In this week’s British Values blog, we will answer the question: ‘What is democracy?’

Where does it come from?

The word democracy comes from the Greek demos meaning ‘common people’, and kratos meaning ‘power’. This is reflected in the system, where the voice of every person can affect decisions.

Although the Greeks were likely not the first to have democratic societies, they named the system, so they’re often recognised as having the first democracy in the fifth century AD.

Why have a democracy?

The defining feature of democracy is the principle that every person has the opportunity to influence changes in their society to some degree. In very small societies this may be achievable directly, where individuals might have a say in how things are run but, in reality, not everybody can be heard at once – it just isn’t practical. Instead, for a long time, we have relied upon representatives to speak for us.

There are other systems of rule, in which one individual, or a small group of people, rule over the rest of society. Democracy stands out from these, as it allows citizens to retain some control over the decisions made for them. Most modern democratic systems also limit how long any particular person can rule for, or will dictate that elections must be held at set intervals, to prevent one person or group from taking complete control. In a democracy there are often other laws or conventions that limit the powers of any one individual or group and the ‘rule of law’ applies, meaning that even politicians and the government have to follow the law and can be prosecuted if they break it.

Who decides?

Over time and in different societies, representatives are chosen in different ways. Most commonly, people vote for others with similar views and beliefs to represent them in a group who make the final decisions. In the UK, we have local councils and the House of Commons in Parliament, which consist of elected representatives who meet to make decisions on behalf of the public. Other democratic countries have similar groups of representatives.

It is important to note that not everybody can vote for a representative. In modern times, voters are typically adults (over 16 or 18 years, depending on the country), and there are no restrictions on race or gender. This has not always been the case. In the UK, women did not gain the vote until 1918. Even then, only women over 30 could vote, and it was not until 1928 that the age was lowered to 21, in line with the voting age for men. In another of the world’s largest democracies, the USA, African American men were granted the right to vote in 1869, but African American women were not granted the right to vote until the Nineteenth Amendment was passed in 1920.

In the UK, any British of Irish citizen over 18 years old can vote for an elected representative. There are restrictions however; members of the House of Lords and convicted prisoners cannot vote. Although the Royal family can legally vote in elections, they are expected to remain neutral, and do not vote by convention. The reigning monarch does have a special role to play in choosing the Prime Minister, who will lead the government.

In the next British Values blog post, we will explore British Democracy further – looking at how it works and how it affects you.