A very short blog about privilege.

When I first went to work, my manager warned my colleagues that I was arriving, because I’d disclosed my sexuality in an informal setting that was part of the interview process. They did this in order to make me feel more comfortable because they were worried that the banter in the office might offend me. In doing so, they violated something quite fundamental – my right to disclose my sexuality to whom I choose and ‘come out’ as I see fit. I could have taken them to court immediately and I would have probably won, but this ignores the power dynamic that structured my interaction with this situation. I was a young person from a working class background, it was my first job etc. This power dynamic and my own fear of what would happen if I did or said anything prevented me from seeking justice.

When I was growing up, I thought I would get married and have kids when I was older, and I remember the feeling of devastation I felt when it occurred to me that this wouldn’t happen for me. At the time it didn’t occur to me that I might be able to adopt, and I didn’t imagine that in the future gay people might be allowed to marry and so I experienced a real sense of loss. Then there was coming to terms with who I was – overcoming a sense of self-loathing inculcated by the society I was brought up in. There was the inner pain every time someone made a homophobic remark in front of me, which included members of my own family. There was the experience of coming out and facing the very real possibility that I might lose friends as a result of it & dealing with the people who ran through the corridor at university shouting ‘faggot’ because I was dating the guy next door. Then there’s the more subtle stuff – thinking twice about holding hands or kissing in public, the years of trying to ‘pass’ as straight and the ever-present fear that you might be outed.

My experience above isn’t unusual and irrespective of all the other difficulties you may have faced in your life as a straight person, you don’t experience the above and you so can’t fully understand what it feels like to experience these injustices, aside from empathising with what others experience.

To be privileged is to benefit from a set of institutions, practices, behaviours and unconscious biases. It’s usually experienced as an absence and is therefore easier to see if you don’t have it, than if you do. In many ways, I am privileged because I’m white, middle class and male. This means that I don’t experience systematic injustice as a result of my race, class or gender, but I do experience systematic injustice as a result of my sexuality.

So it’s easier for me than it is for most to understand the absence that I experience as a result of being white, middle class and male. There are all sorts of injustices that I won’t have to experience because of this and it is important that I acknowledge this and try to fight on the side of those trying to make these injustices disappear.

Nobody thinks that freedom of speech should be absolute, but speech deserves special protection on a university campus and must be defended.

If you believe the newspapers and broadcast media, freedom of speech is under threat on our university campuses as never before. On the right, this has taken the form of questioning the so-called “anti-Brexit bias” of university lecturers, and, on the left, free speech has been challenged by students advocating trigger warnings and safe spaces to protect people from harmful speech and from the ‘microaggressions’ of fellow students.

During my time at university, just over a decade ago, this was all very new. The NUS and many university students’ unions had put in place ‘no platform’ policies designed to ensure that he far-right didn’t have a voice on campus, justified because of the violence directed against minorities when the far-right are given the opportunity to air their views. At the time, this was something I fought against, believing it to be a policy designed to prevent the far-right from being openly challenged in a robust debate in a public forum, where they would be unquestionably exposed as the racist demagogues that they are.

My view then was informed by my reading of John Stuart Mill’s classic defence of freedom of speech in On Liberty, where he defends free speech as being essential to our search for truth. His argument is that we can only make progress as a society if there is an opportunity for truth to come into collision with error. If we prevent speech – even in cases where we believe ourselves to be entirely in the right – our own convictions are rendered less secure, because we can only know the basis of our beliefs when they are challenged in debate. Furthermore, to silence the views of others is to assume our own infallibility. Even in cases where we think ourselves entirely right, there might be a grain of truth in what our opponent has to say. Mill therefore concludes by putting his case very boldly:

If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.

Mill argues that speech is a particularly important freedom that deserves special protection when speech is being used to argue and debate. This implies that some forms of speech are more important, and therefore deserve more protection, than others. For example, my right to debate a proposition in a university seminar room clearly deserves more protection than my right to shout on the street corner. By contrast, if I were to use my speech to incite an angry mob to commit violence or if I were to shout “fire” in a crowded theatre, my speech is at best a nuisance, and, at worst, a cause of direct physical harm to someone else. In cases like this, it seems clear that my right to speak should be restricted.

