Winston Churchill called it “the worst form of government except for all those other forms”. People who don’t have it, want it. People who do, complain about it. What is democracy, really?

  • What exactly is democracy?

    In the broadest sense, it is the philosophy that everyone should have a say in the running of their country. In a democratic society, elections give people the chance to vote for the politicians whose policies they like the most. Those politicians generally group together into parties, which compete to form a government. Laws prevent them from doing what they want.

  • What other political systems are there?

    The opposite of democracy is autocracy, where absolute power rests in the hands of one person – think of Kim Jong-un in North Korea. An authoritarian state is similar: a small elite exercises power, limiting its citizens’ freedoms (China is a good example). In an anarchy, such as a war-torn state, there is no effective government at all.

  • How many countries are democratic?

    Only around half the world’s countries are democracies. Of those, The Economist’s 2016 Democracy Index concluded, only 19 were “full democracies”. The US was downgraded to the status of a “flawed democracy”, following the erosion of public trust in politics around the 2016 presidential election. Meanwhile, the majority of countries in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East are categorised as “authoritarian”.

  • Do people in these countries not want democratic rule?

    Lots of them do, yes. In 2011, a series of uprisings against oppressive governments swept the Middle East in what came to be called the Arab Spring. Out of the 12 countries which rose up against their government, only Tunisia was able to successfully make the transition to democracy. Meanwhile, nations like Syria are still locked in vicious civil war.

  • Where does the idea of democracy come from?

    Although they were probably not the first society to have a democracy, the Greeks of ancient Athens are the most famous example. They even invented the word: “demos” meaning “people”, while “kratos” means “power”. Led by the statesman Cleisthenes, the Athenians created their democracy around 500 BC.

  • How long has democracy been around in Britain?

    There is no one fixed date for when democracy “began” in Britain, but rather there are lots of important steps which contributed to the creation of democracy as we know it today. Many people cite the writing of Magna Carta in 1215 as the first step in giving people other than the king a say in how the country was run. Another important moment was the English Civil War.

  • How does Britain’s political system work?

    The country is divided into 650 constituencies (geographical areas, represented by a seat in Parliament). People vote for their preferred candidate in their constituency – it could be Labour or Conservative, for example, or even independent. Whoever wins the most votes becomes the Member of Parliament (MP) for that constituency.

    Then, nationwide, whichever party has the most elected MPs has the chance to form a government. If none wins an absolute majority of seats — 326 or more — two or more parties will generally team up to govern together. This happened at the last election: Theresa May’s Conservative Party enlisted the support of the Democratic Unionist Party, a right-wing Northern Irish party. Or as in 2010-15 the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats agreed to form a coalition government.

  • Can I vote?

    Not if you are under 18, the voting age in this country. Nor unless you are a British, Irish or Commonwealth citizen. Certain categories of people, like prisoners, are also denied the vote. No democracy allows literally everyone to participate in elections. Still, many more people do so now than in the past: until a century ago, women were barred from voting!

You Decide

  1. Is democracy the greatest invention of all time?


  1. Imagine you are founding a new political party. Come up with a name, logo, motto and manifesto of 10 policies. Make sure to differentiate yourself from existing parties.

Word Watch

Flawed democracy
The Economist’s annual Democracy Index takes a broad view of democracy. As well as the democratic rights of citizens, it looks at factors like the extent to which people feel engaged with politics, if foreign nations influence the political process, and so on.
Other countries where revolution broke out in 2011 include Libya, Morocco and Egypt.
President Ben Ali resigned after 23 years in power, and Tunisia held its first democratic elections in October 2011.
Magna Carta
A charter signed by a group of noblemen and King John in 1215 which imposed limits on the powers of the king. You can read more about the Magna Carta in the briefing on the rule of law. (It has also been covered in The Day previously — see, for example, this briefing, search or use the Tag Magna Carta.)
English Civil War
Fighting broke out between King Charles and Parliament in 1642. Politicians felt that the king was abusing his powers and wanted to reduce them. But Charles was convinced that he had been appointed to rule by God, and that his power should have no limit. The monarchy lost.

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