One of the overarching themes of recent history has been the spread of Western democracy, sometimes through reform, other times through revolution, and sometimes by force. Right or wrong, there is more or less a consensus that whatever its shortcomings may be, it’s the best form of government anyone has thought of yet. Most of us certainly wouldn’t choose anything different for ourselves.
There is, however, a degree of diversity within Western democracy. There are certain things in common – free elections, market economies, and the liberal values of individual rights – but there are three distinct streams within this field. In the LSE’s ‘democratic audit’ of Britain, the authors use three categories of Western democracy: Westminster, Consensual, and Nordic.
- The Westminster democracies are English speaking, including Britain, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. They are characterised by electoral systems that deliver majority governments, from a smaller number of parties. They tend to have weaker separation of powers, and to be more centralised.
- Consensual democracies include Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. Power is more fragmented in such countries, with proportional electoral systems that deliver coalition governments. Power is decentralised, and there is more separation between executive, legislative and judiciary branches.
- The third category is Nordic democracy, practiced in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Iceland. This is similar to Consensual system, but with a strong commitment to social democracy, particularly equality.
We’re in a period of profound change in Britain at the moment, and at times we seem to be trapped in the Westminster model. Scotland is dominated by the SNP, which is socially democratic. Had the country voted for independence, a transition to something closer to the Nordic model seemed likely. It voted to stay by a slim margin, but Scotland is clearly different in its political landscape.
The landscape is changing nationally too. Fewer people line themselves up with the two main parties. The current coalition reflects that, and the next government could well be a coalition too. UKIP gets all the headlines, but membership lists are booming in the minority parties, Liberal Democrats excepted. Votes are going to be much more widely spread in 2015, but our ‘first past the post’ electoral system locks out diversity of opinion.
Has the Westminster model run its course? Is it working for us? I’ll be interested to see who raises these sorts of questions in the election next year.