Amidst the restrictive lockdown measures currently in place in Britain due to the COVID-19 global pandemic, the debate over the extent to which Britain is a liberal democracy has reignited, with libertarian political commentators such as Peter Hitchens criticizing the supposedly 'authoritarian' nature of the lockdown measures and in the US, General Barr referring to the measures as “violating the constitutional rights and civil liberties of individual citizens.” In addition to uncovering just what a liberal democracy is, this article seeks to examine the extent to which Britain can be duly deemed a Liberal democracy?


A liberal democracy is a style of representative democracy, typically associated with Western developed nations, founded upon the principles of classical liberalism (i.e. checks and balances, the protection of individual freedom) and ultimately limited by enforceable constitutional laws. Liberal democracies entail free and fair elections with a belief in the importance of certain key rights and responsibilities, ranging from enabling all eligible citizens with the right of suffrage to accountability and other liberal freedoms such as freedom of speech and mobility for all citizens. This form of democracy is a much more inclusive, prominent and viable form of democracy, compared to majoritarian democracy (where the government is based on the majority support of those who inhabit a given territory, resulting in the marginalisation of minority groups and the exclusion of minority voices from the policy-making process), substantive democracy (where the governed electorate has a larger role in day-to-day political affairs, although this hasn’t emerged anywhere of yet) and consensual democracy (a more obscure form of democracy only seen in Guernsey and Canada, where there is a concerted governmental effort to reach out in a more inclusive, accessible way to all groups rather than merely seeking to carry the support of a majority). Whilst some might argue features of a liberal democracy such as lawmaking by elected representatives and popular control of policy makers prove elitist, they are balanced out by other features such as political equality (‘one person, one vote’), information being freely available to the citizenry, orderly transfer of power, pluralism, and the existence of open and organised opposition, all of which grant considerably more power and freedom to the governed electorate than a totalitarian, purely procedural democracy (a more elitist, austere form of democracy seen under Mao’s Marxist-Leninist China, Hitler’s fascist, Anti-Semitic Nazi Germany, Pol Pot’s agrarian Kampuchea regime & the Kim Dynasty’s North Korea, along with the former Stalinist Soviet Union, Angola and Namibia where the procedure of electing representatives is at least ostensibly followed, but where the actual day-to-day political affairs are run in a rampantly undemocratic, trickle-down manner, with citizens being deprived of real input into the democratic policy-making process) for instance. Modern liberal democracies are also expected to be at least somewhat socially representative of those whom they represent and representative of both the number of votes parties in said democracies secured.


Many would argue that theoretically at least, the UK and Western developed nations can be described as liberal democracies. In the UK, power is delegated to elected officials, who are expected to act in the interests of liberal democracy, and the Tory government technically represents the electorate’s voting wishes (having won against numerous contesting opposition parties in the 2015 and 2017 elections, which were mostly conducted in a free and fair manner, having been independently overseen by the Electoral Commission). Furthermore, all adult citizens have the right to vote and stand for office, unless ineligible for justified reasons and whilst some may criticise the UK as a liberal democracy for having a voting system that arguably underrepresents smaller parties, the AV referendum results proved there is little appetite for such a change and PR would be even less successful at producing strong, majority governments, instead creating hung parliaments, as seen in Germany, Holland, Sweden, New Zealand and Ireland; these governments ultimately make the democratic process harder, as they often create parliamentary gridlocks, where implementing legislature becomes almost impossible. Within the UK, all mainstream parties accept the legitimacy of government, with little to no violence associated with the transfer of power between the winning party. 


However, it could be argued that the First Past The Post system used to determine government is antithetical to the concept of liberal democracy, as it only accounts for the majority of public opinion, and in many cases, less than that, as long as the winning candidate/party has a mandate over their opponents. This means vast swathes of society’s wishes for government are disregarded, creating disenfranchisement and falling political participation, which is undeniably problematic in a supposedly liberal democracy. In the 2010 election, 52.8% of the votes did not count towards electing an MP and even in 2015, David Cameron won a decisive 51% of the seats, having only achieved a comparatively meagre 37% of the vote. Furthermore, whilst all parties have the right to stand for office, the inherent bias of the FPTP system towards the two largest mainstream parties (Conservatives and Labour) means that smaller parties and their voters are arguably somewhat shut out of politics. In safe seats, the wishes of those who would prefer a different candidate/party to take office are completely ignored and under the current system, many votes for smaller parties that have little chance of winning seats are wasted (in the most recent election, over 22 million votes (68%) had no impact on the result.), as evidenced by UKIP gaining only 1 MP despite receiving media traction and 13% of the vote in the 2015 general election, only 24% less than the governing Conservative Party, stark statistics which are undeniably an issue for Britain as a liberal democracy. Furthermore, this growing issue of political apathy leading to a democratic deficit casts doubt over the legitimacy of some governments; in the most recent election, the Conservative Party garnered 42.4% of the votes (only 2.4% more than the Labour opposition) on a 68.7% turnout, which is drastically low, and in 2015, the Labour Party were able to take a seat in Manchester Central with 61.3% vote on a 46% turnout, again casting severe doubt over the power which these candidates and parties hold. 