This helps to explain why the current debate around freedom of speech centres around the university campus, because it is at a university that we might think that speech is most deserving of special protection.

In a recent high-profile case there were calls to ban Germaine Greer from delivering a lecture at Cardiff University. Eventually, the talk did go ahead and – as expected – she defended her view that transsexual women are not women in the bluntest possible terms:

I don’t believe a woman is a man without a cock […] You can beat me over the head with a baseball bat. It still won’t make me change my mind […] Being a woman is a bit tricky. If you didn’t find your pants full of blood when you were 13 there’s something important about being a woman you don’t know. It’s not all cake and jam.

The above statement is clearly offensive to a large number of people; not just to transsexual women, but also to many who don’t share Greer’s view. But it also seems clear that Greer is defending a fairly mainstream view within second-wave feminism that there is something essential about gender that can’t be transformed via an operation. In short, that “biology is destiny,” to quote Freud.

It seems clear to me that offence can be a reason to restrict speech or action. For example, I would not have allowed Nazi sympathisers to march through a predominantly Jewish area of Stokie, Illinois wearing stormtrooper uniforms in 1977. I would also have banned the Westborough Baptist Church from protesting outside the funerals of dead soldiers holding up signs saying “GOD HATES FAGS”.

In the case of Greer, I would take a different view. Whilst her speech was offensive to a large number of people, it was offensive in the same way that the contents of a book or a television programme can be offensive. If I don’t want to be offended, I can simply put down the book or switch off the television. Equally, if I don’t want to hear Greer’s offensive words I can simply go somewhere else. This was not the case in the other two examples above, where the offense was egregious and almost impossible to avoid.

A further case could be made for restricting Greer’s speech on the basis that speech such as Greer’s undermines the basic dignity of transgender women that is essential to their equal status in a liberal democratic society. I’m much more open to this argument, because I do think that the wide preponderance of views that are transphobic could undermine equal status, which is essential for us to engage each other in debate and conversation as moral equals. Having said this, I think that speech like Greer’s is already sufficiently policed by social stigma, and general disapprobation without requiring the university or the state to further constrain her freedom of action.

Freedom of speech is a tricky area of debate precisely because nobody believes that freedom of speech should be absolute or that it is equally deserving of protection in all circumstances. However, the reason why the current debate is so pressing is that most people think that speech that is trying to further knowledge or speech that questions the actions of the government is in need of special protection.

This does not mean that all speech in these categories should always be protected, but it does mean that, in cases such as these, our presumption should be that freedom of speech should be protected unless as very compelling reason can be given for the opposite conclusion. This means that people like Greer should be afforded the opportunity to speak and if we don’t like it, we should go somewhere else.

Weekly News Bulletin

Parliament was prorogued again this week, finally bringing an end to the longest session of parliament since the Civil War. The prorogation will allow Boris Johnson to bring forward a Queen’s Speech that will set out his government’s priorities for the next parliamentary session.

The BBC have a useful article about what a Queen’s Speech is and why it’s important.

Whilst a Brexit deal remains unlikely, there were some positive noises from the Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister), Leo Varadkar, this week after he met Boris Johnson in Liverpool to discuss a way forward in the Brexit negotiations.

The Times has a useful flowchart detailing what could happen next. [paywall]

Weekly news bulletin

The Supreme Court concluded this week that the court does have a role in determining the limits of the Prime Minister’s prorogation power and that Boris Johnson broke the law in advising the monarch to prorogue parliament. The prorogation was therefore rendered “null and of no effect,” meaning parliament reconvened this week.

The Labour Party Conference ended early in Brighton after some bold policy announcements from John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn.

World leaders met at the United Nations General Assembly this week with both Donald Trump and Boris Johnson giving prominent speeches. This Guardian briefing explains what the General Assembly is and what its role is in the world.

Meanwhile, in the US, Democrats have formally launched an impeachment investigation against President Trump after a whistle blower alleged that Trump asked the Ukrainian president to launch an investigation into the son of Democratic front-runner and former Vice President, Joe Biden. 

