IN THE ATHENS of the sixth century BC, most of those entitled to vote were people of high intellectual status. They were mostly well educated and understood what responsibility towards those people who relied on them meant. They were in the main already rich and not as open to corruption as the relatively poor artisan, small businessman, lawyer or teacher, especially when proven guilt on such a charge meant, at best, confiscation of estates and exile or, at worst, public execution.
British politics at the time of the change to universal suffrage was very clearly delineated. On the right stood the landowning classes with their close ties to the professions and the wealthy, who were rightly fearful of the revolutionary tendencies of left wing firebrands. The Russian revolution was brewing and the shadow of the French Revolution still haunted the folk memories of the British aristocracy to a far greater extent than it does today. Wishy-washy liberals held the centre ground and the left was the domain (mostly) of armchair ‘champagne’ socialists, whose championing of the cause of the oppressed, working class had very little in common with the lives they lived in reality.
What has changed?
• All social status-defining qualifications for candidature have been abolished.
• Women can now vote and stand for Parliament without let or hindrance.
• Financial restraints have been minimised – the size of a candidate’s deposit was reduced post WW2 and has never been reviewed since.
• A more than fair salary for MPs has been introduced
• Secrecy at the ballot box is strictly enforced (most of the time).
• Postal voting has now been liberalised to the point of enabling corrupt practice by ruthless campaigners.
• Devolution has occurred, with more powers being given to the constituent elements of the UK – except for England.
• The voting age has been dropped from 21 to 18, with 16 being actively pursued by unscrupulous demagogues, intent on increasing their popular share of the vote amongst the politically inexperienced and woefully ignorant.
The big ‘buts’ that have not been addressed and which deny any possibility of true democracy still remain:
• Selection of party candidates is left mainly to unelected, peer groups that do not answer to the general public. The general public have no right of access to their decision-making or to question their choice.
• Political parties can and do foist candidates on local party organisations.
• Party funding is wide open to corruption.
• There is no legal requirement for any examination of a candidate’s qualification to represent any party. The room for cronyism and corruption is enormous.
• Constituency boundaries are long overdue for revision to ensure fair representation.
• The size and make-up of the Upper House remains problematical.
• Parliamentary lobbying on behalf of wealthy vested interests is out of control.
Until these hurdles are cleared there can be no question of ever achieving true democracy. The Athenians accepted that the people they deemed worthy to vote came from a relatively small pool of people they all knew (and for the most part respected). Most of them ran successful estates and were prepared to fight for their state and in most cases had already done so with distinction. Even in so small a body politic corruption crept in and men of real leadership quality had to be drafted in to manage affairs when the talking had to stop. There were some things that even the Athenians had to recognise democracy was useless for – principally war.