John Keane’s book contains a wealth of interesting information on the past, writes Robert Rowthorne but it is of scant use to those seeking enlightenment about the future

The subject matter of this long book is the history and future of democracy. Despite the word “death” in its title, the author is an optimist. Democracy may be changing but it is not in its death throes.

This is a timely book. Democracy in Europe may be flagging, but on a global scale it is on the march. The recent election in the United States has revitalised American politics and the new president is seeking to unify a divided nation. In India, over 400 million people recently voted in an election which returned the reformist Manmohan Singh as prime minister for a second term. In the Middle East, there have been peaceful elections in Iraq, Kuwait and the Lebanon. In a good omen for future stability of Iraq, the party of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki performed well in the provincial elections, suggesting that he may win a second term in next year’s national elections. In Iran, the huge turn-out in the recent election indicated the degree of popular enthusiasm for democracy, but the outcome has been marred by fraud and violent repression on the streets. Despite this and other setbacks, 2009 has in general been a good year for democracy.

This book identifies three main types of democracy: “assembly democracy”, “representative democracy” and “monitory democracy”.

Assembly democracy is self-government in polities where the number of those entitled to participate is small enough for them to assemble in one place and decide collectively. Western scholars have traditionally associated this type of democracy with classical Greece, above all Athens. John Keane takes issue with this “western dogma” claiming that the Greeks got the idea of democracy from Syria-Mesopotamia, where “robust” city assemblies limited the power of local kings. He repeats this claim on many occasions, although he provides little concrete evidence to support his case. He may be right, but repetition is no substitute for proof.

Next in chronological order comes representative democracy. Under this system, decisions are not taken directly by citizen assemblies but by a smaller group of representatives. This may be because the number of citizens is too large or because they are too scattered to participate individually in decision-making. Or perhaps they lack the specialist knowledge or inclination. Keane traces representative democracy back to 1188, when the Spanish King Alfonso IX convened a parliament (cortes)of delegates from the nobility, Church and towns. His aim was to raise taxes to finance an army strong enough to resist further encroachment by Muslim invaders and eventually drive them out of Spain altogether. In describing this event, Keane states that with “just a touch of exaggeration, it could even be said that Muslims were responsible for parliaments, inasmuch as they were spawned by power struggles among Christians bent on the military conquest of the lands of Islam”. By such bizarre logic it could be said that Japan was responsible for the invention of the atom bomb because it was developed by the United States to drop on Japanese cities.

Keane devotes about half of his book to the history of representative democracy, with extensive coverage of Europe, the United States, Latin America and India, plus a certain amount on other places, such as Australia and New Zealand. These chapters provide a wealth of fascinating information about the triumphs and failures of representative democracy, and about the kind of people whose efforts gave rise to this system of government.

The chapter on India is especially interesting for a western reader. As Keane points out, India is a gigantic country, with an extremely diverse population, speaking many different languages, many of them desperately poor, many of them rural, many of them illiterate and scattered over a wide geographical area. Indian democracy may have its defects, but the wonder is that it works at all. It has none of the conditions that have traditionally been seen as pre-requisites for democracy, such as cultural homogeneity, a common language, education, or urbanisation. Curiously, Indian democracy attracts little attention in the West, even in Britain with its large minority of Indian extraction and its historical ties to India. There is more interest in Chinese democracy, or rather the lack of it. Perhaps this is in the belief that China will one day become the world’s only true superpower and “rule the world”, in the words of a recent book by Martin Jacques. This belief is mistaken. India will soon have a larger and much younger population than China, and within a few decades is likely to become a military and economic superpower on a par with China. For this reason alone, the future of democracy in India is of global importance.

The final section of the book is entitled “Monitory Democracy”. This a rag-bag which inexplicably includes a chapter on representative democracy in India, which should properly be in the preceding section, together with other chapters on the future and benefits of democracy.

The term “monitory democracy” is catch-all that covers a vast range of non-parliamentary institutions which investigate, propagandise and hold governments to account, or enjoy decision-making powers of their own. These include in no particular order of importance: think-tanks, environmental groups, human rights organisations, the judiciary, and international organisations.

This is the weakest section of the book. Excluding the misplaced chapter on India, it contains 240 pages devoted mainly to developments in western countries. Yet it is almost silent on some of the most fundamental changes that have occurred in these countries. For example, it says virtually nothing about the rise and fall of mass working class parties and associated institutions, such as trade unions and self-help organisations. Trade unions still exist but they are a shadow of their former selves. Left-wing parties also remain but most of them are now empty shells, largely abandoned by their former working-class inhabitants and now colonised by middle-class professionals. One can argue about the reasons for this transformation, but there can be no doubt about its democratic implications. It has been accompanied by a dramatic reduction in the involvement of poorer sections of the population in political life. Few of them now vote in elections. Nor do they participate in the myriad of “monitoring” institutions that Keane so uncritically describes.

