Peter Bye

Society in the UK and the USA is fragmenting into extremes, leaving little room for the middle ground and threatening liberal democracy. Other countries are also experiencing some polarisation, but, as countries that like to see themselves as bastions of democracy, the UK and USA stand out. There are of course differences in the sources of polarisation. For example, there is no evangelical movement in the UK as there is in the USA; abortion is not an issue in Great Britain, although it is in Northern Ireland[1]. The prevalence of guns is another significant difference; there is no gun lobby in the UK and the ownership of firearms is strictly controlled. In the USA, gun ownership is political issue, and has become even more of a concern since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic[2]. The UK comprises four countries, three of which have political parties aiming at independence from the UK; there are no equivalent movements in the USA. There are also similarities. Both countries have a wide gap between the richest and poorest people and regions, with large minorities who feel left behind and powerless[3].

Unsurprisingly, there is much discussion – and a considerable literature – about the causes of polarisation. I’d like to add a few comments about the way the two countries are governed and the nature of their political discourse. Start with the UK.

The UK’s electoral system can result in parties having a big majority of seats in Parliament, and therefore power, with a minority of votes[4]. The current Conservative government has a majority of 80 with 43.6% of the vote in the December 2019 election. The turnout in the election was 67.3% of registered voters, which means that just 29.3% of the electorate voted Conservative. This would not matter if the government made more effort to represent the whole population. The party has become dominated by Brexit supporters, who portray the EU as a hostile power. Those who voted to remain and now raise concerns about the effects of leaving the EU tend to be labelled as ‘remoaners’. Though the COVID-19 crisis has dominated the country in 2020, the government would not delay the end of the transition period, even though the EU was prepared to do so. Economic anxiety over Brexit, the inept handling of the pandemic, concern about the behaviour of Dominic Cummings[5], and Boris Johnson’s decision to violate parts of the EU exit treaty he signed just a few months ago, have added to division, and even angered a number of Conservative MPs.

Turn now to the USA. Presidential elections have managed to elect presidents with a minority of votes twice in the past five elections, a strange result considering just two people are candidates. Donald Trump had over 2.8 million votes fewer than Hilary Clinton but still managed to win the Electoral College vote. President Trump’s approach to government is so chaotic that it’s hard to see any pattern, apart from promoting himself. The Republican / Democrat divide seems unbridgeable unless senior Republicans challenge what is happening to their party. Mr Trump has made no attempt to bring the country together. He has assembled a collection of mostly imaginary enemies he uses to fuel division, such as the ‘deep state’, Mexicans and other aliens, and anyone who dares to criticise him, for example a UK ambassador[6]. His attacks on people are often deeply personal, sometimes just crude insults.

In both countries but particularly in the USA, serious debate has degenerated into extremes shouting slogans at each other. Thus, Brexit is treated as binary issue: ‘we won, you lost’. ‘Pro-life’ seems to imply you must be pro-death if you don’t agree. If you are not for us, you must be against us. All nuance is lost, yet most important issues are complicated, with a spectrum of positions possible. Serious discussion is required to come up with effective policies. When the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, we will have to confront climate change. The level of division and dissatisfaction with government in the two countries will make an effective response very difficult to achieve.

In the title to this piece, I used the phrase ‘excluded middle’. This is the middle ground that exists in a liberal democracy. It is under threat. Here’s what I mean by liberal democracy. People should be allowed to get on with their lives without coercion from governments as long as they don’t do what they want at the expense of others. That does not mean no state involvement. Apart from the essentials of protecting citizens from internal and external threats, and having free and fair elections, governments should ensure that people are provided with good physical infrastructure, affordable health and social care, quality education at all levels, and social security. This will require government expenditure from taxation, and some redistribution of wealth to reduce the gap between the richest and poorest. Change should be made incrementally, based on evidence.

There are countries that provide a better service to their citizens than the UK and USA, and are less confrontational as a result. The Economic Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index is a ranking of 167 countries based on five factors, such as electoral process and pluralism, political participation and political culture[7]. Marks are awarded out of 10 for each factor with an average for the country overall. Countries with marks over 8 are regarded as full democracies. In 2019, Norway was top, with 9.87; North Korea was bottom with 1.08. The UK was 8.52, while the USA was 7.96, and classed as a flawed democracy. There are 11 countries above 9. Interestingly, they all have relatively small populations, though not always geographical size (Canada and Australia are the largest in size and population). Most of the top countries have coped well with the current pandemic, largely because their citizens have a higher level of trust in their governments. And they are all liberal democracies; there is little excluded middle..

Notes and sources

[1] The UK is the United Kingdom of Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) and Northern Ireland. Varying amounts of power are devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In Britain, the main political parties are represented in all three countries. Wales and Scotland have parties advocating independence from the UK (Plaid Cymru in Wales and the SNP in Scotland), although the MPs for the parties sit in the House of Commons. In Northern Ireland, the British parties have no representation; politics is divided between unionists of varying types who wish to remain in the UK, and republicans, who want a united Ireland. The friction between unionism and republicanism has over the decades led to serious violence. Abortion is a devolved issue in Northern Ireland, and apart from a few exceptions, it was a criminal offence until October 2019, when the UK central government decriminalised it. The UK government had intervened as the Northern Ireland Assembly had not been sitting for some time. See https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-50125124 for more information.

[2] The figures reflect the difference in gun ownership: gun-related deaths in the USA for 2020 are 12.21 per 100,000, of which homicides are 4.46 per 100,000 and the total number of gun-related deaths is around 40,000. The equivalent figures for the UK are 0.23, 0.06 and 155. Source: World Population Review, https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/gun-deaths-by-country There has been a sharp increase in gun ownership since start of pandemic, though the reasons are not entirely clear. See https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-52189349 .

[3] The GINI coefficient is one measure of inequality: the higher the number, the greater the inequality. For more information, see https://www.indexmundi.com/facts/indicators/SI.POV.GINI/compare#country=dk:fi:de:nl:no:se:gb:us

[4] Every election since 1945 has been won by a party with a minority of the votes cast.

[5] Cummings has a goal of restructuring the civil service, and is very confrontational. As I said in my previous blog, it’s sometimes hard to see who is Prime Minister. Cummings notoriously broke the lockdown rules in the spring but refused to resign and Johnson would not sack him.

[6] Sir Kim Darroch, who was the UK’s ambassador to the USA, was effectively declared persona non grata by Donald Trump, after a confidential report from Darroch to the UK was leaked. The report was very critical of the Trump government. Johnson did not support the ambassador.

[7] The EIU site may require registration, but the list can also be found at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Democracy_Index

 

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