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The Nature of Democracy

Further reading;

Click here for Why we need to reinvent democracy for the long term

Click here for Britain's Real Democratic Crisis? [Aditya Chakrabortty for The Guardian]

Click here for The UK's Changing Democracy  [From Democratic Audit]

Click here for a podcast of A.C. Grayling discussing his recent book "Democracy and its Crisis"

Click here for a review and here for a podcast on f Professor David Runciman's book "How Democracy Ends"

Click here for a podcast by Professor Matthew Goodwin: National Populism : The Revolt against Liberal Democracy

Click here for a podcast discussion of Democracy Hacked by Martin Moore

Click here  and here and here  and here  for coverage of the work of Cambridge Analytica

Click here and here  for cases of election expenses fraud and here for an Electoral Commission fine for the Labour Party over donation declaration failure and here for Electoral Commission fine for Conservative Party over electoral expenses in 2014and 2015

Click here for Wikipedia summary coverage of the Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy Index and here for a clickable graphic from the Economist Report. You may also click here to register to download the full report free of charge

Click here for History of Parliament and the Franchise : Interactive Timeline

If you are studying Democracy in greater depth you may be reading David Held's study Models of Democracy. Click here for the companion website

·       Introduction

 The word “Democracy” derives from the Greek words “demos” and “kratos” meaning “people” and “rule” respectively such that it may be broadly defined as the rule of the people and, indeed, Abraham Lincoln famously defined democracy as “Government of the people by the people for the people. However despite the apparent clarity of his definition several difficulties arise once the term “Democracy” is considered in more detail.

It then becomes necessary to distinguish between Direct Democracy where citizens participate actively in governing their own political affairs Representative Democracy where the people elect representatives to carry out the business of government.

  Representative Democracy is usually equated with Liberal Democracy which describes the political system which originated in the USA and Western Europe and has subsequently been adopted in many so-called developing countries. Liberal Democratic regimes may be classified as either Presidential or Parliamentary systems and there are also important variations within these broad categories.

 It was hoped by many that following the “fall of Communism” in the former USSR the main elements of liberal de4mocracy would gradually be introduced but it would be fair to say that despite the semblance of some party political competition in Russia the overall political system would appear to be dominated by Vladimir Putin and his close supporters.

 Radical Democrats have argued that Liberal Democracy is actually a very limited form of Representative Democracy in that it  allows neither for the effective representation of citizens interests nor for their sufficient political participation . Consequently Radical Democrats, although they would retain many of the provisions of Liberal Democracy, might also wish to see greater economic democracy and greater opportunities for citizen participation.

Former Communist regimes were representative political systems in that citizens could vote for their political representatives although all of these representatives were members of the same political party. Communist theorists argued that their political systems were nevertheless democratic for example because the abolition of social classes under Communism meant that competing political parties were no longer necessary and because full debate of political alternatives could take place between different factions of the Communist Party. However, experience has shown that One Party Communist states have failed to protect the human rights of their citizens thus undermining the claim that such societies may be regarded as democratic in any meaningful sense.


·       Classical  Direct Greek Democracy

 [The following links provide details of the organisation of Greek Democracy. They are interesting but such detailed knowledge will not be necessary for examination purposes]

BBC Greek Democracy

BBC Criticisms of Greek Democracy

The Term “Direct Democracy” is used to refer to a system of government operative in the Greek city states between approximately 550B.C. and 350B.C. which enabled the citizens of these Greek city states to participate directly in political activity in various ways. This classical direct democracy was contrasted with other possible forms of government such as Oligarchy [rule by a few] and Monarchy [rule by one] and its key features as they operated in the Athenian City State are listed below.

 ·       Athens at this time had a population of about 250,000 of whom only about 40,000 were defined as citizens since citizenship was defined to exclude all women, children, slaves, men under the age of 20 and men whose ancestors had not been residents of Athens for some considerable time.

·       All citizens could if they wish participate directly and actively in Athenian politics by speaking in the Assembly [which met approximately 40 times a year and operated with a quorum of 6000].

