The events surrounding the death of Queen Elizabeth and the accession of Charles III as King have prompted some commentators to deplore the non-democratic nature of a system of monarchy and to suggest that the monarchy may not survive. The current evidence seems to me to suggest something different.
A successful system of constitutional monarchy does not depend on voting but it does depend on widespread popular consent. Our monarchic system has survived with varying degrees of popular consent from the hugely popular Elizabeth I to the equally popular Elizabeth II. Democratic systems require voting rather than popular consent. Our present Prime Minister holds her position in virtue of around 2,000 votes, largely gleaned from elderly Tories in the South of England. Does that demonstrate the moral superiority of democratic voting over popular consent?
While popular consent for our constitutional monarch seems robust at the moment, there is less popular consent for our elected government. We are doing less well than all the other countries in the G7; interest rates will rise; sterling is not doing well against other currencies; widespread strikes seem likely. Yes, there are world problems, but the UK seems to be coping less well than comparable countries. Economic decline weakens support for democracy. Moreover, our democracy has other problems.
Our form of democracy is said to be both a 'liberal democracy' and a 'representative democracy'. Liberal democracy is justified because it is said to promote both equality and freedom of thought and action. Has it succeeded in these aims in the UK?
It seems to have failed badly in promoting equality: the gap between rich and poor is greater than it has ever been; child poverty is widespread and nurses need to make use of food banks; even middle classes are feeling the pinch. Yet one of the first decisions of our new Chancellor in Westminster has been to propose removing the cap on bankers' bonuses – bankers who already have salaries in millions.
A liberal democracy is said to be one in which the State enacts only those laws which guarantee the liberty of subjects to speak and act freely, provided they do not damage the legitimate interests of others. Freedom in this sense promotes the value of toleration. A liberal democracy of that sort was outlined by John Stuart Mill in his essay On Liberty
Has our liberal democracy promoted freedom? The current encouragement of diversity in culture includes active programmes to hunt down racism and islamophobia. This may be thought to promote toleration – freedom from interference by others. But the policing of language and the suppression of unpopular views is in tension with the liberal value of freedom of speech. Large institutions, such as universities and businesses, provide compulsory courses on diversity and inclusion. I shall not comment on the merits of such courses, but neither the courses nor their enforcement promote the liberal-democratic values of freedom of thought and expression.
Liberal democracy is therefore failing to promote its two core values: equality and freedom.
Our democracy is also said to be a representative democracy. What does that mean? When I first started voting, political party affiliations were not on the ballot paper. You were voting for the person you thought would best represent your interests in parliament. At some point – don't ask me when – the party affiliation of candidates was put beside their names and slowly voters began thinking they were voting not for a representative but for a political party. I believe the situation has developed even further. Many people think that they are in effect voting for a Prime Minister. In other words, we are moving from a system of representative democracy to a presidential system. Looking at the US, I wonder if that is a desirable move.
There is another aspect to representation. It is often said that racial and other minority groups are not sufficiently represented in parliament. The assumption is that if you are not from one of these groups you are unable to represent their interests. That is a questionable assumption. MPs often take up the cause of those outside their constituencies.
Be that as it may, the philosophical point is that a different sense of 'represent' has been introduced. What is called 'representative democracy' has traditionally involved what I shall call 'ascriptive' representation: representation by someone to whom voters give a mandate to speak on their behalf. But now many people urge what I shall call 'descriptive' representation: you need to be one before you can fully represent their interests.
Is there something in that? Well, a young man who was appointed to deal with the problems surrounding free period products certainly received a fair amount of stick. But that case was perhaps not typical. The point I want to stress is that, for good or ill, the idea of descriptive representation is certainly affecting the choice of candidates to be our ascriptive representatives. It is said that a certain number should be from each minority group. That may be desirable but it is a move away from the traditional idea of representation.
Much more importantly, representative democracy rests on two pillars. They are: free voting and reliable information. Our government plans to require certain forms of identification as conditions for voting: passports, etc. That policy seems a totally unnecessary impediment to free voting.
But the more serious problem for liberal democracy is the supply of reliable information. It is well known that the Brexit vote was swung by interested parties knowingly spreading false information. The slogan on the bus concerning the money that would come to the NHS if we left the EU was known to be false by those who used it; false rumours were spread that we were about to be overrun by Turks. The crowning glory of fake news was the claim that the EU was insisting on straight bananas. Apparently after the vote to leave the EU the internet was jammed with people asking: What is the EU?
It should also be noted that the majority of influential newspapers are supporters of the Tory Party and are hardly likely to provide balanced information. Unfortunately, the BBC is also running scared of the government. We have seen talented and rigorous interviewers such as Emily Maitlis or John Sopel or Andrew Marr leaving the BBC. A weakened BBC cannot play an unbiased role in interviewing political figures. It might be said that a majority of people do not get their information from newspapers or the BBC but from the internet. But that is hardly a reliable source.
If one of the main pillars of liberal democracy – freedom to vote – is modified, and the other – reliable information – is very weak, then the whole system is shaky.
This is not a new problem. Socrates protested against the false information put about by the Sophists, and got himself executed for his views. The powerful who benefit from the system don't like to be challenged.
As I began by saying, monarchy does not depend on voting but on the vaguer idea of popular consent. This was true of Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II. Time will tell whether it remains true of Charles III. The signs are good that he will adapt to changing times, but I hope he will continue to exert soft power in promoting concern for the environment.
Those who don't like a monarchical system based on consent should bear in mind that a presidential system based on voting would almost certainly result in Boris Johnson as our President and representative of our values.
Robin Downie is Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow