Monday, 27 January 2014

Democracy defined for the 1914 moral high ground debate

Several politicians and historians are just now clambering around the treacherous slopes of First World War historiography in an attempt to reach the moral high ground represented by the slogan “More Democratic!” Some of them, however, seem to have omitted to take with them any map. At least, they are certainly not providing any map for their readers or hearers.

Time to escape from this over-extended metaphor. The point is that without a decent definition of democracy the effort to prove who had most of it is a waste of space. So, here goes.

Introduction: There can be no perfect democracy. Perhaps such a state would be undesirable; perhaps not. That is a different debate. One should envisage rather a sliding scale, so that a state might be said to have become more democratic, or be less democratic than its neighbour. But things are really more complex than that, for it is often necessary to judge that this state is less democratic in this way, but more democratic in that. There are several elements involved in democracy, not just one. Here is a quick list.

  1. Percentage of the population who can vote. That is the obvious one. It is important for sure; the more voters, the more democratic. But it is not the only test.
  2. The extent to which the bodies elected have power. If the elected local council is powerless in the face of the local noble family, or the local big business, then democracy is limited, even if everyone can vote for the council. The same applies, of course, at national level. Can elected bodies over-rule unelected ones? What is the relationship between the elected bodies and the executive bodies, and so on. in 1914 hereditary monarchs and aristocracies had a fair amount of power. Perhaps today it is multi-nationals that can limit democracy.
  3. Do the voters have a genuine choice? If the parties for which they might vote are banned, or more subtly hampered, then democracy is limited. if parties cannot succeed unless they are backed by the very rich, then democracy is limited.
  4. Are the voting mechanisms conducive to democracy? Every AS Politics candidate can list the advantages and disadvantages of different electoral systems. There is no guaranteed right way, but some are more democratic than others.
  5. Are the systems for voting and for counting the votes fool-proof? There is a wonderful description of a nineteenth century count in di Lampedusa's "The Leopard". More recently the pregnant chads of the Bush/Gore contest caused democracy to stumble.
  6. Do the governments accept that they must not use their power as governments (which has to be huge, for reasons of national security) to influence elections? Is there a robust legal framework to ensure this?
  7. Will the losers in any election accept the result or will they either rise in rebellion or stage a coup?
  8. Is there a free press so that the issues to be decided by elections can be widely understood and debated?
  9. Are there various freedoms and rights guaranteed by law so that winners in an election, or referendum, cannot tyrannise over the losers?
  10. Is there sufficient education so that the mass of the population can have access to the free press. (In these days of audio-visual media this point has declined in importance. In the nineteenth century it was crucial).
  11. Are attitudes in society democratic or deferential?

Readers may be able to add other points to the list. Those with any knowledge of Europe in 1914 will be able to think of examples to fit into this list. I will just mention the Prussian three-class franchise, and the House of Lords. My own opinion is that, on balance, Britain was more democratic than Germany in 1914, but I only have the general knowledge of a school-teacher, not the expertise of an academic.

Incidentally this list is not in order of importance. Possibly in the world today items 5 and 6 are the most important. In order to judge the extent to which a state is democratic all elements need to be considered.


I have written about democracy at much greater length. If anyone is interested my Kindle piece is called “The Development of Democracy in Britain 1850-1918” It currently costs about one pound in the UK and similar prices elsewhere.

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