·       Decisions in the Assembly might be reached unanimously following full debate but in the absence of such unanimity decisions would be taken on the basis of majority voting of those present thus indicating respect for the principle of political equality in the sense that the votes of all individual citizens were to count equally.

·       Responsibility for the preparation of Assembly agendas was held by a Council of 500 which consisted of 50 representatives from each of the 10 tribes of the city state. These representatives were men over the age of 30 who were chosen by majority voting among the members of each tribe.

·       There was also a Presiding Committee of 50 [headed by a President elected for just one day] which was to guide and make proposals to the Council.

·        There were also Courts with elected juries of between 201 and 501.

·       Officials were necessary to ensure that the decisions of the Assembly would be implemented but these officials also were subject to a range of democratic controls; for example nearly all of them were elected for a non –renewable period of one year.

 Classical, direct Greek democracy was therefore characterised by a high level of participation by citizens in the choice of the Council of 500 and of officials, in the debates of the Assembly and by majority voting if and when it proved impossible to achieve unanimity.


 However the restrictive definition of citizenship excluded many from political debates and it was likely also that some citizens [those with more money, time, education and requisite political skills exercised relatively greater influence over the outcome of Assembly debates.

 Several Greek thinker such as Aristotle and Plato interpreted “Democracy” not as the rule of the people but as the rule of the “mob” which would enable the majority of “poor citizens” to out-vote the minority of “rich citizens” even when this was against the interests of the Athenian city state as a whole. Problems associated with the so-called tyranny of the majority have bedevilled democratic politics in the modern era , for example in relation to the activities of the Protestant majority in Northern Ireland in recent years.

 They argued further that cunning political leaders might be able to persuade the Assembly to vote more in accordance with the leaders’ own interests than in accordance with the interests of Athens as a whole not least because, according to Plato and Aristotle, many citizens lacked the political knowledge and skills to participate effectively and/or to vote sensibly. Permanent politicians with expert knowledge and unselfish commitment to Athenian interests would be necessary to ensure political effectiveness.

 It has been argued later that direct democracy was possible in the Greek city states only because of the relatively small scale and slow pace of life of these societies and the relative non-technicality of most of the issues under discussion. In modern large scale, fast moving, complex societies the methods of direct democracy would appear to be less appropriate. For example, how could an effective response to the recent financial crisis surrounding the Northern Rock Building society be constructed using the methods of direct democracy? 

 ·       The Emergence of Liberal Democracy

The problems associated with direct democracy gradually led supporters of democratic principles to support systems of representative democracy rather than direct democracy.

 By the late Middle Ages, European countries which had established themselves as unified nations such as England, France and Spain were ruled by monarchs dependent in various ways on the support of the nobility and the clergy while the gradually emerging middle classes, the urban working classes and the peasantry had virtually no influence on the organisation and policies of the governments which ruled over them.

 The pre-eminence of the Monarchy within these political systems was buttressed by the doctrine of the divine right of kings [or queens] according to which it was right for monarchs to rule because they were effectively God’s representatives on Earth, a doctrine that was disseminated at every opportunity by the clergy.

 However by the 17th and 18th Centuries it came increasingly to be argued by Enlightenment thinkers that the business of government should not be under the sole control of monarchs and their supporters among the nobility and the clergy and that the notion of the divine right of kings was quite simply an inappropriate basis for government of the emerging modern societies which should be based around principles of scientific rationality rather than religious dogma.

 Instead, the Enlightenment thinkers argued, individual citizens, and in particular the relatively wealthy and well educated members of the expanding middle classes, had a right to influence government policy both via the choice of legislators who would represent their interests and by themselves standing for election as legislators.

 Starting from these beginnings one of the most important themes in the history of the period from say 1600 to the modern day has been the gradual evolution under different circumstances in different countries of political systems based upon the principles of Liberal Democracy.

The states which began to introduce democratic reforms in the 18th and 19th Centuries were very much dominated by the ideologies of liberalism and laissez-faire which suggested that political institutions should be organised so as to limit the powers of government to interfere with individuals’ freedoms and that the overall scale and activities of government should be limited to the maintenance of international security, domestic law and order and the provision of basic welfare services while government intervention in economic activity should be restricted so as to maintain the independence of the  private sector of the economy.

