Democracy under threat – a UK-US comparison
Updated: Feb 10, 2019
Is democracy actually in worse shape in the UK than the US?
The US has some serious political problems. Donald Trump is an incompetent and populist President with the potential to do real and lasting harm to his own country, as well as to the rest of the globe. He mocks disabled people, lies about nearly everything, cosies up to dictators and is a racist, misogynist dunce. His administration is under investigation relating to allegations of collusion with the Russian government to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election; he attacks the free press as ‘fake news’, and has attempted to influence the judicial process unfairly.
So, the US is having to contend with a foreign powers meddling in polls, a leader with no popular mandate, and constant attacks on the press.
Before any Brits get too smug, the similarities between the UK and the US are very strong. The fact they aren’t subject of broader national conversation, they way they are in the US, is even more worrying.
Obama really annoyed the Russians by referring to them as a ‘regional power’. The implication was that Russia was no longer a globe-straddling superpower, in the manner of China and the US. Obama’s appraisal may be correct, but at the very least Russia is a powerful countryt with considerable ambitions which are, as ever, to maintain its huge, sprawling empire.
In order to achieve this aim, and push back against the perceived threats of the US, NATO and China, Russia has undertaken some very old-fashioned meddling in a very modern way. There is mounting evidence that the Russian government sought to influence elections in the US. The Mueller investigation has given us some very clear glimpses into this process, for example by indicting those it claims to be Russian operatives in the US, detailing the links between the Trump campaign and Russia, and the details about the DNC hack.
What about the UK? Well, the influencing of elections unfairly has been a theme of the last few years, though without having attracted nearly as much attention.
The highest profile, and most serious instance, is the interference in the 2016 EU referendum. The charge sheet here is terrifying. The details of the meddling in that vote were only revealed after a long and detailed investigation by Carole Cadwaldr of the Guardian newspaper that saw her awarded the Orwell Prize for investigative journalism. The revelations centred around Cambridge Analytica, a company set up and controlled by a billionaire which managed to harvest huge amounts of personal data unwittingly from private citizens, and then use the best brains in tech and knowledge of psychological manipulation deployed by the military to sway elections. What is even more shocking than the story uncovered by Cadwaldr is that so little effective action has been taken to addess this assault on the UK's democratic process, or to protect against future abuses.
In a much less harrowing, but none-the-less significant way, the Conservative party broke campaign spending rules during the 2015 General Election - by more than £100,000. This breach of the law brought a retrospective fine, but long after the election itself. In both cases it's clear that the rules that govern elections are not being policed effectively. Democracy is imperiled by a failure to keep a level playing-field.
A leader with no mandate
In the 2016 election Trump got fewer votes than Hillary Clinton, which is why he mentions the arithmetic of his election so often. He won the presidency, having lost overall, because he triumphed in the arcane electoral college, not in the popular vote. His election was actually all down to just a few hundred thousand people in a few key swing states. In Trump, the US have a President who has broken the political consensus in too many ways to elucidate here, and yet only a minority of electors chose him. The fact remains, however, that the electoral college is the system that the US operates and the one to which all parties currently subscribe. All sides know the deal.
Who understands the rules governing elections in the UK? Basically no-one, which means politicians can make it up as they go along and dare anyone else – the opposition, the press – to challenge them about it. Theresa May became Prime Minister without even having to be voted in to office. She only became PM because David Cameron resigned between elections, and so the position of Conservative Party leader became vacant. As the Conservatives had won the election in 2015, becoming head of the party meant automatically becoming Prime Minister, because there is no rule to say that the Prime Minister has to have won an election themselves. If that wasn't bad enough May didn't even win a leadership election within her party; all the other candidates dropped out and she was made PM by default.
From there on in it only got worse, and less democratic still. Having been handed the country's top job by the Conservative Party she called a snap (unscheduled) election in June 2016. This was in keeping with the letter, but totally against the spirit, of one of the few laws governing how elections are conducted in the UK: the 2011 Fixed Terms Parliament Act. May only called the election as she thought she would convert her huge opinion poll majority into a real majority in the House of Commons. As it turned out she made such a hash of the election she lost the slim majority handed to her by her predecessor Cameron.
