Question Time for Democracy


A famous political commentator in the UK recently recalled that when he started his career his superior asked what he thought of an interview with a well-known politician. He replied, “well, he didn’t say much new”, only to be rebuked with the words “not the answers you fool, it’s the questions”!

Today more people than ever are asking questions about how our political systems work, if indeed they work and what we can do to improve the quality of leadership, parliaments and democracy. More people are entitled to vote than ever before with the extension of the franchise to women and youth whilst often less do, in percentage terms. There is more transparency than ever with watchdogs, whistle blowers, and an investigative press yet apparently less trust in politicians.

The general perception is that standards are declining in political life, an assumption that the Nolan report on ethics in the UK in the 1990s was unable to substantiate. On the contrary it indicated that corruption cases in the past were arguably more serious than many contemporary ones and parliamentary inquiries were relatively ineffectual.

Members of Parliament today are expected to live out their lives on a high moral ground whilst at the same time being “folksy” and human. Their privacy is as public as an airport X-ray scanner and they deal not just with constituency letters as of old but face round the clock electronic mail and often persistent anonymous abuse. With salaries on the whole less competitive than in private industry, the profession could become unattractive.

But there’s the rub. It is not really certain that politics is a job at all with a specified description. Qualifications are hazy and criteria for success limited to winning an election. Knowledge of say foreign languages or even the subject matter related to a certain ministry might not be seen as a qualification at all in comparison with party loyalty. Appointments, promotion and dismissal of government ministers mostly follow on the basis of a swift phone call with no feedback or explanation.

The relatively stable world of deferential politics in the immediate post-war period has given way to widespread sceptism which threatens to spill over to cynicism. 

In the 24/7 world of non-stop news and views, politics has become relegated to a kind of background music on omnipresent television in cafes and bars often with no sound. Pictures and a live ticker flicker by should the discerning viewer be at all interested while waiting for the next flight or drink. Both answers and questions in an interview on the screen are inaudible yet paradoxically people are more critical and less inclined to accept points at face value.

The relatively stable world of deferential politics in the immediate post-war period has given way to widespread sceptism which threatens to spill over to cynicism. But if this trend can be channelled into healthy questioning of the democratic system, then a renewal could be possible. Polls show that the over 60s faithfully troop out to vote whilst the younger generation pick and choose, switching party according to election and issues. They follow neither parents, a Church, nor partner but decide on an ad hoc basis. But people do engage for issues they consider important as the Scottish referendum on independence last year showed. And internationally public participation in law-making is encouraged by organisations such as the OSCE with a view to influencing policy decisions before they are made.

Deference has given way to dissatisfaction which could transform dialectically into democratic renewal.

So instead of bemoaning the state of democracy we could change our expectations of how people should interact with politics. Deference has given way to dissatisfaction which could transform dialectically into democratic renewal.

In the process of the rejuvenation of democracy, parliaments play a crucial role but they need to modernise and adapt to the twenty first century without ditching strong traditions. For many in the UK the Westminster model has negative connotations associated with an elite bubble on a different planet even more light years away from life on earth than Mars.

Parliaments are the conduit between the voters and the Executive, the forum for strong Oppositions to live out their views and the voice and ears of the people. In recent years the UK parliament has begun to claw back some of its powers lost to the Government with a stronger backbench committee with its own sense of identity. Debates can make a difference on real issues whether the European Union or war and peace and through an outreach programme parliament has started to connect to regions beyond the Circle Line of the London Underground.

Committees that are elected have deprived the party whips of patronage that once stultified their work. The process is arduous but means that a government cannot take for granted what will happen in parliament. Unpredictability as the current UK Speaker noted, is an important factor in the renewal of parliamentary democracy. Politics is one big question time which is the very oxygen of our contemporary democracies.


Feature image: UK Houses of Parliament by Kyoko Escamilla/Flickr

Melanie Sully

Director, Institute of Go-Governance, Vienna

United Kingdomglobal
Published Date
October 22, 2015