 It is easy to see why these states have been described as “Night Watchman states. In the course of the 20th Century the scope of government activity has increased and additional liberal democratic reforms have been introduced. Let us now consider the main aspects of Liberal Democracy as they currently exist in the UK.

 ·       Liberal Democracy in the UK

  The organisation of liberal democracy in the UK operates in accordance with the provisions of the UK constitution which will be discussed in detail later in the course.

 i) The citizens do not govern themselves but there are regular elections using secret ballots at which the citizens can vote for representatives to govern on their behalf. There are parliamentary elections, local elections, European Elections and elections to Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish Assemblies.  There are theoretical disputes as to whether MPS and councilors should act as relatively passive delegates putting forward the opinions of their constituents or whether they should actively aim to use their own judgment on behalf of their constituents.

ii) There is a choice of political parties to vote for such that in the UK one can vote Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat, Green and for Scottish and Welsh Nationalist Parties in Scotland and Wales and for several Unionist and Nationalist parties in Ulster. There are also many, minor fringe parties, where candidates are, however, unlikely to be elected. Individuals may join political parties if they wish to participate more actively in politics. Independent candidates are occasionally elected to the House of Commons and much more regularly elected as local councilors.

iii) The franchise is very wide, in that in the UK, all citizens aged 18 and over are eligible to vote with the exception of members of the House of Lords, the seriously mentally ill, most convicted people currently serving prison sentences and people who have committed a corrupt or illegal electoral practice in the last 5 years. In 2017 following a long dispute with the European Court of Human Rights the UK government agreed that a limited number of prisoners released on licence would be eligible to vote .Electoral fraud is rare are  but it does occur occasionally and electoral laws were broken. in the UK EU Referendum campaign. 

iv) The party which wins the election will usually [although not always] have received more votes than other parties although certainly not necessarily an overall majority of votes. The winning party can therefore claim to represent a large proportion of public opinion albeit not necessarily a majority and may therefore also claim a substantial measure of political legitimacy. The General Election system therefore provides for the generally peaceful transition of political power although very sadly the 2017 General Election was terribly marred by the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox.

ivb) More generally within liberal democracies political disagreements have usually been  resolved nonviolently within existing political institutions although there have  occasionally been outbreaks of civil disorder as some people have come to believe that their reasonable grievances have not been listened to by the political class.as for example in the "poll tax riots" of 1990 and the urban disorder of 2011. More recently there has been considerable violence in France in the protests of the Gilets Jaunes and in the police responses while in the UK the debate over Brexit has certainly become heated to such an extent that many MPs now fear for their personal safety. Could it be that the institutions of liberal democracy are decreasingly able to guarantee social harmony?

v] Each party will have produced a General Election Manifesto stating its proposed policies and so if it wins the General Election may claim to have a Mandate to introduce its stated policies although this claimed  Mandate may not be entirely  justified because voters who have voted for a particular party cannot realistically be assumed to have supported all of that party's individual policies.

vi) Once  a party is elected to Government it will be held accountable for its policies via various parliamentary mechanisms [Question Time, Debate, Select Committee investigations] and more generally via the activities of the mass media. At the next General Election it will be held responsible for its record and , if deemed ineffective, is likely to be replaced unless the opposition parties are perceived as likely to be even less effective in government.

vii. Thus it may be argued that General Elections in liberal democracies result in representative, legitimate, accountable and responsible government.

viii) Individuals  can join any of the  many pressure groups representing citizens’ views on particular issues. These enable citizens who wish to do so to participate actively in politics between elections.

