We all know the mantra. Britain has its problems but, for all its faults, our nation is a mature, stable democracy. We donâ€™t do civil wars or revolutions. We havenâ€™t been occupied since 1066 or lost a major war since America gained its independence. Fascists, Nazis and Communists have never broken through. A British version of Donald Trump would surely never succeed.
Could that view be dangerously complacent? Are we sure that we are uniquely immune to the attractions of anti-democratic populism? A century ago, Max Weber identified the three sources of authority as tradition, rules and charisma. Twentieth-century Europe showed what can happen when rules and tradition fail to improve peopleâ€™s daily lives and a toxic version of charisma sweeps all before it.
New research for Tortoise suggests that the risks of our democracy fraying are greater than we might think â€“ not, perhaps, in the form of a constitutional thunderclap, but in the growing appeal of â€śstrongâ€ť leaders who seek over time to override the checks and balances that stand in their way.Â
The size of this danger emerges clearly from a survey for Tortoise conducted by Deltapoll. An exceptionally large sample of more than 10,000 people throughout Britain was asked a range of detailed questions. The most dramatic finding is that 30 per cent of all adults think that â€śBritain these days needs a strong leader who can take and implement big decisions without having to consult parliamentâ€ť. That 30 per cent represents around 14 million people â€“ as many as voted Conservative at the last general election.
That said, twice as many people, 61 per cent, sided with the opposite view: â€śIt is dangerous to give leaders too much power; it is better for Parliament to debate and sometimes amend government proposals, even if this takes more time.â€ť However, given that parliamentary scrutiny of the executive is fundamental to our democratic system, we might expect a much higher figure if that system reflected a real national consensus.
Another finding shows how far we are from such a consensus. Deltapoll asked: â€śLeaving aside the issue of whether you support or oppose Britainâ€™s present government, how democratic do you think Britainâ€™s political system is these days?â€ť Barely half the public â€“ 52 per cent â€“ say Britain is â€śveryâ€ť or â€śfairlyâ€ť democratic. One in three say it is â€śnot veryâ€ť or â€śnot at allâ€ť democratic. The remaining 15 per cent donâ€™t know whether Britain is democratic or not. Once again, many millions of voters harbour grave doubts about British democracy.
One might think that the 34 per cent who lack faith in British democracy are broadly the same as the 30 per cent who hanker after a strong leader. One would be wrong. Those who think Britain is democratic are just as keen to circumvent Parliament as those who doubt our democratic credentials. Something deeper is going on.
A clue comes from the adjectives that people choose, from a list of eight, to describe their feelings about the way British democracy operates these days. The top three are â€śuneasyâ€ť, â€śdisgustedâ€ť and â€śangryâ€ť, while the bottom three are â€śconfidentâ€ť, â€śhappyâ€ť and â€śproudâ€ť. When we dig down into the different groups surveyed by Deltapoll, we find that â€śuneasyâ€ť is the word chosen most by those who think Britain is not democratic â€“ but also by those who say Britain is democratic.
Pride is notable for its absence from public sentiment. Not only do just 8 per cent of all voters select it as a word that expresses their feelings about the way democracy works: even among those who say Britain is democratic the figure climbs to just 14 per cent.
Why the unease â€“ and the lack of pride? Our views of our politicians explain much of the disenchantment. Two in three of us think â€śmost MPs are mainly out for themselvesâ€ť; just one in four say instead that most MPs are genuinely interested in public service and helping their constituentsâ€ť.
Even worse, only 20 per cent think MPs generally â€ścare about the concerns of people like youâ€ť. Fully 74 per cent think they donâ€™t care. We should note that voters do not blame politicians alone for being uncaring. Directors of large banks fare even worse, as do the directors of large companies generally. Conservative strategists should note that their own voters are almost as hostile as Labour and Liberal Democrat voters to the bosses of big business and big finance. So much for the Tories being the party of private enterprise.
One of the consequences of all this is that most voters reject the central tenet of representative democracy: that our MPs should be representative and not delegates. Only 24 per cent side with Edmund Burkeâ€™s view that their MP should support policies that she or he thinks are in the public interest, even if most of their constituents hold a different view; 61 per cent want their MP to vote â€śaccording to the wishes of the majority of people in my area, even if it means voting against policies s/he thinks are in the public interestâ€ť.
For all that, the principle of â€śeveryone having an equal say in the future of Britain through the right to voteâ€ť still matters. When people are asked to pick the three or four best features of British democracy, from a list of 12, the right to vote comes first, followed by having the Queen as head of state. However, the two features that top the list of the worst features of British democracy are â€śrich and powerful people having more influence than ordinary votersâ€ť and â€śthe quality of our MPs at Westminsterâ€ť. These two come way ahead of the other ten in the list. (To rub the point home, 54 per cent cite â€śthe quality of our MPs at Westminsterâ€ť as one of the worst features of our democracy, while a mere 5 per cent cite it as one of the best features.)
Which brings us back to the desire of 14 million people to have a strong leader who can sidestep Parliament. It reflects the extent to which so many of us think our MPs are low-grade, self-serving and uncaring. If the occupants of Parliament are held in such low esteem, we should not be surprised that so many of us lack faith in the institution of Parliament.Â
That is why Weberâ€™s classification of the three forms of austerity are so helpful in analysing the problem of democracy in Britain today â€“ and so alarming in its implications. The gradual evolution of our political system over centuries should give Parliament an advantage as the ancient heart of our democratic traditions and the established maker of our rules. Our response to the Queenâ€™s Platinum Jubilee shows that tradition and rules still matter to us. Itâ€™s just that we no longer look to Parliament to uphold them.
No wonder that so many of us seem willing to give our blessing to Weberâ€™s third source of authority, charisma, and to thrust tradition and rules aside. It might not happen â€“ our institutional checks and balances, from an independent judiciary and impartial civil service to public service broadcasting and inquiring journalism, could stand in the way. It would help if voters were willing to stand with them against the perils of charisma and the poisonous promise of simple solutions to complex problems. Deltapollâ€™s findings suggest that fewer of us are willing to join the barricades for parliamentary democracy than we might hope or expect.