For all intents and purposes, the UK does appear to be a democracy. There are periodic elections in which every adult can vote, a representative parliament, and freedom of speech. But the reality is not only very different but actually frightening.
From billionaire tycoons to corporations with vested interests, elite influence has long compromised British democracy. The tentacles of the rich and powerful creep into Number 10 in the form of political party donations, cronyism and media influence.
A report in 2012 on British democracy found that it was “in terminal decline.” And since then, many political commentators have said that it is in “crisis.” But despite this bleak picture, there is hope.
The modern press is dominated by billionaire owners. Rupert Murdoch owns The Sun, The Times, The Sunday Times and a large share of Sky News. Billionaire Jonathan Harmsworth owns the Daily Mail. For 17 years, tycoon Richard Desmond owned the Daily Express. And of course, there is The Daily Telegraph, owned by the billionaire Barclay brothers. As Media Reform points out [pdf, p34], over 50% of newspapers sold in the UK are owned [pdf, p24] by two of these billionaires: Murdoch and Harmsworth.
As for the BBC, which should be impartial, it has come under sustained and widespread accusations of right-wing bias.
Big business controls the British government in many different ways. One major strategy involves lobbying, which sees corporations devote [pdf, p42] resources to influencing government policy. The UK lobbying industry is worth a whopping £2bn and employs 4,000 people.
Addressing the subject of lobbying in 2010, former prime minister David Cameron spoke of:
money buying power, power fishing for money and a cosy club at the top making decisions in their own interest. It is increasingly clear that lobbying in this country is getting out of control. We can’t go on like this.
Yet we do go on like this, and Cameron’s party benefits more than any other from it. But it’s not just the Conservatives. In addition, Labour, the Lib Dems and the SNP all received single donations of over £1m in the last few years.
Commentators have called into question the democratic principles of the House of Commons itself. In Autumn 2017, Labour accused the Conservatives of “a power grab” by “rigging” parliament. While the 2017 General Election resulted in no majority for any party, the Conservatives passed a motion allowing themselves to legislate without consulting parliament.
Over the last few decades, a number of governments have assumed power with less than 25% of the number of registered voters.
That’s just the House of Commons. While the House of Lords doesn’t have a great deal of power, it still has an important role. Its democratic deficit led one journalist to call it “a ludicrous affront to democracy.”
More recently, there is the news of ‘cyber threats to democracy.’ From alleged meddling in elections from foreign states to Cambridge Analytica’s efforts to effect the results of Brexit and the US elections, cyber manipulation is a real and present threat to democratic processes.
While the situation might be dire right now, it can change for the better. The constant smear attacks from the media and the Conservatives on Jeremy Corbyn are nothing short of extraordinary. But as openDemocracy points out, they are happening because he represents a serious threat to corporate control of UK democracy. Meanwhile, voter apathy has steadily improved since 2001. It has risen from a low of 59.4% general election turnout in 2001 to 68.7% in 2017.
British democracy may be dead, but as long as the will of the people is there, it can rise from the ashes once more, organised and united behind one progressive cause.
That progressive cause right now is offered by a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour party. And it’s not about a cult of personality around Corbyn. It’s not even about Corbyn at all really. It’s about the ideas he represents and wants the country to benefit from. Ideas that will make Britain democratic. And it is this that terrifies the establishment to its very core.
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