How do governments promote democracy to secure legitimacy for their actions?

It is a good idea for governments to seek a sense of legitimacy for their work. In a very broad sense, people place their trust in government and provide their consent for the government to act on their behalf. It would be a bad thing for governments to lose that trust; to lose the sense that they have the legitimate authority to make decisions for that population.*

A big part of that process (in many cases) is to hold regular elections, to reward at least one party and punish the rest. However, regular elections, on their own, may not be enough. So, in Westminster systems, you have the idea of accountability to secure legitimacy: ministers are accountable to the public via Parliament. Let’s call this ‘representative democracy’.

In practice, the problem is that these arrangements don’t take you very far, even at the best of times (in other words, even when MPs aren’t in the news for their expenses, or when Westminster continues to mostly elect men or a ‘political class’).

Parliaments play a peripheral role in the policy process. They struggle to legitimise the sum total of government activity because they know very little about it. They provide a forum for debate (playing their part in a ‘deliberative democracy’) but debate a small fraction of the issues. Similarly, ministers are accountable for all that goes on in their departments, but they can pay attention to only a tiny proportion of the things for which they are responsible.

Consequently, the civil service role is crucial. Ministers devolve a huge amount of policy responsibility to civil servants. Civil servants can attract ministerial attention, to take responsibility for their decisions, in some cases. However, in many cases, they are effectively on their own.

One way that civil servants deal with this problem is to seek to legitimise their activities elsewhere. They consult far and wide. They develop relationships with professional bodies, public sector organizations, businesses and interest groups. In many areas, such as in health and education, this process provides them with the additional sense of legitimacy that we can associate with ‘pluralist democracy’. For example, people trust doctors and teachers more than civil servants and far, far, more than politicians. They can also gather information from such groups, to generate the sense that their policies are underpinned by evidence (or, at least, information and advice).

Its Relevance to the Scottish Independence Referendum

In Scotland, I think this topic is important for three main reasons.

First, the prospect of constitutional change has reignited a small amount of interest in new forms of ‘participative’ and ‘deliberative’ democracy (e.g. Democracy Max). I think that such initiatives won’t shift the balance between representative and other forms of democracy. Indeed, in many ways, new forms of participative democracy clash with representative democracy in a way that pluralist democracy does not. In the former, people randomly selected from the public (or self-selected) may compete with elected politicians to make decisions (or, they are merely consulted and often ignored). In the latter, civil servants consult widely in the name of ministers. As in the lead up to devolution in 1999, I don’t think these issues have been rehearsed in any great detail, and it is difficult to see significant change in the way the Scottish Government will make policy (perhaps with the brief exception of its plans to co-produce a written constitution with ‘civil society’). ‘The people’ may be involved in some decision-making processes, but not routinely.

Second, government is changing. There is now a complex process of policymaking taking place at many levels of government, involving many public bodies. It is more difficult to identify a sense of pluralist democracy at the heart of government.

Third, an independent Scotland would be responsible for much more than areas such as health and education. Crucially, it would become responsible for issues such as security and intelligence, which are fields in which we struggle to gauge trust, and in which we cannot really make reference to pluralist democracy as the answer. Nor can we expect new forms of participative and deliberative democracy to be relevant to a field in which as few people participate as possible. In such cases, we rely much more on the representative democracy that, in most other fields, we trust so little – a Scottish Parliament that, unless things change, may not be well equipped to deal with its new responsibilities.

In other words, it has become very difficult to know who to hold to account, how to do it, and how we might otherwise ensure the legitimacy for the sum total of government activity. This might be a topic for discussion, if there is a Yes vote and a process to produce a new Scottish constitution. Or, it might not.


*Yes, I just skipped over a whole semester of political theory in one paragraph. I also bypassed a semester on the meaning and measurement of trust.


Filed under Scottish independence, Scottish politics, UK politics and policy

2 responses to “How do governments promote democracy to secure legitimacy for their actions?

  1. Pingback: The “Social Contract” Is a Fraud - Exploring the News

  2. Pingback: What we know about consultation and policy-making | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

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