Another key feature of liberal democracy is information being free, widely available to the citizenry and presented fairly, with both journalism and media being expected to serve as a fair watchdog, providing fair information and fairly scrutinising all political candidates and decisions in an even-handed manner. Britain arguably adheres to this, enjoying a free press and publicly funded, non-partisan broadcasting; whilst there is a strong link between politicians and journalists, there is insufficient public evidence of the government attempting to control information coming from the media. Whilst the media is known to extort and exaggerate things for their own advantage, something which I will address later, citizens are exposed to a broad variety of independent political views and ideologies and are able to access political information easily, with only parties threatening the security of state or advocating criminal activities being officially barred from mainstream media. Furthermore, the British media are often commended for their investigative work, with the Daily Telegraph exposing the expenses scandal in 2009, giving the public unprecedented awareness of politicians’ abuse of the expenses system, as well as programmes on the publicly funded BBC such as Panorama being lauded for fair, accessible portrayals of various socio-political issues. 


That being said, even in the British liberal democracy, ownership of the media isn’t socially representative and is chiefly concentrated in the hands of rich, oligarchical upper classes, most notably Rupert Murdoch and his stronghold on mass media, and as such, it could be argued that vast swathes of the media have a vested interest in presenting and distorting news in a manner that preserves the interests of the establishment. Although the press are typically expected to adopt strong political alignments to one party and there is generally a mutualistic relationship between journalists and politicians (journalists rely on politicians for exclusives and in return politicians expect a sympathetic portrayal of themselves and their party) in a liberal democracy, independent enquiries conducted by think tanks and the LSE have shown that newspapers have superseded that and taken a particularly unfair, antagonistic tone in their reporting of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party,  linking him with terrorists and portraying him as a racist, despite little evidence to support such smears and also misrepresenting his words; as of 2017, 0% of Daily Mail and Express articles presented Jeremy Corbyn's views/policies without any alteration; this misinformation again goes against the concept of a liberal democracy and the media accurately and fairly keeping citizens politically aware. Furthermore, programmes such as Dispatches and Panorama (on the publicly funded BBC, which is supposed to be a non-partisan broadcasting service) have arguably become the basis for further media political smears under the guises of investigative journalism, with leading right wing figures condemning a documentary on Conservative Islamophobia as ‘a hatchet job’. Panorama also faced widespread public criticism after airing an investigative, arguably biased documentary on Anti-Semitism within the Labour Party, that was said to have numerous factual inaccuracies by both Labour commentators and independent bodies and that was presented by John Ware, a journalist with a history of anti-left hit pieces. Whilst newspapers also are entitled to freedom of speech in a liberal democracy and are expected to have political alignments, it should also be noted that the attack-dog journalism and misinformation that is arguably occurring in the aforementioned instances is at odds with the idea of the UK being a liberal democracy, as the press are arguably misinforming the public in order to divert them away from political candidates, and a key liberal freedom is for the media and other state superstructures to ultimately allow the public to form their own judgements fairly and without interference.


When evaluating the extent to which the UK is a liberal democracy, it is necessary to do this by assessing it against several criteria: the extent to which the government in power represents the electorate, whether government and politicians can be sufficiently held to account, whether civil liberties are protected and not infringed upon by the government & state forces and whether citizens are able to participate in the political process beyond voting. Upon evaluation, after taking all these factors into consideration and assessing them, whilst there are priorities for reform to make Britain is more of a liberal democracy, I would ultimately conclude that the UK has most of the features of a liberal democracy, and many of the arguably illiberal and undemocratic flaws within the UK political system are common in other liberal democracies. Furthermore, whilst this debate is undeniably at least somewhat characterised by the moral dichotomy between allowing all speech, even hateful rhetoric (under the guises of ‘freedom of speech’) and acting for the common good, I would probably concede that anti-terrorism laws and restrictions against hate speech are ultimately necessary for both safety and preserving Britain as a liberal democracy, even if the way in which some of this legislation is carried out and implemented proves problematic and arguably compromises some liberal freedoms. That being said, the UK could become stronger as a liberal democracy by implementing more elements of consultative democracy to widen the avenues for citizen participation, and a priority for reform could be incorporating yet more public inquiries, referendums to gauge political opinion, citizen assemblies or elements of e-democracy, with a view of engaging the broader century in the policy-making process.  Additionally, while many aspects of liberal democracy are adhered to within Britain, there are urgent priorities for reform to ensure to make Britain yet more democratic and legitimate: whilst measures such as forcing people to vote, in the vein of Australia, would be both inherently illiberal and undemocratic, there are notable priorities for reforms such as replacing the outdated, unelected and ultimately unaccountable House of Lords with a democratically elected second chamber and potentially implementing a fully codified constitution with entrenched rights and limits that limit the prerogative powers of the Executive, as the status quo allows the Prime Minister to potentially override democratic processes. Furthermore, for Britain to progress as a liberal democracy, an essential priority for reform would be ensuring social rights such as the right to form or join trade unions, the right of workers to safe working conditions and the right to be free from unfair dismissal are implemented as effectively as civil liberties. It must also be noted that the rise of factors such as populism and the bias within supposedly non-partisan media institutions such as the BBC do pose a growing threat to the future of Britain as a liberal democracy, as do authoritarian political moves, such as Boris Johnson, an executive that is technically elected by less than 0.2% of Britain (approximately 120,000 Conservative Party Members), choosing to prorogue a democratically elected parliament, but as mentioned earlier, I would ultimately conclude that the UK is a liberal democracy at the present.