The past week in South Africa has been an eloquent reminder of how much the right to vote can mean to people who have been denied it for generations. This week in Britain will be an equally eloquent reminder of how easily democracy can decay. There will be no excited queues lining the streets of Lambeth or Derby, no Archbishop Tutus dancing jigs in Wolverhampton. The turnout for the local council elections is unlikely to reach 50 per cent.
If South Africans, in Tutu's words, are falling in love with democracy, the British may be perilously close to divorce proceedings. An ICM opinion poll for Bite the Ballot - a Channel 4 series which began last night - found that 30 per cent of voters do not think Britain is a democracy at all. Only 28 per cent think that our system of government is working well; in a similar poll nearly 25 years ago, the proportion was 48 per cent.
All this may be attributed to public grouchiness after a long recession. But Stuart Weir, a consultant on the Channel 4 poll, thinks the voters are right. Compared with, say, Denmark, France, Germany, Australia and the United States, Britain's democracy is indeed weak. We allow a single party - which is not elected even on a majority of the popular vote - to control government and Parliament, and to change the law almost at whim. The second chamber is weak and absurdly undemocratic. We have no regional government while our local councils - many of which govern places nobody has ever heard of, such as Cleveland, Avon and Sandwell - have no constitutional defence against central government. As this paper has often highlighted, public services are increasingly run by unelected quangos, packed with government nominees. We have the right to get the Downing Street furniture changed from time to time, but few other rights. Mr Weir quotes Joyce Cary: 'The only good government is a bad government in a hell of a fright.' Britain's government abandoned the poll tax because it was terrified by riots in the streets and the prospect of electoral catastrophe. The episode was exceptional. The present administration pursues policies - privatising the railways, closing the coal industry, turning the health service upside down - for which there is almost no real support, except among a handful of free-market ideologues.
The malfunctioning of democracy is not, however, confined to Britain. The United States and Russia have much lower rates of electoral turnout. Why? One answer, paradoxically, is that modern governments have too little power. The financial markets can undermine the Exchange Rate Mechanism, to which all western European governments were committed. A multinational company can have far more bearing on employment prospects and working conditions than any national government. A media boss such as Rupert Murdoch may influence more people's thinking than any single political leader. A second answer is that, while the patently unsuccessful Communist states of eastern Europe existed, democracy looked like the least worst system of government. It might involve an excess of graffiti, but it clearly brought economic success. Now, the authoritarian regimes of Singapore, Malaysia, even China, seem to offer prosperity and clean streets.
Liberal democracies are left with two challenges. One is to create effective supra-national bodies; the other is to find new ways of making politicians responsive to ordinary people. No government has got far with either, and the British government seems uninterested. People stood in queues across the South African veld last week because they knew that, by doing so, they could put an end to a detestable regime. That fundamental right remains the most important. But true democracy is far more than that. If it is not renewed, in Britain and elsewhere, it may become as rare again as it has been for the past two millennia.Reuse content