Finally, it is worth watching both parts of the BBC series The Cameron Years on BBC iPlayer.

Using the source, evaluate the claim that general elections are decided more often by short-term factors than long-term factors. (30)

I put together this model answer using the following source:

Traditionally, voting behaviour has been relatively predictable, with voters identifying “strongly with a party” resulting in them “almost always” voting for it at a generally election. The strongest predictor of voting behaviour, historically, was social class. For example, in 1974, 56% of middle & upper class voters (ABC1) voted Conservative and 57% of DE voters (DE) voted Labour. Whilst this has broken down somewhat due to class and partisan dealingnment, it is still possible to predict voting behaviour by looking at social factors. For example, in the 2017 election age was a very strong predictor of voting behaviour, with 66% of 18-24 year olds voting Labour and 69% of those over 70 voting Conservative. This suggests that there are still strong long-term factors affecting voting behaviour, but, they are no longer based on class but on a generational divide between the old and the young. It is this long-term trend that best explains voting behaviour.

However, it is evident that general elections aren’t won or lost on the basis of those who have a strong partisan attachment to a particular party, but rather, by those who you would describe as floating voters. The source suggests that these voters are likely to be swayed by “valence issues” such as “the state of the economy”, which is strongly linked to the general competence of the government of the day. It seems clear that in 1979 a big reason why Mrs Thatcher’s Conservative Party were able to win, despite the relative unpopularity of Mrs Thatcher herself, was because James Callaghan’s Labour government had been discredited by their perceived incompetence in dealing with The Winter of Discontent in 1978, with many arguing that Callaghan would have won if he had called a snap election in the Autumn of 1978. Similarly, John Major’s government was discredited by Black Wednesday in 1992, when the UK crashed out of the ERM, damaging Major’s reputation and allowing Labour to maintain a double digit poll lead until their landslide election victory in 1997, under Tony Blair. Finally, it can be argued that Gordon Brown lost office largely due to the perception that he lost control of the public finances following the financial crisis in 2008. In all three cases, what mattered was the effect of short-term factors, which damaged the perception of the government, therefore these short-term factors are more important.

The perception of political parties can also matter, as voters adopt “long term views as to what they think a political party is like.” For example, after 18 years in office the Conservative Party were regarded as “the nasty party,” with voters remembering them as the party of the Poll Tax, the Miner’s Strike and “as the party of business and of the rich.” This perception can be very difficult to shake off as was seen in the 2001 general election, where the Labour Party produced a campaign poster with Mrs Thatcher’s hair on William Hague’s head, reminding voters that a vote for Hague’s Conservatives was a vote for a return to Thatcherism. Similarly, in 2005, the public perception of the then Conservative leader, Michael Howard, was shaped by a comment by Ann Widecombe that there was “something of the night about him.” Similarly, the Labour Party struggled to escape the perception that a vote for Labour would be a vote for a return to the policies advocated in Michael Foot’s 1983 manifesto, dubbed “the longest suicide note in history” by The Sun newspaper, until Blair was able to successfully re-brand the party as ‘New Labour’ following the rewording of ‘Clause 4’ of the Labour Party constitution in 1994. Again, this demonstrates that longer term factors are bubbling under the surface when voters go to the polls and shape the outcome of elections to a much greater degree than what is happening in the short term.

However, “the media is important and can frequently change its view from one election to another”. Although “newspapers are mostly partisan” in their coverage, papers will shift allegiance from one election to another and it is argued that this can significantly impact the outcome of elections. For example, The Sun newspaper continued to back John Major’s Conservative Party in 1992 despite the fact that Labour were ahead in the polls and were therefore expected to win. On the day of the election their headline read “If Kinnock Wins Today Will the Last Person in Britain Please Turn out the Lights?” with a picture of Neil Kinnock’s head in a light bulb. After a shock election victory for John Major, The Sun claimed “It’s The Sun Wot Won It.” Similarly, in 1997, The Sun switched its support to Tony Blair and in 2010 to David Cameron. There is significant debate about whether the paper influenced public opinion or whether they followed public opinion, but it would be surprising if their endorsement had no impact whatsoever on the outcome of the elections in question, suggesting short-term factors can have a significant impact. This is supported by the idea that “stories that occur during the final campaign that put party leaders in a bad light will have an effect.” An example of this is the ‘bigotgate’ disaster for Gordon Brown during the 2010 election, where he was recorded by a microphone, that he didn’t realise was switched on, calling the pension Gillian Duffy a ‘’bigoted women” after she has expressed concerns about immigration; an event that would have left a sour taste in the mouths of Labour’s traditional working class supporters.  Although seemingly trivial, in the age of social media and 24 hour news events like this dominate the news agenda and can have a significant effect on the campaign, reinforcing the view that short-term factors can have a significant impact.

