Do we still believe in democracy?

By Simon Gentry

As Brexit becomes history, as America comes to terms with the fact that its outgoing President incited a violent assault on the Capitol, as the Chinese government orders the arrest of all the opposition candidates in the last election in Hong Kong, and as we approach the May elections in Scotland with the question of independence front and centre of the campaign, many appear unhappy or at least dissatisfied with the way our democracy works.  Do we in Britain still believe that democracy is the best form of government?

YouGov, a polling company, undertook a large study of this issue last year and their findings, published on 2 December provide some interesting food for thought.

The first, and probably most important finding is that the overwhelming majority (77%) agree that democracy works well overall as a way of governing a country. Most (73%) also accept that democracy has some faults, but that it works better than most other systems.

Thinking specifically about the UK, nearly two-thirds (63%) say democracy is working well, but one in every fourth person (26%) thinks it is not. Almost three in ten (29%) amongst those aged between 16 and 39 think that democracy currently works badly in the UK.

Three quarter (75%) of our fellow Britons describe the UK as a democratic country, but one in eight (12%) say it’s not, and another third (35%) say the UK has become less democratic over the last 10 to 20 years.

The picture is more disturbing when it comes to freedom of speech.  Nearly six in ten people are of the view that they cannot say freely what they believe.  Half (50%) of 16 to 24-year-olds and six in ten in the older age groups believe this to be true. It’s also worth noting that Conservative voters are more likely (64%) than Labour voters (53%) to say that people cannot freely express their opinions without being unfairly judged, discriminated against or prosecuted.

More than two thirds (70%) of people believe they have little or no say on how the country is run. With only 21% saying they have ‘a lot’ or ‘some’ say.  The older you are the more likely you are to say you have no or little influence.

16 and 17-year-olds now have the right to vote in Scottish and Welsh elections, but there is a sharp generational divide on this issue.  Two-thirds of people between 16 to 24 years olds agree that those 16 and over should have the right to vote in UK general elections.  The same number of those over 60 do not think the franchise should apply to those under 18.  One fifth (20%) of 16 to 24 year olds think those over 75 should not have the right to vote.  

More than four in ten (41%) think that voting should be made compulsory.

Nearly nine out of ten (88%) think elections are very or fairly important, but only 70% believe it makes any difference who wins.  Four in ten believe that our electoral system is not fair to all parties.

Over a quarter (27%) want the Prime Minister to have less power, while one in five (20%) want Parliament to have less power and nearly half (47%) would like the House of Lords to lose power.

A third (35%) don’t know who their MP is.

Three in ten (30%) Britons believe the EU referendum made the UK more democratic, while a quarter (27%) believe it had the opposite effect. The generational split is again clear: just one in five (19%) of 16- to 24-year-olds think the EU referendum made Britain more democratic, compared to nearly half (46%) of those 60 and above.

Surprisingly, despite all the rancour of the Scottish and Brexit referendums, almost half (49%) of us support the concept of referendums and half (49%) would like to see more referenda on local issues.

Over half (52%) think more decisions should be made by local and regional governments.

Four in ten (42%) of Britons think the world is becoming less democratic but Pew report that at the end of 2017, 96 out of 167 countries with populations of at least 500,000 (57%) were democracies of some kind, and only 21 (13%) were autocracies. Broadly speaking, the share of democracies among the world’s governments has been on an upward trend since the mid-1970s, and now sits just shy of its post-World War II record (58% in 2016).

One in four (25%) Britons approve of using military force to overthrow non-democratic regimes, while four in ten (44%) are against it.