What is democracy?

In general, democracy refers to any society and/or political system in which the people are able to make or influence decisions and where government is accountable to the people. More precise definitions would include the following:

· The word is derived from the Greek words demos and kratis, broadly meaning 'rule by the people'.

· Abraham Lincoln, the American president from 1861 to 1865, described democracy as 'government of the people, by the people, for the people'.

The modern, widely accepted meaning of democracy has a number of variations. These include direct democracy, representative democracy, liberal democracy, pluralist democracy. These overlap a great deal. Each is described in more detail below.

Liberal democracy

· Liberal democracy is a response to fears of the 'tyranny of the majority', that is too much power in the hands of a dominant majority. To counteract this, a liberal democracy normally incorporates a Bill of Rights to protect the interests of individuals and minorities.

· Power is normally divided and separated in a liberal democracy. In other words, there are mechanisms for preventing too much power falling into too few hands. The . so-called 'separation of powers' distributes power between different branches of government.

· As well as separating powers there is a system of 'checks and balances' in place. This means that the different branches of government — the legislature, the executive and the judiciary — have means by which they can control each other's power.

· There is a strong sense of 'constitutionalism'. This means a strong constitution ensures the separation of powers, the system of checks and balances and the protection of individual and group rights.

· Liberal democracy cherishes the rights of the individual and of organisations. Thus there are strong safeguards for such freedom.

· Liberal democracy also implies a tolerant society, where diverse beliefs, groups and interests are allowed to flourish as long as they do not threaten the security of the state or the freedom of others.

A key example of a liberal democracy would be the USA.

Pluralist democracy

· There tends to be a large number of different political parties.

· There will also be a wide variety of political associations and pressure groups, which are tolerated and which may participate in political processes.

· Generally speaking, in a pluralist democracy, power is widely dispersed. This means that the people have a great deal of influence and power is not concentrated in a few hands.

A key example of a pluralist democracy would be Germany.

Parliamentary democracy

Pluralist democracies generally conform to the criteria of liberal democracy shown above. In addition, they have the following characteristics:

It is generally understood that this kind of parliamentary democracy is unique to the UK. To a large (though not total) extent, the UK conforms to the principles of liberal democracy, but it also has its own special character. Its characteristics are as follows:

  • · Parliament is sovereign and has ultimate political power.

  • · Laws will only be enforced if legitimised by the UK Parliament.

  • · Government is drawn from Parliament (all ministers must also be MPs or peers) and is part of Parliament.

  • · Parliament ensures the geographical representation of all parts of the UK.