Essay: Liberal Democracy

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A liberal democracy is a system of governing a country. It is one in which the citizens of the country have total freedom and equality. In a liberal democracy, the legislature, executive and the judiciary are kept separate to avoid power resting in one place. There are many features which make up a liberal democracy, these are. Elections they must be free and fair, there must be a choice of political parties, with different views/opinions and policies. A secret ballot must be held so that the voter does not feel pressured into casting a vote for a political party that they do not want to. The government and Parliament must be elected by and accountable to the voters. The elections must be regular, e.g. the USA have elections every 5 years. The government must call referendums on important issues. Finally, the outcome of the elections must be respected thus allowing power to change according to public demand. Another feature of a liberal democracy is civil liberties. The citizens must enjoy a high degree of civil liberties, like freedom of speech, assembly, movement, property, and conscience. There must also be social freedom like divorce and abortion. These liberties must not be taken away or abused by the government otherwise they should be accountable to the relevant court i.e. in the US-Supreme Court, in the UK European Court of Human Rights. Closely linked to civil liberties are equal opportunities, in a liberal democracy there must be no discrimination. There must be no racism, sexism, ageism or discrimination of the disabled. One more feature is a fair justice system, anyone accused of a crime must be offered legal representation this is to prevent any claim that they were wrongly charged of a crime because they couldn’t afford to have a lawyer to represent their case properly. There must be a trial by jury so that the person accused is tried by his own people. Everyone should be innocent until being proven guilty; this is so that the chance of an innocent person being imprisoned is minimal. A liberal democracy must have a limited government that is open and accountable to the public; the government can keep secrets but only the ones that are a matter of national defence. The public must have the right to scrutinise and check the government. There must also be a free press and media, which must not be under state control, must be able to criticise the government and all the major political parties must receive neutral TV coverage. The constitution this is a set of rules and guidelines, which would outline and limit the powers of the government.

In the United Kingdom the electoral system is free and fair. There is a secret ballot and universal suffrage of 18 plus. There is arguably a choice of parties and the outcome is always respected, there are not many referendums but the ones that they have are on constitutional matters, e.g. 1997 Referendum on whether Scotland should have its own parliament. In the UK there is a high degree of civil liberties, we have a relatively free society, we have free speech, assembly, property, conscience/religion, equal opportunities and social freedom like abortion. The UK is a signatory to the European convention of Human Rights; this is an organisation that protects the civil liberties of all its members’ citizens. Recently the Blair government has tried to incorporate this into UK law so that it can be upheld in British courts. There have been a lot of laws, which encourage equal opportunities. E.g. In 1965,1968 and 1976 race relation laws were introduced. In 1975 the sex discrimination act was introduced. In 1970 the equal pay act was introduced, in theory this meant that men and women should earn the same amount for the same job. The judiciary is kept separate of the government; this is to avoid decisions being made to please the government. There is trial by jury and the hypothesis that someone is innocent until proven guilty, there is usually legal representation. To avoid any unfair treatment, the police can only detain you for 24 hours without charging you. The judges are chosen and promoted on merit and experience. The government is relatively open; the opposition has the right to scrutinise the government. The leader of the opposition is paid a state salary and given five questions a Prime Minister’s question time. The media also expose government secrets. E.g. 1993 arms to Iraq and 1994 cash for questions. The government is accountable to the public because the public has elected them. If the government loses a vote of confidence in the House of Commons, and then a general election is held, this is because the House of Commons are a representation of the public. This has happened in 1979. All the press and media are free and can broadcast anything, except the BBC that is state controlled. Despite this, the BBC and all other terrestrial channels offer unbiased coverage especially at general elections where each major political party is given the same amount of time for party political broadcasts. The media and press are on the whole allowed to cover whatever story they want to. E.g. 1998 the coverage of Ron Davies and his alleged homosexual and drug taking activity. The UK has an uncodified constitution, this means the constitution is not written in one single source. This allows the constitution to change according to two things, Acts of Parliament. As these are passed, it is incorporated into the constitution. The other way the constitution is fabricated is by convention (tradition). E.g. the House of Lords doesn’t delay any bills that are in the manifesto of the government.

However there is no fixed date for elections, the government sets the date of the next general election, but it has to be within five years of the last one. The choice of parties is now becoming close; they all have similar policies. The number of votes cast is not equal to seats in the House of Commons. E.g. 1997 general elections Labour received 43% of the votes, which was equal to 62% of the seats in the House of Commons. The Conservatives received 31% of the votes and 25% of the seats in the House of Commons. The Liberal Democrats received 17% of the votes but only 6% of the seats in the House of Commons. There is now demand for electoral reform from a first-past-the-post system to proportional representation; this is when votes are proportional to seats. In the UK, referendums are very rare, they are used to help decide on controversial decisions or when the government don’t want to make a decision because the might lose public support. There has only been one all UK referendum, in 1975 which was to decide whether they wanted to remain members of the European Union. Not all the civil liberties have been upheld. In 1984 the Conservative Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher banned Trade Unions at the Government Central Head Quarters. This is neglecting the right of assembly. Although The UK has introduced equal opportunities laws, there is still evidence that there is discrimination. There is evidence that there is a higher rate of unemployment between the ethnic minorities. Ethnic minorities also receive poorer standards of education and housing. There has been and still is racism in the police force. E.g. in 1992, a gang beat up Steven Lawrence, but the police investigated into his background and searched his house for drugs instead of trying to find the people who assaulted him. Women are more likely to be employed as temps or part time. If they do obtain a full time job, they usually earn only 80% of male earnings for the same job. Recently there have been many complaints that the judiciary in the UK is unrepresentative of society. Most judges are middle class, white males who are 60 years old or more. This suggests that they are out of touch with society and may even be biased towards people like him. There was a study in 1989, which proved that women and people from the ethnic minorities receive longer sentences for committing the same crime as a white male. The fact that the UK constitution is not written in one place makes it very hard to define certain things. E.g. it is unclear exactly what the powers of the Prime Minister are.

In conclusion, from the statements above I think the UK is about 80-85% towards being a total liberal democracy. It offers all of the features of a liberal democracy, but it doesn’t offer these to their full extent. To make the UK a little bit closer to becoming a totally liberal democracy, there have been cries that it needs to reform the electoral system from a first-past-the-post system, to one of proportional representation. However this will make it nearly impossible to elect one party as the government, coalitions will have to be made and then each party will block each other’s ideas. The UK also needs to have a set date for the general elections, like the USA. It would also make the UK more of a liberal democracy if the constitution is written and clear to define the powers of the relevant people or institutions. To stop the unrepresentative judiciary, I think positive discrimination should be introduced to appoint more women and judges from ethnic minorities. The main political parties have three different views on liberal democracy. The Liberal Democrats are all for having a liberal democracy. They want electoral reform, a federal Britain where the government will have limited power; they also want positive discrimination in the judiciary. Labour is in the middle between having a liberal democracy or not. They know that some reform is needed, they are currently contemplating how to reform the electoral system, and they are also for devolution of power, limiting the power of the government. The Conservative Party is against a liberal democracy, they are totally happy with the current state of affairs in the UK.

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