Although long-term factors do matter, most of the critical election in the post-war period (1979, 1997, 2010) were heavily influenced by the competence of the government, caused by events that might be described as short-term factors. But these events shape a narrative that has a long-term impact on the perception of the party, which is what is really underlying the success or failure of parties at general elections.

To what extent do liberals support the principle of equality? (30)

Areas of agreement 

  • All liberals believe that human beings have equal rights by virtue of their shared rational capacity. This led Mary Wollstonecraft to argue for equal rights for women on premise that women were regarded as irrational creatures in her society due to the fact that they lacked a proper education. Mill makes a similar point in Subjugation of Women, arguing that a failure to give women equal rights was holding back one half of humanity, leading to a huge waste of human potential. Locke argues that we possess equal rights due to the fact that we possess these ‘natural rights’ in the state of nature. For example, we can justly acquire property by mixing our labour with land and can keep this land as long as we leave ‘as much and as good’ for other people. But, we need to state to protect our rights (life, liberty, property) in order that we can securely exercise them. 
  • All liberals believe that individuals ought to have equal opportunities irrespective of arbitrary characteristics, such as gender and ethnicity. This can be seen most prominently in the work of Betty Friedan, who argues that women ought to have equal opportunities in the workplace. It can also be seen in Rawls’ argument in his Theory of Justice, that we should think about what rules to apply to our society from behind a ‘veil of ignorance’, thereby forcing us to be difference blind and to guarantee a system of basic liberties for everyone. 

Areas of disagreement 

  • However, there is disagreement within liberalism about the implications of equality of opportunity. Classical liberals believe that a free-market economy guarantees equality of opportunity and that people ought to be rewarded differently for different levels of talent and ability, with those who work hard rising to the top of the social hierarchy in a survival of the fittest (Social Darwinism). They also see the resulting inequality as beneficial because it creates incentives that are needed for people to work hard and do well. What is earned is therefore a result of effort and is deserved. Taxation can therefore be seen as a form of theft (Nozick) as it robs the individual of what is legitimately theirs. By contrast, modern liberals argue that genuine equality of opportunity requires a level playing field that can only be provided by an enabling state providing welfare and education and engaging in a degree of redistributive taxation. Rawls’ argument is critical here as he argues that, from behind the veil of ignorance, we would chose a society whereby inequalities could only be justified if they benefited the least advantaged. Thus, modern liberals would argue that classical liberals are not committed to the principle of equality. 
  • The liberal commitment to equality has been challenged by socialists, who argue that their commitment to egalitarianism (equality) doesn’t go far enough because it fails to address the structural injustices generated by the capitalist system. They would see liberal attempts to promote meritocracy and equality of opportunity as failing to address the fundamental issue, which is deep rooted within the capitalist system. They therefore argue for equality of outcome rather than merely equality of opportunity and conclude that liberalisms commitment to equality is therefore, at best, limited. 

Conclusion

It’s clear that liberals are committed to equality of rights and equality of opportunity, but there is disagreement between liberals about what this commitment means, with modern liberals arguing that classical liberals do not go far enough in their commitment to bringing about a meritocratic society. However, the liberal commitment to equality is limited, which leads socialists to conclude that their commitment to egalitarianism is limited. It therefore seems reasonable to conclude that whilst equality is an important principle for liberals it is not central to the ideology as it is for socialists. 