The term “monitory democracy” is a misnomer. Some of the changes that it covers have a genuine monitoring aspect and some of them represent a genuine increase in democracy. For example, the Freedom of Information Act makes it easier for citizens to discover what the government is doing and therefore easier to control it. Judicial review can limit the abuse of power. But other changes are quite different. Many of them are nothing to do with monitoring at all, but represent a simple transfer of power away from existing representative institutions to other, mostly unaccountable bodies. This may or may not be a good thing, but to describe it as an extension of democracy is an abuse of language. For example, the new powers of our national judiciary under the Human Rights Act, or of foreign judges under the European Convention on Human Rights, are designed to limit the power of our democratic institutions in the name of some presumed higher purpose. Likewise, Britain’s membership of the European Union, as presently constituted, involves a progressive transfer of power to the European Commission to regulate areas of life that were traditionally seen as entirely our own business.

To say that a certain development limits democracy is not in itself a conclusive argument against it. For example, independent courts may protect unpopular minorities against persecution by majorities, or they may protect individual freedoms against an authoritarian majority. Depending on the circumstances, there may be a case for giving the courts this kind of power. However, this approach carries with it certain dangers. If the courts are too active, they drain the life out of democracy. What is the point of voting or getting involved in elections if everything important is decided by judges or some other unaccountable body? In some cases, the result is not merely cynicism but real bitterness. As the recent murder of an abortionist shows, feelings run deep in the United States on the issue of abortion. This is not simply because there are fanatics willing to stop at nothing to achieve their ends. The deeper reason is that a huge number of Americans resent the fact that the current abortion law was imposed on the country by a handful of liberal judges on the Supreme Court. In its 1973 Roe v. Wade judgement the Supreme Court swept away most existing state and federal restrictions and establishedwhat is now virtually abortion on demand. This caused outrage amongst the opponents of abortion who believed, with justification, that they had been disenfranchised by a judicial coup. This has been a source of bitterness ever since. In Britain, where the decision was decided after extensive debate in Parliament, there is nothing like the same bitterness amongst anti-abortionists. The vast majority accept that they lost the political argument, for the time being at least.

A similar danger is lurking on the issue of gay marriage. The California Supreme Court recently ruled that homosexual couples have a constitutional right to get married. This was later over-turned in a state-wide referendum. The case may now go to the Federal Supreme Court. If the Federal Court nullifies the California referendum, the opponents of gay marriage will see this as yet another judicial coup by the liberal elite, thereby stoking up future bitterness.

The role of courts within a democracy is a difficult one. Nowhere in his monumental book does Keane confront this issue. Nor does he confront other difficult issues. For example, how are the boundaries of a polity determined and who should be able to vote? This is an important question in Britain at the present time. Following devolution, Scotland and Wales now have wide legislative powers of their own and can determine policy in these areas without reference to what English voters think. Yet Scottish and Welsh MPs, who are mostly Labour, can vote in the Westminster Parliament on matters that affect only England. This corrupt arrangement is a source of growing resentment in England. Another area where the issue of electorate comes up is Europe. It is often said that there is a “democratic deficit” in the European Union. The unelected European Commission has too much power. The federalists want to transfer some of these powers to the European Parliament, thereby giving the European electorate more influence over policy. Others would see this as yet another form of outside interference in their country’s internal affairs. Why, for example, should voters in other countries have any say at all in how many hours British doctors work? The fact that the European Parliament is “democratically elected” gives it no right to impose its views on British voters.

These are not mere technical issues. Democracy depends ultimately on legitimacy. If judges abuse their powers or electorates are gerrymandered, those who lose out will feel cheated, and if they are sufficiently numerous, the viability of democracy itself will be threatened.

British democracy is in a bad way. The uproar about MPs’ expenses is a symptom of a wider loss of faith in our Parliamentary system. Gordon Brown has promised a national debate about how to revitalise British democracy. One may be cynical about his motives and about the outcome, but there is no doubt that we need a serious debate about the future of democracy in this country. John Keane’s book contains a wealth of interesting information on the past, but it is of scant use to those seeking enlightenment about the future.

– Prof. Robert Rowthorne is on the Faculty of Economics, University of Cambridge