First we must define what Liberal Democracy actually is. From the Oxford companion to politics Liberal Democracy is described as "A system of rule embracing elected officers who undertake to represent the interests or views of citizens within the framework of the rule of law. Representative democracy means that decisions affecting a community are taken not by its members as a whole but by a group of people whom 'the people' have elected for this purpose.
In the arena of national politics, representative democracy takes the form of elections to congresses, parliaments etc … ," (Democracy, The Oxford Companion to Politics). Basically what is being said here is that "Decisions are made after consultation with the group," (Leadership Styles, Between Ourselves). On a larger scale, that the citizens construct a large part of the goings-on in government. A Liberal Democracy has a number of features.
There should be free, regular and competitive elections of representatives at all levels, in order to provide for accountability of the governors to the governed. There should be acceptance of the legitimacy of government, and respect for the rights of individuals and of minorities, often codified in a formal bill of rights. There should be opportunities for public participation in politics, and particularly through a broad range of pressure groups – this is called pluralism, a system in which all interests are represented and have access to government.
There should be guards against governmental tyranny, "usually expressed in terms of a separation of government powers" (John Locke, The Evolution of Democratic Theory), with each branch (legislature, executive, and judiciary) checking and balancing the others. There must be respect for the rule of law, with all citizens entitled to expect fair and equal treatment before the law, and with government not being above the law. The UK is often cited as an example of a liberal democracy, and in many respects it is just that.
Nevertheless, we do not have a written constitution, and neither do we have a formal bill of rights. Parliament can effectively make any law granting, reducing or removing rights, and there is no system of judicial review whereby the courts can declare its Acts unconstitutional. Our electoral system does not ensure fair representation of all interests in the House of Commons; because of the strength of our party system, it generally manufactures majorities for one party in the Commons, which means that the executive branch dominates the legislative branch – there is no separation of powers between the two in the UK.
The Lords is not accountable to anyone because it is wholly unelected. There is now devolution in the UK, adding to democracy at local and regional levels, but the powers of regional assembles and local government are entirely determined by Westminster, and can be readily altered, even to the point of abolishing authorities. Our democracy is not especially pluralistic – in particular, powerful and well-resourced 'insider' groups have far more access to decision-makers (and thus influence) than those which are not. Features of Liberal-Democratic Government 1.
1 Any interference with the freedom of the individual to live as he or she chooses requires to be justified, if it can be, by reference to a system of values drawn from that primary recognition of individual freedom. 1. 2 Individuals and groups have the capacity, by their actions, to take away the liberty of others. Therefore there has to be a system of law and institutions which protect individual freedom. Anarchy cannot protect freedom. Democracy is the best known means of achieving that protection through collective institutions, but if it produces simply the tyranny of the majority it is not Liberal Democracy.
1. 3 Constitutional protection of minority rights and barriers to the oppressive use of majority power are essential elements of Liberal Democracy, which is the antithesis of the socialist concept of democratic centralism. In many cases the lowest possible level for a decision is the level of the individual, and what is sought is to keep decision-making at that level if possible. Where that is not possible, if a decision can be taken at the level of a small local community, it should be taken there, rather than at national or supra-national level.
1.4 Equally; because some decisions have to be taken at the national, European or global level in order to be effective – for example in safeguarding peace, assuring human rights or protecting the environment – there need to be democratic institutions capable of taking decisions at that level. 1. 5 The freedom of the individual is, however, limited or non-existent if he or she is prevented by economic deprivation, lack of education, disadvantage or discrimination from exercising choices about how to live or from participating in the democratic process.
It is part of a liberal society that institutions, whether state, voluntary, co-operative or private should have the capacity to meet these needs while being themselves governed by rules which prevent them from becoming oppressive. 1. 6 Principles of freedom of access are central to the economic as well as the political sphere; free markets are a part of liberalism because they represent the extension of the concept of freedom into trade.
They are also, in many proven respects, effective, but freedom in the market place is neither automatically self-sustained nor sufficient to provide for all those things which a liberal society should have: institutions are required which keep markets free and prevent monopoly. Other mechanisms are needed to ensure that individuals have access to the things which markets are unable to provide. 1. 7 Freedoms of present and future generations will be destroyed if we destroy or seriously damage key elements of our environment: sustainability is a freedom issue.
Without sustainability we deny choice to future generations. Without respect for the environment we damage freedom today with problems such as flooding, or threats to health and livelihoods from pollution or food crises. 1. 8 Human rights are universal: the autonomy of the nation state does not take precedence over the human rights of its citizens therefore there are circumstances in which the international community can be justified in intervening, for example, to prevent genocide or to prevent the overthrow of democratic government by violent means.
1. 9 Liberalism is not confined to a system for prevention of the abuse of power or the destruction of individual freedom, and those who believe in it seek not only the establishment and maintenance of that system but also a better society, in which a high quality of life is available and people recognise their responsibilities towards one another – a good society. A concern about the danger of accumulated power does not require a narrow, pessimistic or minimalist view of society.
Creating a society which is liberal is part of the contest of ideas within society: liberal democracy is a system which allows people to live together in freedom and peace whether or not they share the same ideas. 1. 10 Social and economic inequalities are a key issue in debates on political principles. When equality is pursued as a goal, it also tends to lead to the belief that the central state has the power to achieve it and must be trusted to do so, whatever the cost in liberty.
Many of the most repressive regimes of the twentieth century amassed state power claiming that it was necessary to promote equality. 1. 11 Rights and freedoms conflict with each other. The right to free speech can conflict with the right of minorities or even majorities not to be the subject of campaigns to stir up hatred. Religious freedom can be in conflict with a desire to protect young people from oppressive pressures to conform to particular life styles, whether by extreme cults or by traditions such as arranged marriages if they become forced marriages.
Taxation restricts the rights of those who believe that they should not be paying towards things to which they are deeply morally opposed, such as military expenditure or abortion. 1. 12 Liberalism as a philosophy provides no automatic answer to these conflicts of rights: indeed, its belief in democratic and constitutional procedures recognises their existence and provides mechanisms for their resolution. What it insists upon is the recognition that such issues have to be examined in terms of rights, and resolved by balancing rights, not by merely asserting preferences or prejudices.