Thursday 28 June 2012

British democracy - could do better

In this year of Union Jack waving celebration, it is worth asking how others see Britain.

What sparked my interest was a short article in the weekly German current affairs magazine Der Spiegel which reported on the latest findings of Bertelsmann's Transformations Index and an associated Democracy Barometer, which is produced by Swiss and German academics. The report stated that once again Sweden, Finland and Denmark had received the best ratings, while France was placed 28th out of 30. There was no mention of Britain, so I decided to take a closer look.

You can find the Democracy Barometer here, and as you can see from the map, the vast majority of the countries covered are in Western Europe and North America. To retrieve reports on individual countries, simply point and click with your mouse. The individual country reports are in English, although translated with a fairly heavy German accent.

Britain comes in 27th place, just ahead of France and just behind Poland, and what emerges is that on an overall  measure of quality of democracy Britian has consistently under-performed against its peers since the study began in 1990. The index of overall freedom, which looks at issues such as civil liberties and the rule of law (independence and impartiality of the judiciary) is in long-term decline.

A striking deficiency is in what the study terms "public sphere". This reflects the fact that Britian does not have a written constitution which guarantees freedom of speech, freedom of the press or freedom of assembly and association. We are also blessed, the report notes, with a press in which ownership is concentrated in a very few hands and which is overhwelmingly to the right of centre.

There is also decline in the quality of rule of law, largely because of restrictions related to anti-terrorist legislation. The report does not factor in the Government's latest plans to conduct many more court cases in secret.

Another measure looks at what the study terms "control". Here again Britain scores poorly because of the lack of checks and balances in the political system (inadequate powers of judicial review and lack of federal structures). The first-past-the-post voting system results in a lack of pluralism and often manifestly unfair electoral results.

Looked at over the long-term, Britain has improved transparency in public life, thanks to the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act, although once again the study does not factor in the latest attempts to undermine FOI and the growing tendency of many public authorities, particularly in local government, to flout the rules and principles underpinning FOI.

The study also notes the worrying decrease in public participation in politics and voting from 2001 onwards (another of Blair's legacies). Rather better is the slow improvement in the representation of women in politics.

France scores only slightly worse than Britain, mainly because of its lop-sided constitution which grants almost monarchical powers to the president.

Moving away from Britain, it is remarkable how far countries such as Slovenia, the Czech Republic and Poland have come since the end of Communism, all of which outperform the UK ("Mother of Parliaments" and Home of the Free, we are always reminded).

Although small countries generally perform well, it is striking that three with a strong British colonial legacy (Cyprus, Malta and Ireland) are relatively poor performers. To take Malta as an example, the report notes,

These [deficiencies] are, most notably, the full or partial absence of unrestricted constitutional provisions regarding the freedom of assembly, association, speech and the press as well as a weak civil society with regard to the organisation of professional, environmental or human rights interests.

Note how closely that mirrors the findings on the UK.

Sobering, isn't it?

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