Do pressure groups undermine democracy? By Victoria Whight
To assess the claim that pressure groups undermine democracy we must first understand the characterisation of what we mean by a pressure group as there are many different interpretations and definitions. We must also understand why and how they form and how they function within a democratic system to define their purpose. It is also useful to look at the principles and ethos of what a democracy is to fully appreciate if the there is a clear boundary between them or if they rely on one another to function.
A pressure group is ‘an organised group that seeks to influence government policy or protect or advance a particular cause or interest.’ Pressure groups come in lots of formats, the main two being casual pressure groups and sectional interest groups. Casual pressure groups ‘promote a particular set of economic/ political objectives or ideas.’ These groups include the very well known names such as, Greenpeace, Countryside Alliance, Fair Trade and Age Concern. Sectional Interest groups ‘represent common interests of a particular section of society, Membership is often closed.’ These groups include Trade Unions Congress, Country Landowners, National Farmers Union and The Law Society. These groups form when like-minded people pull together to address an issue or cause that affects them. The aim of this essay is to look at whether pressure groups undermine democracy, if both arguments are valid and which argument is the strongest.
Pressure groups give the general public a chance to get involved in politics and communicate with politicians as they ‘seek to influence policy-making and public opinion.’  They can be ‘ a sign of a healthy liberal democracy with an active citizen body’ as they encourage freedom of speech, equality and diversity. After all a democracy ‘is a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them.’ However from the New Right perspective, pressure groups ‘campaigning activity distracts government from the pursuit of the general interest’. Pressure groups main form of achieving what they want is to lobby Members of Parliament, EU Politicians and Civil Servants, to appeal to the sympathetic side of MP’s and the major influence held by EU politicians. Lobbying is ‘attempting to influence government leaders to create legislation or conduct an activity that will help a particular organisation.’ Therefore, depending on the view, the individual pressure groups can be seen to undermine or support democracy. Due to the fact that pressure groups can lobby this could cause internal disruption, an increase in corruption through bribery as well as putting certain MP’s under pressure from external sources, such as the Media.
The New Right is ‘an ideological trend within conservatism that embrace a blend of market individualism and social authoritarianism.’ Market individualism is ‘individual freedom in economic enterprise that should not be restricted by governmental or social regulation’ and social authoritarianism is ‘an action which involves the intervention of government or an organisation in social affairs.’ New right theorists believe that humans are selfish and ‘all human activity is self-interested’ , therefore when pressure groups campaign for an issue it is to pursue their own interest and not in the interest of the general public. This makes policy decision-making difficult for the government and may mean that a high proportion of the population disagrees with the outcome. This causes ‘the misuse of taxpayers’ money’ which in turn causes tensions between the government and the public. New right theorists were big supporters of Margaret Thatcher who agreed with these views and made it publicly known once she came into power.
Margaret Thatcher very strongly disliked some pressure groups and on many occasions’ she publicly showed her dislike, saying ‘close cooperation between government and pressure groups was neither democratic nor functional, giving too much political power to private, narrow interests’. More recent events show that this statement would appear to be true, especially as in 1994 when ‘United Biscuits, one of the Conservative Party’s largest corporate donors, was among the companies that successfully ‘persuaded’ the Conservative Government to scrap the restrictions on the movement of heavy lorries in London, therefore the public interest in less pollution was blocked by large sectional interests.’
Trade unions were among the largest pressure groups before Margaret Thatcher came into power. She disliked the trade unionists immensely, as she believed they destroyed the three governments before her and they paralysed work during their strikes. Edward Heath was the first Prime Minister to come into conflict with them; he tried to set up a prices and incomes policy. ‘His attempts to legislate against unofficial strikes led to internal disputes.’ Margaret Thatcher believed the pressure group had too much power and she did all she could to crush them because she felt they were a threat to her power. During her leadership ‘coal mining in the UK was destroyed, unemployment more than doubled, and trade unions were broken.’ The miner’s strike was the main confrontation between Thatcher and trade unions, however over twelve months no strikes were successful, this was due to her policy on reducing the power that trade unions can have on the government. She famously once stated, ‘We had to fight the enemy without in the Falklands. We always have to be aware of the enemy within, which is much more difficult to fight and more dangerous to liberty.’
However, long before Margaret Thatcher there were major political theorists who also saw pressure groups undermining democracy. Hobbes and Rousseau ‘argue that, far from being a symptom of democratic vitality, pressure groups undermine democracy’.Pressure groups that are wealthy and have large financial resources behind them can be seen to gain greater political influence and this is seen as unequal and therefore undemocratic.
On the other hand, pressure groups can be seen to help democracy as they are not seeking power, they are aiming to represent the people, hence ‘there can be no doubt that pressure groups, taken together, are a far more important channel of communication than parties for the transmission of political ideas from the mass of the citisenry to their rulers.’ Pressure groups ‘very right to exist is based on a fundamental democratic principle- freedom of association.’
Pressure groups can be better for democracy than political parties as they are not power hungry for example the government wants to achieve an increase in nuclear power stations as it will increase economic activity, even if ‘uranium mining causes environmental contamination, cancers and nuclear waste.’The ‘campaign for nuclear disarmament’ is a global pressure group that aims to represent and protect the people; within the UK it is focusing on the removal of nuclear power due to the possible destruction it could cause to the mass population as well as the future environmental implications.
Liberal Pluralists believe that ‘the expression of diverse opinions is the only way to promote the cause of truth’, therefore they argue, ‘Pressure groups serve the three very important democratic functions of political participation, political representation and political education’. Pressure groups can be seen to go hand in hand with democracy as they give the general pubic a form of participating in the political process. This also increases the representation of areas of the public meaning the government have a wider view of what policies benefit most people. This means that pressure groups should be allowed to act, form and argue freely, otherwise they are not within a democracy, it would be seen as a dictatorship because ‘under dictatorship freedom is normally suppressed, in democracy it is fundamental’.
Overall, there are arguments on both sides, for and against, about pressure groups and democracy. It could be argued that pressure groups are an added form of participation and representation as they are a measure of public opinion. Pressure groups can provide expertise and advice to politicians’ which is seen to enhance democracy. However the fact that trade unions were able to cause internal disputes between three governments also shows that they are potentially unhealthy for democracy.
In conclusion my opinion is that I do not see that pressure groups undermine democracy. Instead I think that they underpin the whole philosophy of democratic society in constantly challenging its very perspective and are a very important part of the process of having a democratic system. Pressure groups are the voice for the minority as well as the majority; they give a voice to those who would not normally have one, encouraging the democracy to develop in its main features of equality and freedom.
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‘What are Pressure groups’ from http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/what_are_pressure_groups.htm
‘Democracy’ from http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/democracy
‘Lobbying’ from http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/lobbying.html
Market Individualism from http://www.yourdictionary.com/individualism
Margaret Thatcher: Biography from http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/COLDthatcher.htm
‘Margaret Thatcher’ from http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A288407
Enemies within: Thatcher and the unions from http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/3067563.stm
Campaign for nuclear disarmament from http://www.cnduk.org/index.php/campaigns/nuclear-power.html