Essay plan: To what extent do liberals agree about the economy? (30)

Areas of agreement

  • In stark contrast with socialists, who advocate common ownership, liberals all support a capitalist system supported by a system of laws, which sets up and defends property rights. Locke argued that property rights were natural rights that we possess in the state of nature, but which need to be protected by the establishment of the state
  • Hayek and Smith argue that capitalism should be defended as the most efficient economic system, distributing goods, services and resources to where they are needed through the price mechanism. Capitalism creates incentives for people to work hard and do well and for firms to take risks by innovating and investing to get a return. By contrast, state planning doesn’t work because the world is too complex for governments to successfully plan, whereas the free market does the job automatically through the ‘invisible hand’ (Smith).
  • Liberals all argue that capitalism, individualism and freedom are intimately linked. Capitalism, and a system of stable property rights, fosters consumer choice within a free market and therefore maximises individual freedom. All liberals argue that individuals make better choices about their own lives that the state would on their behalf and so argue for a minimal role for the state in the economy.
  • All liberals believe in meritocracy. In contrast to traditional conservatives (who advocate a rigid hierarchy) and fundamentalist socialists (who advocate equality of outcome), liberals argue that individuals ought to be able to rise and fall in the social hierarchy according to their talent and ability and that justice is done when people receive what they are due by virtue of this effort.

Areas of disagreement

  • Whereas modern liberals (e.g. Rawls) argue for a large enabling state to create equality of opportunity and to foster positive freedom, classical and neo-classical liberals (e.g. Locke, Mill) argue for a minimal state as the state is seen by them as a necessary evil. For them, a large state would be a threat to our freedom as the state is a source of constraint. These differing views of the state will lead to radical disagreement about the economy, with modern liberals comfortable with a large public sector operating within a capitalist system, whereas classical and neo-classical liberals advocate a laissez-faire economy.
  • Liberals also disagree about the extent to which the government ought to intervene in the economy to level out the business cycle. Modern liberals support a Keynesian approach to economic crisis, with the government expanding demand during a recession in order to stimulate the economy. This is necessary, they argue, in order to replace demand from consumers and firms. Neo-classical liberals (e.g. Hayek) argue that this approach may actually make the problem worse. Intervention in the economy during a recession will stimulate an economic bubble which will eventually burst and is unnecessary as the market will automatically adjust if politicians leave things alone. Government intervention in the economy also risks individual freedom as the government encroaches into more and more areas of our lives – Hayek called this ‘The Road to Serfdom’.
  • Liberals disagree about what is required for there to be genuine equality of opportunity. For classical liberals it is enough for the state to simply get out of the way. This allows for the sort of individual self-striving advocated by thinkers such as Samuel Smiles. Thinkers like Herbert Spencer argued that society operates in accordance with Social Darwinism. Those with talent and ability rise to the top, those without fall to the bottom – and this is how it ought to be. As William Summer argues, ‘the drunkard in the gutter is where he ought to be.’ By contrast, modern liberals (e.g. Rawls) argue that society ought to be set up so that inequalities are only justified if they benefit the least advantaged. He justifies this by arguing that this is what we’d agree to from behind a ‘veil of ignorance’. A hypothetical position in which we don’t know which position in society we will occupy – forcing us to think about the least advantaged amongst us.

Conclusion:

In contrast to other ideologies, there is a distinctive liberal view on the economy. They advocate a capitalist system with a state that enforces property rights. However, there is a huge disagreement about the role of the state in the economy, with modern liberals advocating a large ‘enabling’ state and classical liberals advocating a minimal night-watchman state. So, whilst they will defend capitalism against socialist critics and against conservatives who advocate rigid hierarchies, they will disagree with each other about how the role of the state within a capitalist economy.

Evaluate the claim that the UK should increase its use of referendums (30)

I put together this model answer using the following source:

Whilst referendums can provide a mandate for constitutional change, helping to entrench and legitimise major changes, this essay will argue that referendums should not be more widely used as they undermine the sovereignty of parliament and simplify complex issues.

