To mark the beginning of Parliament Week, Natascha Engel MP, Member of Parliament for North East Derbyshire, and Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, writes her story of democracy.
I was born and raised, until I was ten, in Cold War Germany. The country was divided, and occupied West Berlin, where I lived, was surrounded by a wall. The Wall.
We knew how lucky we were to grow up in the democratic west, how unfortunate they were just down the road, how they did not have the freedoms and rights that we enjoyed, the freedom to travel where we liked and the right to say what we liked.
All these years later, after the end of the Cold War and the fall of The Wall, the reason why democracy matters is perhaps no longer so close to home.
The safeguarding of democracy is all the more important for that. In the UK we live in a parliamentary democracy. People elect their political representatives to Parliament once every five years to form a government, an opposition, to be scrutinised and held to account.
But it was increasingly clear that once a government was elected, it fulfilled its manifesto commitments with little regard to backbenchers, and minimal accountability. Only governments, and occasionally oppositions had the power to schedule debates. If an issue was too thorny, Government would simply not discuss it.
But since the last election, we have a Backbench Business Committee. Through this committee, backbenchers have a limited amount of time to bring forward debates that the government will not.
So last week, we debated and voted on, for the first time in 36 years, whether or not to hold a referendum on our continued membership of the EU.
This may not be the single most important issue in the world at the moment, but it does say something about the state of our democracy. It says something fundamental about how much we, politicians, let people have a say.
Our relationship with the EU is increasingly important to our ability to govern ourselves, to our democracy.
If we want democracy to matter to people, if we want people to understand the seriousness of what it means - the freedoms and the right - then we must also trust them enough to make their own choices about who and what governs them.
The inaugural Parliament Week takes place week (Oct 31 – 6 Nov), which aims to raise public awareness of Parliament and encourage people to engage with the UK’s democratic system and its institutions. The theme for this year’s Parliament Week is 'Stories of Democracy’ which seeks out the stories of those who have participated in or contributed to democracy in the UK, both past and present.
A range of events and activities is taking place throughout Parliament Week, including BBC’s Question Time from Westminster Hall and the sitting of the Youth Parliament in the House of Commons. There are a variety of ways for citizens of all ages to get involved in Parliament Week, and it’s not too late to get involved either by hosting your own event in your community, or participating in one of the many Parliament Week activities. www.parliamentweek.org