May was then a leader with no mandate to lead from her own party, or the electorate and she was in charge of delivering on a referendum result (the 2016 EU 'Brexit' decision) that neither she, nor her party, nor the Commons supported. How did she manage to get a viable government together? She cooked up coalition with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) from Northern Ireland, so breaking an unwritten rule that Northern Irish parties would be kept out of government because it might upset the fragile peace there. How was the support of the DUP secured? Through a £1 billion 'deal' for their support. In other circumstances securing someone's backing by monetary means would be called a bribe.
In comparison to the UK, the US's electoral system could do with some updating, but it is at least transparent. The UK has less of a system more a tangle of votes followed by a rolling existential crisis.
Attacks on the press
One of the hallmarks of a healthy democracy is the press and media's ability to hold power to account. The role of newspapers and TV in the US and UK are a curious opposite: whereas in the US it is the cable news channels that are most partisan, that position belongs to the press in the UK, especially the notorious tabloid papers. In the UK, by law TV news has to be neutral (or as neutral as possible) and the heavyweight US print titles seem to go out of their way to be worthy and dull. In any case a free press, and more generally freedom of speech, is important in making sure the public get information the politicians might prefer them not to have. So it is a real concern when they are attacked for doing their job.
Donald Trump’s attacks on the press have been constant since the launching of his Presidential campaign: he smears any stories he doesn't agree with as 'fake news' and has even used Twitter to incite violence against journalists. The list of misdemeanours goes on and on; just recently a CNN journalist was barred from a White House event because of questions she had asked the presently shortly before hand. It's a very bad state of affairs.
On the Europena side of the Atlantic, those who would hold power to account are also under assault. In UK it is the tabloid press, and particularly the Daily Mail, that has been doing the attacking; in this case of the judiciary. Judges who are normally fairly anonymous - such is the British system - have been hauled into the spotlight and in one case given the Stalinist moniker of 'enemies of the people'. The context was a judicial decision relating to the triggering of Article 50 - the notice that a member country has to give to the EU if they wish to leave. Judges in the UK have no authority to make political decisions in the way the Supreme Court does in the US, and the Daily Mail's attack on the judges was completely unjustified and was itself designed to deflect from a constitutional crisis created by Leavers (including the Mail itself).
The unelected peers in the House of Lords have also come in for unprecedented criticism, and from some very unlikely assailants. Conservative Brexit enthusiasts - many of whom have also been champions of the laughably undemocratic Lords in the past - made accusations of 'betrayal' and even labelled some peers as 'traitors'. The Lords functions constitutionally in a similar way to the judiciary, in that it is a weak brake on the actions of government. The Lords is not able to block the actions of the House of Commons, merely delay their plans and ask them to think again. Such is the febrile atmosphere brought about by Brexit that constitutional norms have been cast aside and any traditional checks on the executive are treated by some as treasonous, rather than simply expressions of a functioning democracy.
Time for a proper UK constitution
On balance it is actually the UK that is in a more parlous political state than the US – but without the attendant outcry. Perhaps this is because TV news is so much more vocal in the US and freedom of speech provisions are that much stronger. Also, the strength of the US constitution means that there are state-mandated paths for taking action against attempts to break the political system. The Trump-Russia inquiry being led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller is an official investigation with teeth and a clear process to follow. In contrast, when official inquiries are instigated in the UK they are called by the government, which has a vested interest in them being toothless. As a result they are almost universally attempts to kick a politically awkward issue in to the long grass.
The Brexit referendum result – as I have said elsewhere – is a symptom, not the cause of the problems of UK politics. The historical break points of 1971, 1990 and 2008 have served to expose the British political system. Its inability to adapt to these challenges has led to the multi-faceted constitutional crisis in which the British people are currently embroiled.
The world is very unlikely to slip back into a mode for which the British political set-up was designed. Multiple, intersecting challenges to the status quo – like new disruptive technologies, a rapidly growing global population, and severe resource shortages – will be the norm for the rest of this century.
How can the British system cope with this new reality? One essential component will be to fashion a new British constitution on which a fresh political consensus can be built. A true constitution doesn't exist in the UK - and it's about time we had one.