The source suggest that the use of referendums could “erode the sovereignty of parliament.” As the UK is a representative democracy we “elect representatives to make decisions on our behalf” and, as such, referendums are theoretically advisory in the UK as parliament is the supreme law making body and so only parliament can legislate to enact the outcome of a referendum. If the outcome of a referendum conflicts with the will of parliament this threatens to undermine the sovereignty of parliament by substituting the will of the people for the reasoned view of parliament. The current parliamentary gridlock over the passage of the Withdrawal Agreement is a symptom of this conflict. Whilst parliament voted overwhelmingly to trigger Article 50 there is no majority for any deal as many MPs have the view that that any deal agreed will be worse for the UK than the deal we currently have as members of the EU. If parliament were truly sovereign MPs would not feel bound as mere delegates, but would feel free to exercise their own judgement, even if this conflicted with the outcome of the referendum. Except in rare cases (e.g. Ken Clarke) this is not what is occurring, suggesting that referendums do undermine the sovereignty of parliament and should therefore be used less or not at all.

However, it could be argued that, far from undermining parliamentary sovereignty, referendums “complement parliamentary democracy,” providing a “strong popular mandate” and preventing “governments from making deeply unpopular decisions”. Again, this can be seen in the case of the EU referendum, where the government’s failure to deliver Brexit was punished in the European elections with the Brexit Party topping the poll by winning 31.6% of the vote. Arguably, the referendum result sent a clear signal to politicians that their failure to deliver on the outcome off the referendum would be punished at the next election, putting pressure on politicians to enact the clearly expressed will of the people. This is what referendums are supposed to do and it can be argued that it isn’t the referendum, as such, that is undermining parliament but the inability of our political class to deliver on the outcome. The referendum of 1974 settled our relationship with Europe for a generation, helping to “entrench” the change and “safeguard [the outcome] against repeal”. It can be argued that referendums play a vital role in our constitution; providing a mandate for major change and settling controversial issues. Referendums should therefore be used more, not less.

However, many would argue that the referendum result doesn’t represent the settled view of the people but is, rather, a “snapshot of the public’s opinion at one point in time”. Whilst many argue that the electorate may have changed their minds, suggesting there is a case for a second referendum, others would argue that the volatility of public opinion is a good reason to leave important decisions to our elected representatives, which will be able to reach a mature and considered view. In any case, the EU referendum is a rare example of politicians offering a referendum in a situation where they think they might lose. As the government controls “the actual wording and language used in the question… [and] the timing of the vote” governments tend to only offer referendums on issues where they think they can win. The AV referendum on 2011 was a good example of this, because, despite the apparent appetite for constitutional change in light of the expenses scandal of 2009, AV didn’t represent a stark change from the status quo and so it always seemed unlikely the public would not vote for this change. In most cases, therefore, referendums can be seen as rubber stamping exercises, applying a democratic fig leaf to decisions the government have already taken. Therefore, referendums should be used less often or not at all.

However, the capacity for referendums to “engage the electorate in live political debates” is an important argument to consider. A referendum campaign creates a space for an open public debate, where voters become better informed about the issues giving an opportunity for people to actively engage in the political process. The liberal thinker, John Stuart Mill argued that open public debate serves an important educative function, enabling people to become better citizens. For example, in the Scottish Independence Referendum of 2014 turnout was 84.59%, reflecting the high degree of political engagement amongst the people of Scotland, who became better informed as a result. This high level of engagement helped to “provide a strong mandate” on Scotland’s future in the union and should settle the question for the foreseeable future. Clearly, referendums can be very beneficial, suggesting that their greater use might improve democracy in the UK.

As our political class are “better informed than the general public” this suggests that the public might make a poor decision as they are ill-informed and are “too easily swayed by the media”. This can be seen in the EU referendum, where the leave campaign was supported by a majority of tabloid newspapers, many of which had criticised the EU for years on their front pages. A prominent example of this was the Daily Mail, which campaigned strongly for a leave vote whilst Paul Dacre was the editor, leading 66% of Mail readers to vote to leave compared to only 9% of Guardian readers. The claim that £350 million could be reclaimed from the EU to be spent on the NHS gained widespread traction during the campaign even though the claim was demonstrated to be false by fact-checking websites like FullFact.org. This suggests that the public can’t be trusted to reach a conclusion on an issue of this magnitude, especially when referendums have a tendency to “trivialise complex issues by oversimplifying them into a ‘yes’/’no’ vote’. Since the referendum it is clear that voters, politicians and pundits didn’t fully appreciate the trade-offs involved in leaving the EU and the difficulties that would be created by the Irish border. Complex decisions should be left to politicians, who have time to consider the issue in depth. Therefore, referendums should be used less.

