is defined as the right of all adults to vote in free elections during which governments are chosen, free speech within society and the presence of political rights which include freedom of collective action and group organization( Stoker 2017). There are two forms of democracy: Representative (in which society elects members to represent them and take decisions on their behalf) and direct(in which people are more actively involved in directly making decision), the system with the United Kingdom being representative democracy.

In democratic societies the nature of politics and power is divided, with politics seen “in its broadest sense… [as] the activity through which people make, preserve and amend the general rules under which they live” (Heywood, 1997: 4), which in this sense is often used as a term being synonymous with government and the institutions which make our laws, hence a belief is held that power is concentrated within this sphere, however power within the UK pluralistic society operates within the public and private spheres.

The public being macro – sociological government institutions and the economic market. The private consisting of civil society, the functions of everyday life were politics exists outside of government. Power within this sphere is macro sociological and comes in many forms from day to day interactions with family, the wider society and the type of agency any given political actor exercises. Citizenship within society(that is the rights and responsibilities that are placed upon anyone who is part of the nation) and the extent to which participation occurs is an individual choice, known as passive and active, this can range from range from apathy (not taking part in any political activity) to actively seeking public office. It can be argued that an issue within politics in the lack of understanding in society of the role of “citizen” and the power that lies within it that is separate from the power of the state.

Political participation by the public within political spheres is categorised by behaviour of the political actors and the type of agency they use and can be in the form of conventional, unconventional or illegal participation. Using societal values as measures, conventional behaviour falls into the category of “norms”, that is voting, petitioning, joining of political parties or becoming more actively involved with political campaigns. Unconventional behaviour, falls within the “mores” of society, involving demonstrations, boycotting of products, joining active participation groups whose aim is often to disrupt social order to raise awareness of their cause. Participation in the form of illegal behaviour considered the “taboos” of society, with its primary focus being on activities that fall outside the law for example sabotage, vandalism and in some cases terrorism. This type of political participation is often neutralized in the mind of the political actors involved as necessary and just to their cause.

Political participation in the conventional sense has been in decline in recent decades. A 2019 study published by The House of Commons Library (covering 1918-2017) shows that since 1992 election turnout in terms of voting in the UK has dropped from 77% to 68.8% in 2017, with the highest turnout being in 1950 at 83.9%. This report also examined the background of MPs noting that since 1951 the number of MPs whose occupational background is in that of manual work as dropping from 18% to 3% in 2017 (Audickas et al 2019). At around the same time a research report published into the Social background of MPs shows that since 1979 the number of university graduates has gradually been increasing from an average of 57% to 82% of those elected to represent the general public(Audickas et al 2019). It might be seen from these figures that the representation of parliament is becoming less representative of the electorate and more elitist in nature, further enhancing public mistrust of the elected to represent their views.

In 1774 Edmund Burke, during a speech to the electorate of Bristol purported that your MPs duty is to give “His unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living….. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion’ Crick (1774, cited in St George, 2019: 1).

In June 2019, 100 MPs and 1684 across the UK were surveyed on this issue being asked in a survey “Are MPs elected to exercise their own judgement or do their constituents bidding?” , the results could not have been more polarising. 80% of MPs responded in the category that “They are elected to act according to their own judgement, even when this goes against the wishes of their constituents” with only 7% believing “they are elected to act according to the wishes of their constituents, even when this goes against their own judgement”. Whereas 63% of the of public voted in the latter category and 17% the former. The remainder of both MPs and Constituents voting in categories “neither /don’t know” (Smith 2019). This survey combined with the results of the parliamentary research examined above shows how wide the expectation gap(that is what the public expect of elected officials versus what elected officials believe is their responsibility) between the public and those elected to serve them is. It could be argued on this basis that the politics offered by official institutions is simply rejected by the public.

Has this in turn led to a decline in the traditional sense of political participation amongst voters, as the politics on offer to them becomes increasing distasteful? , do “democratic polities get the level of participation they deserve” (Hay, 2007:155). According to Dalton (1996, cited in Faulks, 1999: 148) in his summary of a survey of the impact of social change in political participation, citizens are now more informed and less loyal to political parties and central ideologies, leading to lower turnouts at elections, decline of trust in institutions and the rise of unconventional political participation. It could be argued that this change has been driven in part by the emergence of the internet, social media and mass information sharing, as “citizens now access information instantaneously in ways previously unimaginable. By 2015 some 90 of British citizens were online…. [there has been] a quickening of the pace towards social and mobile news….and significant growth in video news consumption online” Reuters Institute (2015, cited in Cowley et al, 2016: 184).

In a shift away from the representative democracy discussed above British democracy and the trust it has in politics was further tested by the 2016 Referendum on exiting the European Union. The outcome being that ultimately the United Kingdom chose to leave the European Union by 51.9% to 48.1% (Uberoi 2016) and this result split not only the country but divided MPs further, with civil discourse and courtesy all but disappearing in a climate of hostility. Although the result of the election seemed close in terms of percentages, in terms of Constituencies it was much clearer with best estimates(due to no official figures being released) placed at 410 voting leave and 240 remain equating to 63% in favour of leaving, the same survey by full fact estimating that the figures(based on 2017 surveys) of MPs choosing to leave was 160, to remain was 486 (Rahman 2019). This shows again the clear divide between those elected and the electorate, although it could be argued on this point that the UK did choose to elect their representatives and need to not just blame MPs but take responsibility for their choices. In a survey conducted by Hansard Society that surrounded trust following “Brexit”, it was found that only 1 in 4 of the electorate, 25% had confidence in political parties working together in the commons to handle the issue of Brexit, this figure only rising by 1% to 26% in confidence of the government(Blackwell et al 2019). These figures are further underlying the issue of trust discussed above.

Matthew Flinders, author of Defending Politics offers a somewhat different perspective on the issues within politics. According to Flinders (2012) the nature of mistrust in politicians is unfounded, the effect of over scrutiny by the media and the lack of understanding of the true nature of democracy. That politics isn’t meant to be perfect, that it can’t provide “simple solutions” to the “complex problems” of the Globalised world in which the government has far less control due to media influence, rise of social media and supranational organisations. He sees the government as in the position of trying to govern whilst not being given the authority to do so due to the scrutiny it faces. One of his main arguments being that we have too much of the wrong type of democracy, the type that offers politics in terms of economic incentives and ignores the social and moral aspects of society, that in a society were instant gratification is becoming the norm politics and democracy will never deliver as the very nature of democracy and the ability of it to be questioned means it will never offer the instant solutions society craves (Flinders 2012). During a speech he gives regarding “The problems with democracy” his final notes being this : Politics can exist without democracy, but Democracy can’t exist without politics, that an understanding is needed of the benefits of democracy the education, healthcare, the everyday things you take for granted in order for it to be appreciated and that citizens need to understand this and move from the “corrosive cynicism” of the present back to “healthy scepticism” of the past and believe in politics again (Flinders 2014).

Despite the polarising views of those who are elected to office and those who elect them, politics and democracy is worth defending, as it is not meant to be perfect, there are meant to be disagreements. The very essence of both concepts is in debate, however it is in the execution of it today that it is found wanting and ultimately needs addressing, so that debating not berating and compromise not antagonism, becomes once again the focus of society, creating the means for politics as well as democracy to flourish, restoring trust and becoming a form of rule that inspires rather than demoralises all involved. 

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