ix) Liberal democracies occur in capitalist economic systems where most industries are privately owned so that the state does not have massive economic as well as political power . Immediately after the Second World War in the UK the Labour governments of 1945-1951 introduced significant programmes of economic and social reform involving Keynesian methods of demand management, nationalisation of several major industries , increased spending on health, education and welfare services and increased tripartite decision making. This could reasonably be described as a social democratic programme and it was continued substantially by Conservative administrations 1951-64 and subsequent Labour and Conservative Governments 1964-1979 although there was a little evidence of a rightward shift in Conservative policy 1970-72. There followed the rise of Thatcherism, the Major Governments, New Labour, David Cameron and Theresa May yet despite significant policy shifts analysts would still describe the UK as essentially a liberal democracy throughout these political changes.

x) The mass media are free to criticise the government at will and provide a wide range of political viewpoints which help to inform the citizens effectively. Although there are also concerns about mass media bias the mass media are freer to criticize government policy than was the case in former Communist regimes.

xi) The legal system is relatively fair and impartial. Individuals cannot be arrested or detained without good reason, and the institutions of the state are subject to the same laws as are individual citizens. That is : one of the key principles of the UK liberal democracy is the rule of law.

xii) Individuals enjoy freedom of speech, freedom to join associations and freedom to demonstrate. They certainly cannot be punished for criticising the government of the day.

xiii} In liberal democracies citizens rights are protected either via a Bill of Rights or other similar means . In the UK citizens' rights have since 2000 been protected by the 1998 Human Rights Act which  incorporates the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights. Click here for a little information on Human Rights in the UK. There have however been concerns for some time that the Human Rights Act might be repealed.

xiii) In most liberal democracies, there is considerable separation of powers. This means that the Government or Executive, the Legislature or Parliament and the Judiciary are relatively separate institutions, and this constitutional arrangement is said to avoid the concentration of power in too few hands, thus reducing the likelihood of tyranny. However the separation of powers operates to a far greater extent in the USA than in the UK where the Executive is chosen from members of the legislature and the courts cannot declare legislation to be unconstitutional.

xiv) It is recognised that both local government councils and the devolved assemblies of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales make important contributions to the democratic process but in each case there have been various proposals to strengthen the autonomy of these institutions vis a vis central government as well as a referendum on Scottish independence.

xv} It is argued that in some cases the increased use of referendums can enhance the democratic process but there are obviously important controversies here!

 ·       Limitations of UK Liberal Democracy

1. Many people regard the UK electoral system for the House of Commons as undemocratic and argue that the current so called first past the post system should be replaced by some form of Proportional Representation.

If you study General Election statistics, you can see that there is a very weak relationship between the percentage of votes won by the political parties and the percentage of parliamentary seats which they have gained.

The system appears to discriminate most against the Liberal Democrats who gain many second places but few first places in constituencies by comparison with the Labour and Conservative Parties who are more likely to come first or third, but not second. Also, parties such as the Greens for many years secured no representatives in the UK Parliament and are now represented only by the redoubtable Caroline Lucas.

Under proportional representation, the percentage of seats gained would be equal to the percentage of votes won, and it is argued that this would be more democratic. However, the case for and against proportional representation is complex, and will be pursued later.

The following data illustrate lack of proportionality of the UK FPTP system in recent General Elections








Conservative Vote%







Conservative Seats Number and %

165  25.0%.

166  25.2%

198  30.7%

306 47.1% 

330  50.8%

317  48.8%

Labour Vote %







Labour Seats Number and %

418  63.4

412  62.5%

355 55.0%

258  39.7%

 232  35.7%

262  40.3%

Liberal  Democrat Vote







Liberal Democrat Seats Number and %

46  7.0%

52  7.9%

62  9.6%

57  8.8%

8  1.2%

12  1.8%

Scottish National Party Scottish Vote %







Scottish National Party Seats Number and  % of Scottish Seats 

6  8.3%

5  6.9%

6  10.2%

6 10.2%

56 94.9%

35  59.3%

Plaid Cymru  Welsh Vote %







Plaid Cymru Seats Number and % of Welsh Seats

4  10%

4  10%

3  7.5%

3  7.5%

3 7.5%

4 10.0%

UKIP Vote %







UKIP Seats Number and %

0  0%

0  0%

0  0%

0  0%

1  0.2%

0  0%

Green Vote %







Green Seats Number and %

0  0%

0  0%

0 0%

1  0.2%

1 0.2%

1  0.2%

Democratic Unionist Party N.Irish Vote%







Democratic Unionist Party Seats Number and % of N. Irish Seats

2  11.1%

5 27.%

9 50.0%

8  44.4%

8  44.4%

10  55.6%

Sinn Fein N. Irish Vote %







Sinn Fein Seats Number and % of N. Irish Seats







UK General Election Turnout % [1987=75%; 1992 =78%]








