The musings of a young engineer: democracy


by AG Nicol

Given the upcoming election coupled with a referendum on how we elect MPs, it is worth pausing and considering the nature of governance that we have in Holyrood, Westminster and across the Western world.  The various presidencies, parliaments, senates and congresses in these countries are all based upon party political elections to determine the specific make-up of their government.  However the simple fact is that these political systems are not democratic.

While this may seem like something of a dramatic statement, look up ‘democracy’ in any dictionary and you will see something to the effect of “rule by the people, for the people”.  My argument is that a system based on party-political elections fails in both of these basic tests of democracy.

Firstly, let’s consider the ‘by the people’ clause.  Under a party political system there is an inherent bias towards promoting those who have shown loyal service to the party over those who have served the people. This leads to governance by a political elite rather than by the people and hence breaks the first principle of democracy.

Don’t believe me?  Consider that in the UK (Westminster and Holyrood) it is impossible to become PM/FM without first becoming the leader of your political party.  Even in the States where it is technically possible for an independent candidate to run for president, they managed to produce the triumph of nepotism which is the father-son Presidents Bush.

Next, we have ‘for the people’.  Time and again political parties have been seen to evolve from an ideological beginning to a self-perpetuating state where all principles are abandoned in the pure interest of getting elected.  While healthy political debate requires at least two differing philosophical stances to make progress and determine the best course of action, the people’s interests are demonstrably not served by having a political party’s sole stance being ‘we aren’t the other guys’.

This is even before we consider the problems brought about by money entering into the political process.  While there are periodically stories of politicians ‘on the fiddle’ to the detriment of those they are supposed to represent, the problems with a party political system run much deeper than the few bad apples. The real problem is that political parties attract lobbyists and campaign donors whose only interest is in getting their view heard and acted upon.  This results in the viewpoint which comes attached to the thickest cheque book having the most sway, whether it is of benefit to the people or not.

Then there is the international aspect with organisations such as the IMF bulldozing over the interests of democracy in the name of economic stability.  Whether the IMF’s (and other’s) world views are correct or not is almost irrelevant considering the way in which they are forcing them upon people.  Rather than engage with a populace and convincing them of a certain course of action, these organisations are instead subverting what semblance of democratic control there is within the political systems to force the action that they deem necessary.  History has shown us time and again that people can only be ignored like this for so long before things turn ugly and we can only hope that things can be turned around before that happens.

It is important to note that these problems will not be resolved by switching from a first-past-the-post system to an alternative vote system.  Even a fully proportional system does not address the fundamental problems of basing the political system around parties whose vested interests frequently run counter to the interests of the populace, let alone allowing the influence of international organisations that are entirely unaccountable to the people.

Scotland finds itself in a fortunate position in that the prospect of independence is growing ever larger on the political horizon.  This will give us an almost unprecedented opportunity to create a political system that can truly be democratic, avoiding the pitfalls of previous systems and helping us develop a fairer society. It is vital that we begin this debate sooner rather than later as there is no truer statement of how a country views itself than how it allows itself to be governed.