The Big Democracy Question

Yesterday evening, France's Parliament voted yes (same link here in English) to a constitutional reform bill put to it by Nicholas Sarkozy. His reason for wanting to reform French politics is that they are almost universally accepted as extremely undemocratic. The French Parliament is seen as extremely week while the President of the Fifth Republic of France commands an extremely powerful position in French democracy. Coming only a week after the revelation of Jack Straws proposals for reforming our Parliament, this article asks, which type of democracy should we have?

In the interest of full disclosure, I am very loosely a republican. However, although I do not support Britain having a monarchy, I have yet to be convinced of a better option, hence the reason for this article. Although there is no official democracy ranking system, the Economist formulates its own annual Democracy Index, however, its purpose is to rank the democratic credentials of individual countries, not to endorse types of democracies. When cross-referenced with the HDI (Human Development Index) and Gini co-efficient (a measure of income equality), the Democracy Index does provide some useful results. Sweden, which tops the Democracy Index, also has the lowest Gini co-efficienct (i.e. the highest income equality) and is ranked an impressive sixth in the HDI. The rankings also show that of the five most democratic countries, according to the democracy Index, four of them are constitutional monarchy's (and the only one that isn't, Iceland, only has a population of circa 300,000 people)

On income equality, two (Sweden and Denmark) of the top five are constitutional monarchy's, the other three are republics. Again, four of the top five countries in the HDI are constitutional monarchy's.

What, then, is the difference between the democratic practices of Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, Denmark and those of the UK? Sweden has a written constitution, as does Norway and a unicameral parliament; in the Netherlands the Prime Minister is primus inter pares (first among equals) and as such has no more power than any other minister in his cabinet. The Netherlands also has a bicameral parliament, with upper house elected by the provincial legislature. The Norwegian parliament is a unicameral body but after elections it elects a quarter of its membership to form a sort of upper house, with the remaining three quarters forming a lower house.

So does this mean constitutional monarchy's are the best form of democracy, maybe not. The important thing to note that the constitutional monarchies that feature at the top of these rankings are Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands and Denmark, all Scandinavian apart from the Netherlands (which is well known the world over for its social liberalism). So perhaps culture is a big factor that needs to be taken into account. Supporting this would be the fact that the nearest country to the UK (and therefore our culture) is Ireland (ROI), which is a republic.

What, however, would work for the UK and our culture? Public opinion is broadly accepted to be between two thirds and three quarters in favour of retaining the royal family. However, this does not mean that the public support the current unelected House of Lords or the amount of power currently invested in the Prime Minister. It also does not mean, although some would argue this, that the public are right or that they will feel the same in a few years time. So, even if we retain the monarchy, at least for the time being, what about the House of Lords? The proposals presented by Jack Straw would see a new upper house, 80% elected 20% appointed.

An important point for liberals is that, for some unknown reason, the bishops would retain their seats. As the proposals would see the amount seats in the upper house slashed down to just a few hundred, this would surely give unelected bishops representing a tiny minority of the population more power than they had decades ago when people were more religious. In a 2006 Guardian/ICM poll 33% described themselves as "a religious person" while 82% saw religion as a cause of division and tension between people. Makes you wonder how many support having bishops in their legislature.

Jack Straws plans would also dramatically reduce the stature of the new upper house and, presumably, its power. In a time where the House of Lords is our last line of defence against 42-day detention (regular readers will notice that I manage to slip this into every post) and anonymous witnesses, this is surely very worrying.

The last point that needs to be discussed in this article is of course, Proportional Representation (PR). Most of our European neighbours (notably excluding France) use PR, the result of course is often coalition governments. Our system uses First Past The Post (FPTP), this usually means that we have strong single party governments, the side affect of this, however, is that huge numbers of votes are not represented at all. This is a double edged sword, on one hand it prevents groups such as the BNP from gaining electoral prominence, on the other hand it gives two parties a near monopoly and, arguably, ensures a two party political system. The risk in switching to PR is currently being played out in Italy, although, this could also be due more to cultural factors.

Gordon Brown is not about to call a referendum on constitutional reform, however, it is always useful to discuss the pro's and con's of the political systems, it helps keep our MP's in check and you never know what's around the corner. The Lib Dems apparently have bold plans for reform and also seem to like referendums, maybe they would give us a choice if they somehow managed to win the next election.

Note: The CIA Gini co-efficient rankings were used in this article as they covered more countries than those of the UN.

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