Under FPTP relatively few women and ethnic minority members are elected to Parliament. Would this change under PR?. It could do depending upon the system of PR introduced.

2) MPs are elected, but Members of the House of Lords have either inherited their place from their parents, or have been chosen by the PM or have a place because they are Bishops or Archbishops of the Church of England. As of 2018 there were 26 Bishops or Archbishops of the Church of England and 91 Hereditary Peers. Also until 2009 so-called Law Lords sat in the House of Lords but following the formation of the UK Supreme Court these Law Lords were appointed as the first Supreme Court Justices and disqualified from sitting or voting in the House of Lords although they may return to the House of Lords when they retire.. Some of these people may do a very good job, but they have not been chosen democratically.

(Complex negotiations followed by legislation in October 1999 resulted in the reduction of the number of hereditary peers from 790 when Blair took office in 1997 to 92 although Blair subsequently nominated an additional 10 hereditary peers as life peers. Agreement has still not been reached as to the relative importance of election and appointment in any future new second Chamber replacing The House of Lords)

3) The UK is described as a constitutional monarchy, in which the monarch nowadays has negligible political powers. It has been shown that Queen Victoria, Edward the Seventh and George the Fifth did occasionally exercise considerable political influence. The Influence of Queen Elizabeth the Second is certainly limited by the provisions of the constitution but we cannot know whether she has exercised additional influence beyond her constitutional powers. In a democratic system which includes a constitutional monarch, the monarch, clearly, should not exceed his/her constitutional powers.

4) There is a huge degree of official secrecy in the UK system of government and this, combined with biases in the mass media, means that citizens are starved of the accurate information they need if they are to choose rationally among the political parties in General Elections. It may also be argued that within the education system opportunities for pupils to discuss important political questions are rather limited and that this may reduce the quality of UK democracy as a whole. This is one of the criticisms made by many of the students participating in the recent anti- climate change demonstrations.

5) The separation of powers only operates to a limited extent in the UK system of government. The UK government is chosen from the legislature i.e. mainly from the Commons and to a lesser extent from the Lords. If a Government has an overall majority in the Commons, as it usually does, it can usually rely on this majority to vote through its legislative proposals with very few amendments. It has sometimes been argued that UK governments who are elected by only a minority of voters can operate as “Elective Dictatorships” so long as they have a House of Commons majority and that Executive power is strengthened by the fact that the UK courts cannot declare Acts of Parliament to be unconstitutional.. Within this “Elective Dictatorship the PM may be in a particularly powerful position although the debate surrounding the nature and extent of Prime Ministerial power is complex and will have to be considered in detail later.

There are various procedures [such as parliamentary debates, select committees and Question Time] which enable MPs, particularly Opposition MPs to call the government to account but it is often agued that these procedures are less effective than they might be. 

6) It is sometimes argued that unelected senior Civil Servants have more power than elected Ministers. This may be seen as involving a restriction of democracy but Ministers do clearly need expert advice if they are to govern effectively. Relationships between Ministers and Civil servants will be discussed later.

7) Many crucial decisions in society are not taken by politicians at all. In particular, in the private sector of industry, such decisions are taken by business people concerned mainly with making a profit. Sometimes, these decisions, for example about wage rates to be paid or whether or not to close a particular factory may have a devastating impact on people's lives, and although the workers may have been represented, for example, by their Trade Unions, it is the employers who will have the final say. Many people argue, therefore that the degree of industrial democracy in the UK should be increased significantly.

