The growth of democracy was one of the positive pieces of news in the last century. In 1900 not a single country had what we would today consider a democracy: a government created by elections in which every adult citizen could vote.

Those countries which then had elections often restricted the voting to white men (in some countries such men had to be property owners). Australia and New Zealand led the world in pioneering votes for women. 

Today 119 countries (out of 191 UN member-states) have democracy. 62 per cent of the world’s people live in democracies. Democracy has gone from being a form of government to a way of life.

But the struggle to maintain democracy is a continuing one. There is no guarantee that it will last.

“Democracy” is Greek for “the rule of the people”. (Ironically, Classical Greece was not a democracy because voting was only done by property owning men).

But there is more to a democracy than just voting. There has to be the creation of a set of social values to underpin the democratic process. This does not happen overnight – and it can be eroded over time.

Britain and the United States are seen as among the pioneers of great powers who spread the democratic process around the world. But the creation of that democracy took centuries to evolve in those countries. 

Before the Reform Act in Britain in 1832, only 1.8 per cent of the population voted. After the law, the figure went to 2.7 per cent (all of whom were property-owning white males). The electorate was widened again in 1867 – to 6.4 per cent. Then in 1884, it went to 12.1 per cent. 

Women got the vote after World War I. The principle of one person-one vote did not occur fully until after World War II (when the students at Oxford and Cambridge Universities stopped getting two votes: one for where they lived at home and one for their university constituency). 

The US’s history is not much better. For the first few decades of the US’s creation after 1776, only white male property owners could vote. 

The US had rebelled against King George III’s dictatorship but then copied Britain’s elite system of voting after gaining independence.

In 1824 – 48 years after independence – still only 5 per cent of adult Americans could vote in a presidential election (none of them women or slaves). 

Blacks got the vote – in theory – after the Civil War (1861-5). But in fact in many states in the South they did not get a free vote until a century later. American women got the vote in 1920.

Ironically, throughout all this time Britain and the United States held themselves up as the models of democracy to be followed by the rest of the world.

The British also took their views into their empire. But they had only a mixed success. Many of the democratic countries created by Britain in the decolonisation process later fell into dictatorships, especially in Africa. Australia, Canada, India and New Zealand are the main success stories.

In 2022 there are continuing concerns about the future of democracy. In the US, Trump supporters are trying to restrict voting rights in key states to help Republican victories. 

Many British voters don’t bother to vote as they see it as irrelevant to their problems. Younger Britons are particularly disillusioned with the political system.

Australia has compulsory voting to force people to vote, and so that guarantees a high voter turnout. It also has the world’s best electoral supervision system: the elections are held smoothly and efficiently. It is the global benchmark.

Of course, many of the politicians who do get elected are self-seeking duds – but they got there via a very efficient system!

Dr Keith Suter

Global Directions 

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