The UK has not, and never has been, a political democracy
– Gerry Hassan
Gerry Hassan is correct: Britain is not a full political democracy even though, perhaps surprisingly, it rates as the 14th most democratic country in the world on the Economist's
listings. That fact may simply reflect the egregious state of the other 180-odd nations on this planet. The United States, for example, does not make the top 20 – well, Donald Trump won the presidency by 63 million votes to Hillary Clinton's mere 66 million and has subsequently driven a hybrid Toyota Yaris (modern equivalent of a horse and cart) through the democratic safeguards in the American Constitution.
Democracy is not an absolute; there are degrees of democracy. In ancient Athens, any citizen could go into the debating chamber on any day and vote on what was being discussed. The flaws were in the words 'any citizen'. Naturally women and slaves were not considered such and not every citizen could afford the time to vote on every issue anyway. Thus, certain individuals tended to dominate the process. However, it was the start of democracy. Since then, democracy has had a rough ride as most elites suppressed any move towards it wherever it threatened to appear.
And where does present day Scotland stand in all this? Many think quite well because our next Scottish Parliament election, fast approaching in May of next year, will be undertaken using a version of proportional representation and we are led to believe that this somehow enhances the democratic process. It does not.
Our present system ensures that only 73 of our MSPs are elected by direct voting; the other 56 are selected by the various parties. Admittedly, this selection is based on the percentage each party receives in the general vote and each elector gets two votes; the first to elect the constituency MSP and the second to select the regional MSP (seven in total) from the list that the respective party has drawn up. The individual parties are then allocated a number of other seats where the additional (and unelected) members are sited (again from the appropriate party's list) in order to make the end result more proportional to the actual voting numbers.
On the surface, quite fair; in practice, it has a number of flaws. The first point is that if a party receives around 6% of the vote, and no higher than that in any constituency, then they still have a representation in the Scottish Parliament and can influence affairs; particularly if they line up with the ruling party; an influence far weightier in degree than their support in the country warrants. Thus, some 6% of the population (in this example) has a greater say in public affairs than a party that gains 20% but lines up in the opposition.
The second point is that it encourages cliques to develop in the main parties. Since the parties select 53 members of the parliament, it means that some individuals never have to fear losing a seat. Extreme example; say Nicola Sturgeon only came third in the vote in her Glasgow constituency; yet on the party's list she would still return to the Scottish Parliament and to her position of power. And the same is true of the main SNP leaders; they can only self-destruct; the popular vote is unlikely to affect their position of dominance.
Nothing against the 53 members who are selected by their party rather than elected by their constituents; many of them are excellent at their task; but it is not democracy.
The first past the post (FPTP) system, as used in British elections, also has its flaws. Taking a mythical constituency of 100 people, 38 could vote for candidate A, 32 for B, 20 for C and 10 for D. Thus A would be elected, despite 62% voting against him or her. This system also develops safe constituency seats whereby a particular party can be pretty certain of always being elected – and that, in turn, can breed complacency amongst our some of our elected representatives.
And, as Gerry Hassan has highlighted, the British system creaks because of the undue influence of the unelected House of Lords, the silent power of the monarchy and the pernicious strength of the British establishment. When did the school of Eton not feature in the government of this country?
There is no perfect democratic system but we can learn from those nations that are rated as more democratic than us. Some of their methods of election we could not readily adapt as they have been developed over many years but others do indicate a way forward – for both Scotland and Great Britain.
The method of single-transferrable-vote would be relatively easy to establish – given the goodwill of our politicians to do so; that goodwill is questionable as there are always those who gain from an existing system and are, therefore, reluctant to embrace change. This system has the inestimable advantage of allowing an individual elector to vote for the person they want in the first place rather than voting tactically merely to stop someone else getting elected. Thus smaller parties can be better represented and no one seat can be taken for granted. Sitting members have to work hard to retain their seats and many, who did not win outright on the first count, know they are there because their electorate considered them the least objectionable of the choices before them.
The drawback to this system is that it takes longer to count the votes and to properly allocate them – and, in turn, this leads to greater electoral costs; but what price democracy?
If we accept that this system is, overall, a fairer one, then how do we go about achieving its implementation? The first step is to voice our concerns about the existing method and expose its flaws. That path, eventually, will lead to reform.
Bill Paterson is a writer based in Glasgow