 8. The extent of UK democracy may be undermined by UK membership of the EU…It is argued by some that membership of the EU has involved a loss of legal sovereignty for the UK but supporters of UK membership of the EU have argued that this leads to a pooling of sovereignty which actually enhances the powers of the UK.

9 For a democratic political system to operate effectively it is clear that an independent judiciary is necessary to protect the citizenry against the possible abuse of excessive executive power. In the USA the Supreme Court has the power to declare Congresssional Acts unconstitutional and although the UK Judiciary does not have this power  it can scrutinise the activities of the Executive and declare its activities to be ultra vires [beyond the powers] if Executive activities exceed the powers which have been specifically granted in Acts of Parliament. The UK Judiciary have played an increasingly important role in the defence of individual rights following the enactment of the Human Rights Act which has sometimes provoked considerable dissension between the Judiciary and the Executive and there have however been concerns for some time that the Human Rights Act might be repealed. 

Particular controversy arose  over the Supreme Court decision that it was for Parliament rather than the Executive to decide whether the UK should leave the EU. [Click here for further information on the Supreme Court and the Gina Miller case and here for  Guardian discussion of some of the related press coverage.

It has also been argued that the social background of senior judges [primarily white, male and upper middle class] has sometimes predisposed them to make decisions reflecting small c conservative values . Such criticisms were made in the 1970s and 1980s in relation to cases involving grammar schools policies in the Tameside area and the financing of London transport policy. More recently there was a public outcry when protesters against fracking were given a prison sentence but the protesters were in fact  freed via a subsequent decision of the Court of  Appeal. These and other aspects of judicial policy will be considered later in the course although in the meantime you may click here  for a very useful article from Prospect Magazine  entitled The Power of Judges in the UK by David Neuberger [Former President of the Supreme Court]

10. Opportunities for political participation may be greater for affluent well educated citizens than for more disadvantaged citizens and overall was particularly low in the 2001 General Election although it has recovered to some extent since then. It has also been argued that the voting age should be reduced to 16 although there is also considerable opposition to this proposal

11. It is argued that the membership of political parties is small relative to the size of the adult population; that the financing of political parties opens up the possibility of excessive political influence  by large donors such as business interests and trade unions;  that political parties are organised in such a way that individual members can have little influence over party policy; and that increasingly in recent years it is mainly university educated, middle class individuals who have been chosen as new parliamentary candidates.   Political Parties will be covered in more detail later in the course but you may click here for some further information

12. Whereas pluralists argue that the existence of a wide variety of pressure groups enhances UK democracy more radical theorists argue that it is specifically business pressure groups which wield undue political power in the UK political system. There are also claims that many pressure groups themselves are undemocratically organised and dominated by their leaders at the expense of their members.   Nevertheless it is generally agreed that pressure groups make an important positive contribution to the democratic process. Pressure Groups  will be covered in more detail later in the course but you may click here for some further information

13 Also whereas Pluralists argue that the mass media make important contributions to the democratic process Marxists and other radicals argue that the mass media in liberal democracies essentially support a capitalist system which is seen as exploitative, unequal and unjust. You may click here for a little further information on Marxism, Pluralism and the mass media. 

14. Whereas some have welcomed the use of a referendum to determine The UK's relationship with the EU others have argued that citizens may not be qualified to adjudicate upon such complex questions especially when the actual referendum campaign may have been flawed in several respects. On the other hand it may be that our MPs are heavily influenced party political concerns which inhibit rational decision making. Controversy certainly abounds on this issue

Each of the above 14 points can be discussed in considerably more detail than is possible in this single document and  I hope that you will be able to link up this work on democracy with the later materials on power in UK society. There you will find an important distinction between pluralist theorists who argue that countries such as the UK are democratic in a very meaningful sense, and theorists who argue that behind the facade of democracy, real power is wielded by a small minority who might be described as a ruling elite or a ruling class.  Furthermore feminists argue that the UK political system is undemocratic insofar as fails to fully represent the interests of women. These theories must also be considered before we can assess fully the extent of democracy which really exists in the UK.


-Sir  Winston Churchill