Occasionally a statement is made which is so far removed from reality it is rendered meaningless. Such a moment occurred last week when The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) in its Democracy Index 2016 once again categorised the UK as a ‘Full Democracy’. In fact they regarded it as more of a democracy in 2016, rating it 8.36/10 than in 2015, when it scored 8.31/10, largely as a result of the EU referendum. This is enough to rate the UK at number 16 out of more than 160 countries examined and the anomaly is of such glaring proportions that it lends credence to the campaign tactics of populist movements around the world (most notably during the 2016 UK EU Referendum campaign by Michael Gove and Boris Johnson) of discrediting experts.
The full report can be accessed from The Economist website, but you have to sign your life away to get to it (they want to grab the details of as many professionals as they can, hence a telephone number etc). Alternatively, you can read a summary of the report on the World Economic Forum site. Although the overall results are clear it is worth digging in a little to examine just how they came to this seemingly bizarre conclusion. It is not necessary to sign up with the devil to do this as last year’s report for 2015 is freely available.
Stretching the definition of ‘Full Democracy’ beyond reasonable bounds!
For a start I am not sure what is meant by a ‘full democracy’ in the first place So here is the EIU definition:
Countries in which not only basic political freedoms and civil liberties are respected, but also tend to be underpinned by a political culture conducive to the nourishing of democracy. The functioning of government is satisfactory. Media are independent and diverse. There is an effective system of checks and balances. The judiciary is independent and judicial decisions are enforced. There are only limited problems in the functioning of democracies.
Part of this definition applies (e.g. an independent judiciary) but lets compare it with the obvious basic anti-democratic features of the UK. Our constitution (unwritten) allows for an uncontestable Monarchy, a House of Lords (including 92 hereditary peers and 26 Church of England Bishops), an autocratic Privy Council and a Royal Prerogative through which the government can bypass Parliament and judiciary. On top of this there is a first past the post electoral system which has handed power to representatives elected by only 37% of people who voted, a hugely biassed press and a sophisticated corporate lobbying industry. Bearing in mind this list could have been many times longer and a democracy score of 83.1% is already absurd.
Just for comparison a ‘Flawed Democracy’ is defined by the EIU as:
These countries also have free and fair elections and, even if there are problems (such as infringements on media freedom), basic civil liberties are respected. However, there are significant weaknesses in other aspects of democracy, including problems in governance, an underdeveloped political culture and low levels of political participation.
For completeness the two lowest categories are Hybrid and Authoritarian. Although in some specific aspects, such as Functioning of Government and Political Participation, where the UK resembles a Hybrid system with more serious problems, Flawed Democracy seems a much more accurate picture of our democracy.
You can prove anything with the right question
So how are the results distorted? Partly it is a result of the questions asked and partly the thresholds given to the results themselves. Consider that the very first criteria is freedom for election to legislature and Head of Government. In the UK the Head of Govenment is in effect chosen by House of Commons MPs, normally from the largest party., But, at the last election in 2015 voters made a decision on the basis of the then current party leaders and manifesto policies; but no-one voted for Theresa May for PM or her substantially modified programme in 2016. Also, consider the criteria: ‘Is the functioning of government open and transparent, with sufficient public access to information?’. Along with dissembling Government Ministers there are Freedom of Information exemptions to cover such aspects as royal interference in Government matters with the Royal Archives being used to hide potentially embarrassing Government information (this is espcially relevant to Australia as I highlight below).
What about the problem with thresholds? Take Criterion 29 on the 2015 EIU report. A country scores maximum marks if more 20% of legislature seats are occupied by women! So top marks if the Parliament is stuffed with 75% of middle aged white blokes (there is no measurement for minorities)!
Just for clarity I think a ‘full democracy’ in the sense of a ‘total democracy’ is probably impossible in any case, but also dangerous, with the threat of marginalisation of minority interests or even destruction of rights altogether. So I agree with this statemt in the 2016 report:
But, rule by the majority is not necessarily democratic. In a democracy, majority rule must be combined with guarantees of individual human rights and the rights of minorities.
But before I give the EIU ‘experts’ too much credit the above statement is partly contradicted by this one:
Although the terms “freedom” and “democracy” are often used interchangeably, the two are notsynonymous. Democracy can be seen as a set of practices and principles that institutionalise, and thereby, ultimately, protect freedom.
So freedom is not ultimately protected by democracy, as they have just stated that democracy must be combined with other guarantees! Setting aside this muddied thinking, even the ‘counter-democratic’ defences in a constitution must be accountable. In the UK they are most certainly not. In any case the anti-democratic elements so dominate governmental business that reform is urgent. In any case, remember, the EIU s own category is ‘Full Democracy’.
As a final point the absurd analysis of the EIU is not limited to the UK. They place Australia in 10th position despite the fact that an investigation is being conducted into the summary autocratic dismissal of the Australian Government in 1975 by the Governor-General Sir John Kerr. You can read the details, along with information about the campaign for full disclosure about the event led by Prof Jenny Hocking of Monash University here. It is not clear whether a repeat dismissal could still happen today. In a top 10 democracy? Really?
The EIU report highlights why populist movements have had such siccess in discrediting the opinion of experts. The EIU see a very different world than the one inhabited by many Britons where a Government elected by a clear minority of voters were only stopped from imposing punitive cuts (Tax Credits) by an unelected lords. For one reason or another, mostly involving Brexit, much of the voting population has a problem with UK democracy right now. But we must distinguish between impartial experts and those with an explict political agenda, something which is not always clear!