However, although parliament is “given a popular mandate through regular free and fair elections,” it is clear that “parliament is not yet socially representative” of the rest of society, which undermines the view that parliament ought to make decisions on our behalf. Although parliament is becoming more representative, only 8% of MPs elected in 2017 were from BME backgrounds, only 32% were women and 29% went to private school. This poor descriptive representation undermines the legitimacy of parliament as it can’t claim to be “the microcosm that it should (and could) be”. If we really want to know what the public think, we should therefore follow the well-trodden path of our European neighbours and use referendums more often. After all, they “play an integral role in the democratic systems of several European countries including Switzerland, Italy and Belgium”.

It seems clear from the discussion that there is nothing inherently wrong-headed about the use of referendums, but the issue is more complex than whether we should be using them more or less. Clearly, there is a case for using them to legitimise major constitutional change, but they can cause more problems than they solve and so should be used with caution.

Essay plan: Evaluate the extent to which minor political parties in the UK have increased their influence on the established political parties. (30)

Arguments in favour of minor parties increasing their influence on established parties

  • Minor parties can win influence by winning elections and by securing representation and power in devolved bodies and in the European Parliament.
    • The Brexit Party won the 2019 European Election. This has put pressure on the Conservative Party to elect a candidate for the leadership (e.g. Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab) who is a leaver and who will put a ‘no deal’ Brexit on the table as the Conservatives are worried they’ll lose votes and seats to the Brexit Party at the next election if they don’t shift their position on Europe.
    • The SNP won a majority in the 2011 Scottish Parliamentary Election & then went on the secure the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum & won all but 2 Scottish seats in the 2015 General Election. This was partly responsible for the devolution of further power to Scotland in the Scotland Act 2016.
  • They can gain influence as a significant 3rd party in coalition or by supporting a minority government
    • The DUP have significant influence over the government’s Brexit policy, as, without DUP votes they would lose a confidence motion in parliament. The DUP have also managed to extract £1 billion extra of Northern Ireland from the British government.
    • The Lib Dems entering coalition with the Conservatives in 2010 and acting as a ‘moderating’ influence (e.g. pupil premiums, increasing the personal allowance).
    • A future Labour government is likely to have to rely on smaller parties to govern. Will the SNP ask for a 2nd independence referendum in return for support? Will the Lib Dems enter into coalition again?
  • They can gain influence by increasing their public support as evidenced by opinion polls and party membership.
    • UKIP experienced a significant increase in support in the run up to David Cameron’s decision to announce an in/out referendum on leaving the EU in January 2013. In fact, on the day of David Cameron’s announcement, UKIP were on 23% in one Survation poll. This put pressue on Cameron to announce a referendum as he was worried the party would lose votes to UKIP at the general election in 2015.
    • You can also talk about the Brexit Party’s polling here (see above).
    • You could argue that the Green Party have gained influence as a result of an increase in public support around environmental issues, largely driven by pressure group activity (e.g. Extinction Rebellion)

Evaluation of the claim that minor parties have increased their influence on established parties

  • FPTP limits their influence in the General Election
    • UKIP were prevented from breaking through in 2015 (3.9 million votes = 1 seat) & the SNP’s strong showing in 2015 has left them as a strong opposition party, but they remain a minor party.
    • Minor parties are described as minor for a reason. Only Labour and the Conservatives have won an election outright since the decline of the Liberal Party as a party of government in the inter-war years. This trend is not likely to change.
  • They can gain influence by propping up a minority government or by entering into coalition, but this relies on FPTP failing to deliver a majority government and this is usually rare in the UK system (the only examples are 1974, 2010 and 2017 since the war).
  • Polling can influence political parties, but many see it is a background noise that isn’t useful at predicting the outcome of election, diminishing its influence. ‘Cleggmania’ in 2010 didn’t lead to a significant increase in support for the Liberal Democrats and voters tend to revert to voting for major parties under FPTP at general elections, as FPTP promotes tactical voting. Therefore, polling doesn’t significantly influence major parties.

