[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Thursday, 8 May 2003, 11:47 GMT 12:47 UK
Political participation and democracy

Unit 1: People and Politics
by Hugh Berrington
The Professor Emeritus at the School of Geography, Politics and Sociology at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne writes for BBC Parliament

G8 leaders
Where does the G8 leaders' power come from?
Power is the capacity to achieve desired results. Its sources are numerous and diverse.

Although physical coercion plays an important part in the exercise of power, the possession of power goes beyond the use or threat of physical force.

'Power' said Mao Tse Tung, 'grows out of the barrel of a gun'. But power may accrue to a leader because of his personal gifts - charisma or competence.

People may do his bidding because of his skills in persuasion, his oratory, his past success.

Unit 1: People and Politics
Power in society which relies wholly on armed force is inherently unstable. A leader who rules by an army alone invites others to collect a bigger army, and try to overthrow him.

To provide any stability, power has to be institutionalised. We come to obey leaders not simply because they are stronger than we are, but because their right to rule is widely recognised.

So, for instance, in some societies, at some times, a hereditary monarch has been seen as having the right to exercise power.

A king such as Henry VIII was accepted as the legitimate King. Legitimate means more than being in accordance with the laws of the country. To say a ruler is legitimate is to say that he has a recognised right to rule.

There are few hereditary monarchs exercising real power left in the world. In Western countries, even where the form of monarchy survives, as in Britain and the Netherlands, political power is exercised by others.

What usually confers the right to rule in such countries is election by the people.

Citizens elect their leaders, usually through the agency of a political party, and these leaders hold power for a limited period, before a further election is held to determine whether or not they should continue in office.

In such states, the governors are accountable at periodic elections, to the governed.

Democracy literally means 'rule by the people' - in practice not by the whole people (for unanimity is rare) but by a majority of the people.

But democracy, as understood in Western states, means much more than majority rule.

Democracy tempers the notion of majority rule with the idea of individual freedom; in particular, democracies seek to protect their citizens from the misuse of power by the governors.

A government, representing a majority, could rule arbitrarily and tyrannically, unless there were constraints on government.

A democratic constitution confers the right (and some would say the obligation) on citizens to participate in the nation's affairs - through voting, through membership of political parties, through membership of pressure groups such as trades unions, through meetings and demonstrations etc.

Broadly speaking, the more such activity is diffused amongst citizens, the more democratic rule and the rights of the individual will be safeguarded.

The phrase, 'broadly speaking', is used because there can be circumstances in which active participation is not congenial to stable democracy.

Thus, if all citizens are highly active, governments may have little leeway to act in the face of unexpected events.

Moreover, the experience of some countries suggests that participation is greatest when the animosities of different groups of citizens are at their most acute.

Thus the rise of the Nazis in Germany from 1929 to 1933 was accompanied by a heavy increase in the number voting.

Some participated with the aim of destroying democracy. Commentators deplored the sharp fall in turnout in Britain in the 2001 election, but it is notable that one region - Northern Ireland - actually saw a rise in turnout, and with it increased polarisation.

Direct and indirect democracy

Democracies are sometimes divided into Direct and Indirect. In Direct democracies, the whole citizen body is entitled to make laws; in Indirect, or Representative democracy, citizens elect representatives to make laws on their behalf.

Obvious difficulties arise in attempting to give direct power to the whole citizen body.

How for instance can all the citizens of an industrial democracy be assembled to hear the arguments for and against different poicies and to vote on them?

Speedy decision-taking becomes difficult, to say the least. For such reasons the referendum, where employed, tends to be limited to major decisions such as changes to the Constitution, or the adoption of a new Constitution.

Note, though, that some countries such as Switzerland, and some American states, use the referendum quite extensively despite the possible drawbacks.

Moreover, some would argue that modern technology makes feasible a much wider use of the referendum.

The pros and cons of a proposal can be put to the people on television and it would be possible for citizens to vote by pressing a button on their TV.

Prof Hugh Berrington 2004
School of Geography, Politics and Sociology
University of Newcastle upon Tyne


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific