Review of A C Grayling’s book Democracy and Its Crisis

This is one of the most important books I have read in years. The opening words are

“This book is about the failure of the best political system we have: democracy. And how to put it right”.

Our democracy is not working Its shortcomings are the main obstacle to tackling the great challenges facing us early in the 21st century, creating a good society that benefits everyone and playing our part in the world. The nation has been hoodwinked first by the economically illiterate Austerity policy which has done and is still doing enormous harm to every aspect of our society and, especially, to the most vulnerable. The flawed Referendum is doing more harm. If Brexit goes ahead even more damage will be done. There is much anger and distress in a deeply divided United Kingdom.

The book is an exquisite delight to read. It is a passionate, revolutionary, rich in insights and written by an erudite and highly articulate academic. It is an exposé of our now deeply flawed democracy. As I read, I grew angrier. All of us have played a part in this decline: citizens, the media and members of parliament. This book should be read by all MPs. Every citizen needs to this book’s key messages. Otherwise we’ll continue to be victims of chicanery.

Democracy is precious. Men and women fought for it over the centuries, many giving their lives. Many other countries, including so-called People’s Democratic Republics, are dictatorships intolerant of human rights and careless of human life. Unless we are content to be deceived and exploited, all of us need to play our part in protecting our democracy by being well-informed and, when necessary, activists. We need a democracy fit for the 21st Century. Reform has been obstructed by those in power for generations. An essential feature of democracy is that MPs are there to represent us. Yet around half of us are disenfranchised because we are not represented under first past the post. Nevertheless, we need to engage with our MPs – vigorously if need be. All of us need to use our precious vote. That is the foundation of representative democracy.

The United Kingdom European Union membership referendum took place on 23 June 2016 supposedly to gauge support for the country either remaining a member of, or leaving, the European Union. But it was all about Tory party interests. It is a shocking example of how citizens can be misled and exploited by a ruthless and irresponsible faction.

The constantly repeated mantra “Brexit is the will of the people” is clever propaganda designed to mesmerise us! How can we be so gullible? Certainly, 52% of those who voted, voted leave and 48% voted to remain. However only 37% of electorate, representing 26% of “the people”, voted for Brexit. So 74% did not vote for Brexit. Did all those wanting to leave do so for the same reasons? Did they have a clear idea, involving practical details, of what would follow? Many parts of the United Kingdom did not want to leave. There were huge differences depending on age. Sixteen and seventeen year olds, amongst those likely to be most adversely affected, had no vote. It is clear that a referendum was inappropriate for such a complex issue. And it was explicitly advisory. Most MPs, about 73%, are in favour of Remain.

Though a relatively short book, just over two hundred pages, it is quite complex. My aim in this review is to summarise its analysis and solutions and add my thoughts on aspects that in my view are not addressed.

PART I is a history of democracy from Plato, Aristotle through to De Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill. It describes the dilemmas and difficulties that had to be overcome in establishing a representative democracy and deciding who should be participants in it. It took many centuries to devise a system that would give the mass of people a say, and not descend into chaos or tyranny. The main issues were: who should be qualified to vote and who was competent to vote. It is primarily concerned with the evolution of Britain’s democracy. However some aspects of the history of USA and other countries are relevant. The author suggests that, unless interested in the history of democracy, the reader may choose to go straight to Part II.

PART II chapter headings are: Alternative Democracies and Anti-democracies, Why It Has Gone Wrong, Making Representative Government Work, and The People and the Constitution, followed by Conclusion. There are two appendices: Brexit and The Failure of Democracy Elsewhere.

If you wish to gain a quick understanding of the book, I suggest you read the excellent Introduction, Conclusion and the two appendices.

What Has Gone Wrong and Why


  • In a representative democracy parliament, not the public, is sovereign. In the UK it is the House of Commons that is sovereign and the House of Lords the reviewing chamber.
  • De facto the executive has become sovereign. With a single vote majority it can enact or suspend any law whatever, any civil liberty or human right and has absolute power. Ministers can use the ‘Henry VIII clause’ to amend or repeal legislation covertly without the need for parliamentary scrutiny. The absolute authority of the executive has grown greatly through a subservient majority in the House of Commons.
  • For representative democracy to work requires the independence of MPs. With the exception of election manifesto commitments, party discipline, “whipping”, threats, bullying, bribes, blackmail should not be allowed to decrease the independence of MPs.
  • The Tory party has been bedevilled by the far right for years. Labour has similar difficulties.
  • Judicial review by the courts is restricted to those bills which are incompatible with the Human Rights Act.
  • The absence of a written constitution makes it difficult to hold the executive to account.
  • The failure to equip the “demos” or citizens with the civic education makes it harder for representative democracy work.
  • Lack of popular engagement and responsibility and citizens who are uninformed, uncritical and self-interested. Myopia is a danger to sound government.
  • Manipulation by those in power, big business, big money, partisan and vested interests. Failure of the systems because representatives use democracy for their own class or party self- interest. Also interference through social media and cyber-attacks.
  • First past the post regularly produces governments with large majorities in the House of Commons on little more than a third of votes cast. Those who vote for losing candidates are disenfranchised; thus roughly half the electorate is unrepresented.
  • The picture of vigorous democratic debate is idealised. In reality it involves spin, dirty tricks, half-truths, untruths, distortion, propaganda, and attacks on individuals. All aimed at inflating the positives of one party and the credibility of the other. The Sun, Daily Mail and Daily Express are examples. We need to lower the temperature.
  • The cumulative consequences: anger, hopelessness, cynicism about politics, diminished respect for MPs and fewer able people wanting to become MPs.


Making Representative Government the Best it Can Be

 “The failings and frailties of human institutions, like those of individuals are inevitable; but there are many things that have to be done to be the very best they can be….because of what is at stake. Government falls into this category.”

What is required:

  • Parliament should be sovereign and representative. The task of managing competing needs and demands in a complex society is best managed in a representative democracy. Our parliament is not representative.
  • Proportional representation is essential.
  • MPs need to be independent in order to represent their constituents. Thus, except on manifesto commitments, end party discipline and whipping. MPs must be held to account by their constituents.
  • Representative democracy should have no truck with referenda.
  • A bicameral legislature with a more directly elected second chamber that enables proposals to be reviewed – the safeguard of second thoughts.
  • Media reporting and lobbying rigorously kept to standards of probity and accuracy. People should be reliably informed about what is happening in government and politics.
  • Complete transparency about funding involved directly or indirectly in campaigns. Limits on the amount that can be spent on campaigns to create a level the playing field.
  • Compulsory civic education in schools and compulsory voting for all aged 16 and above.
  • A written Constitution, based on consultation, to enable Judicial Review. An unwritten constitution is vulnerable.
  • Smaller government is needed in a more mature political activity.

Further Proposals

A Collaborative Democracy is essential if we are to bring about the changes needed and create a democracy fit to meet the challenges of the 21st Century. Progressive parties need to work together if they are to gain power and bring about reform. It is essential that poiliticians learn to find common ground, rather than wasting energy in conflict. Here are my comprehensive proposals based on those of the Electoral Reform Society, Unlock Democracy and the Green Party with some features added by me. A different kind of Political Leadership is also required, one that unites people, rather than wasting energy in division and conflict.

 How you can use your power to transform our UK Democracy:

 Bruce Nixon is an author, writer, speaker, blogger and activist.




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