Conclusion:

There does seem to be evidence of increased support for the argument that minor political parties have increased their influence in recent years, with the Liberal Democrats and the DUP exerting significant influence as part of a coalition or ‘supply and confidence’ agreement. However, this is likely to be a short term phenomena. Post-war history suggests that major parties are predominant in the UK political system as they alone can win an election outright, leading to elective dictatorship.

A short assembly on democracy

Democracy means ‘rule by the people’. In its purest form this means that all of the people would have the right to speak and vote on every issue that comes before the political community. The closest any society has come to living up to this ideal of democracy was Ancient Athens in the 6th century BC. This brief experiment with democracy involved all male adult citizens meeting and voting on every issue that came before the polis, with the government being selected by randomly drawing lots.  

But even this classical ideal of democracy is tainted by closer inspection. Of the 300,000 people living in Athens at the time only 30,000 were full citizens. Women were totally excluded from the political sphere and male citizens were free to participate in public life because their lifestyle was supported by a large population of slaves. Both Plato and Aristotle were deeply sceptical of the dangers of this pure form of democracy, warning that pure democracies are particularly prone to decay into tyrannies as the masses are too easily swayed by populist demagogues. A related danger is illuminated by the trial of Socrates, who was put on trial by the Athenian polis for corrupting the youth of Athens and was sentenced to kill himself by drinking hemlock. A death that echoes through the ages, reminding us of the danger of pure democracy. Majorities can and do make mistakes and the rule of the many can lead to its own form of tyranny. 

Aristotle wouldn’t have described the political system we have today as a democracy, because it represents a compromise between popular consent and the rule of an elite. In the UK, we elect a parliament to speak and vote on our behalf, with whichever party can command a majority in the House of Commons forming a government in order to implement its policies. This ensures that there is always a filter between the will of the people and the laws that are made. When seen in this light, referendums always pose the risk of creating a conflict between a purer ideal of democracy – embodied in the will of the people – and the rule of competing elites in parliament. It is this conflict between competing conceptions of democracy that is at the heart of our current misgivings about democracy and it is also the reason why the language of ‘betrayal’ has gained currency, with many people feeling that their voices have not been listened to by those elected to represent us in parliament. 

Democracy has always been a radical idea. The idea that consent is the only legitimate justification for political authority challenged the absolute rule of monarchs in the 17th and 18th centuries and led to the emergence of popular movements for the extension of the franchise in the 19th and 20th centuries. In Britain, this struggle was initially led by the Chartists, who gathered 200 years ago in St Peter’s Field in Manchester at an event that is now described as the Peterloo Massacre, because, what began as a peaceful gathering of people demanding the right to vote ended with a cavalry charge that killed 15 people and injured hundreds more. In a climate in which the ideal of democracy is being challenged we must remember that our right to vote was not given freely, it emerged out of a popular struggle that goes at least as far back as the levellers in the middle of the 17th century. 

It is for this reason that we must defend the ideal of democracy, whilst recognising that it is imperfect. The chief virtue of representative democracy is that it allows us to exercise our right to hold governments to account. At least every five years we have the opportunity to remove and replace a government from office, secure in the knowledge that the outcome of the election will be respected and will lead to the rapid and peaceful transfer of power. As Tony Benn said of democracy, when democracy works well it results in a situation where “there are no permanent winners and no permanent losers.” Even when we don’t get the outcome we wanted we can continue to argue, debate and protest. And we can replace the government in five years’ time.  

We should remind ourselves this morning that voting is a duty that comes with being a citizen in a democracy, but, democracy doesn’t begin or end with placing an X in a box on election day. Although the classical ideal of democracy is flawed, the Ancient Greeks understood that politics ought to be something we involve ourselves in on a daily basis. Being a good citizen requires us to take an interest in the world around us, to speak truth to power, to protest, to get involved – in short – to actively engage in politics. There has rarely been a more important time to take this advice on board, so I hope that you do so.