This year marks the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta and no doubt ensuing commemorations will celebrate all that is great and good about British democracy. The charter was issued in 1215 by King John to make peace with rebel barons in a move that has gone down in history as the first definite step to the protection of individual British freedoms. With such an anniversary in mind, it is time to analyse just how democratic our society really is.
The anniversary of the Magna Carta will fall this June, just one month after this year’s general election. It will celebrate Britain’s standing as the world’s first democratic society in any modern sense of the term and it is something we are rightly proud of. Nevertheless, it coincides with an election that is not only too close to call but one that is shrouded in doubt and an overriding lack of faith in the political system. The irony is there for all to see: we are set to celebrate the founding of British democracy at a time when there is astonishingly little faith in that very system.
We are extremely quick off the mark to criticise the political systems of other nations or cultures, safe in the assumed fairness of our own. The countless wars and diplomatic incidents over recent years have been built on the notion that our own cause is just and that spreading ‘western values’ benefits all. Yet, Britain is a constitutional monarchy with an unelected upper house and preselected candidates in a large number of Commons seats. The political landscape has rarely looked this fragile. The rise of UKIP, the Green Party and the SNP in Scotland are concrete examples of the widespread rejection of the mainstream. The reality is a simple one: Britain is a long way away from the beacon of democratic stability that the establishment would have us believe.
Blind faith in trickle-down economics has led Britain to become an effective tax haven for the super-rich, creating a top-heavy society more concerned with lining the pension pots of the already-wealthy and ignoring the unemployed youth that will build this country’s future. This is not necessarily an attack on pensioners but something is not right when those who have worked and earned a wage for decades are supported at every available turn while the young, who are expected to earn for this country in years to come, receive next to nothing. The reason is blatant cynicism: politicians know how important it is to keep pensioners happy. They vote and, in an electoral sense at least, they stick to the status quo. The same cannot be said of the young.
The House of Lords is not only unelected, 92 of the 760 peers are hereditary. They vote on public policy with only their name and family history on their CV and it’s utterly unbelievable that this practice still goes on in 2015. At every available turn, the establishment looks to tighten its grip. The reaction to the Paris terror attacks, although initially an impassioned defence of free speech, quickly changed to calls for a clamp down on personal freedoms to fight terrorism. Last week, Lord Chilcot announced that the results of his inquiry into the Iraq War would not be released until after the general election. The transparency of this announcement is frightening: those implicated in any wrongdoing will be protected from public scrutiny until after the electorate’s best opportunity to voice its anger. The system protects the super-rich, the powerful and the politically aware middle-class while those at the bottom trying to make a living are left to scrap it out or risk getting sucked into the newly labelled political underclass.
We are right to be proud of the Magna Carta just as we should be proud of being the first recognisably modern democracy but the self-applause must stop there. British society is riddled with disillusionment, injustice and contradiction. This year, you will see the words ‘world’s oldest democracy’ time and time again in blatant and misplaced self-congratulation. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if a new people’s charter was written to commemorate the 800th anniversary, one that reformed the House of Lords and emphasised tomorrow rather than today? On this final point, unlikely doesn’t quite cut it.