Democracy isn’t working: Can it be fixed?

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, December 4th 2019

Britain likes to claim to be the inventor of democracy, and England to assume the mantle of being ‘the mother of Parliaments’. These are national myths – leaving aside that the oldest national legislature in the world is the Icelandic Parliament.

The Whig story of democracy has been one of the most prominent interpretations of British and English public life and traditions. It is one which has been told and retold by enlightened and less enlightened sections of the British establishment.

It has also been uncritically championed by large elements of the British left, in Labour, the Liberals and then Lib Dems, and wider intellectual circles. They, as much as Tory and right-wing circles, have felt drawn to the story of British continuity and exceptionalism – and putting Britain at the heart of a global story for good which reflects well on life and institutions here.

This story of Britain has been a powerful and at times popular one, but it has been and become even more a self-immolating version of this country, cloaking tradition, privilege and the way things are done from a sceptical eye, let alone a radical, democratising view. It has prevented us from seeing what the UK is like, shorn of mystique and mythology.

The UK is not and never has been a political democracy. This is a basic fact, with fundamental and far-reaching consequences. Yet, many people want to hide from this inconvenient truth including for obvious reasons most politicians, the political parties and the insider world which surrounds them.

The UK only elects one half of its national legislature: the Commons, the more powerful of the two Chambers. The other, the Lords, is the second largest legislature in the entire world, with only the national assembly of Communist China, the most populous country anywhere, being bigger in number.

The Lords is a mix of hereditary right (with 92 hereditary peers remaining members) and Prime Ministerial patronage that has grown exponentially since the introduction of life peers in 1958. It includes many experts and people who have given selflessly to public life, but it is also home to numerous discredited party politicians.

In the UK it is somehow seen as normal practice for voters to turf out a politician in a constituency only for such failure to be rewarded by a seat for life in the Lords and hence the ability to legislate on national affairs despite being rejected at the ballot box. Hence, previously elected politicians such as Michael Forsyth, Nicol Stephen and Jack McConnell, are reinvented in the twilight world of the House of Lords as people who make decisions which affect our life, accountable to no one.

There is the existence of the Royal Family – a constitutional monarchy, not a decoration. There is the scandal of Prince Charles, actively lobbying ministers over his many pet causes. This is a set of interventions which when they came to light saw the Freedom of Information Act amended to draw a future veil of secrecy over the continued lobbying of ministers by Charles.

There are the Crown powers – once held by the monarch, but now exercised by the executive and invoked without parliamentary scrutiny and approval. These include the most far-reaching actions that can be made by a government and state, namely, the right to declare and go to war, as well as a host of other actions, from appointing ministers and judges, to granting honours.

If anyone thinks this is does not really impact on everyday lives, think again. To take just two examples, on the two occasions the UK entered the two World Wars it did so without the Prime Ministers of the day, Henry Asquith and Neville Chamberlain, feeling they had any need to seek parliamentary approval for such fundamental actions.

There were in both occasions, August 1914 and September 1939, widespread parliamentary and public support that going to war was the right thing to do. But this is exactly the point at which proper parliamentary forensic debate and approval is most needed.

There is the right of governments to call national emergencies in times of what they believe are serious crisis. They were given this power under the Emergency Powers Act 1920 passed by the Lloyd George coalition government which was influenced by the rising troubles in Ireland.

This act has allowed governments of all political persuasions to declare a national emergency, curtail civil liberties, and if necessary use the military, and it has been used on a dozen occasions. These include a 1921 TUC-backed strike, 1926 General Strike, 1948 and 1949 strikes during the Attlee Labour government, 1966 seamen’s strike in under Harold Wilson, and five times under Ted Health, including the 1972 miners’ strike. A fairly obvious pattern is discernable in the above and runs through all twelve: each national emergency was declared in response to strikes and the power of organised labour.

This act was superseded by the Blair government’s Civil Contingencies Act 2004 introduced in the aftermath of 9/11, the invasion of Iraq, and concerns over Islamist terrorism. It was presented to the Commons by Douglas Alexander and was a typically opportunist, shoddy and draconian piece of New Labour legislation at its worst, not concerning itself with human rights or longer term consequences.

Fast forward to the Brexit impasse and the arrival of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister. Pre-election one of the avenues Downing Street seriously explored resolving Brexit was by declaring a national emergency, drafting in the military, and suspending local government. Initial steps were even taken to put preliminary plans in place, to be able to initiate action, which with the legislation on the statute book would only require ‘a senior minister for the Crown’ (meaning the PM) to declare a 30 day national emergency. Fortunately, so far this has not happened.

None of this is widely debated or gains much comment or traction in public or media. The 1920 act is barely remembered or referenced now, nor how it was the antecedent of the authoritarian impulses of New Labour, which needed no real encouragement.

This is the backdrop to the UK December election – a contest which seems surreal and disconnected from the real concerns of voters. This is aided by the erosion of previously unwritten conventions and codes about what was and wasn’t responsible, ethical behaviour.

For example, Boris Johnson has proven himself to be a serial liar, having been publicly sacked from two jobs for lying. Previously such actions would have been a bar on high office and certainly on becoming UK PM. Indeed, they still were considered so as recently as the turn of this year by the vast majority of Tory MPs, and then desperation took over as Tory popularity crashed. It doesn’t look like a script that is going to end well for the main protagonists, leaving aside that Johnson is now well placed to win an overall majority.

The problem with British political life goes deeper than individuals. It is institutional. UK general elections used to be conducted within a legal and regulatory framework which attempted to establish a level playing field between the main parties.

Hence there were restrictions on political advertising, limits to political spending and donations, and tight constraints on what local candidates could spend in their constituencies, although this latter set of rules was regarded by all parties as a complete farce, with all of them in their target and battlefield seats, outspending legal limits and getting away with it.

Today with Facebook, Twitter and other social media political parties are issuing adverts in a completely unregulated marketplace. Facebook is the critical platform, with a global reach of billions. Utilised by the Leave campaign in 2016, and with the same people running the current Tory campaign, they continue to be hyperactive on Facebook and remain unaccountable to any proper framework.

This is not an accident or oversight. Parliamentarians have been advised and warned that they needed to undertake legislation to bring social media platforms under the law, but they have prevaricated. That is because this unregulated Wild West of political advertising works in favour of one party – the Conservatives – who have been in office since 2010.

This climate is changing political culture and normative values: with ‘attack’ ads going after the character of opponents getting more common, while all this aids a world where serial lying is something which isn’t career ending.

Similarly there has been no comprehensive inquiry into the illegal activities of the Leave campaign in 2016 because politicians fear the consequences. One of which is that it would open a hornet’s nest about other activities, while another is that it could lead to a widespread disputation of the result. Worse than that it might lead to serious calls for reform of Britain’s inadequate election laws.

A Prime Minister playing fast and loose with national security after the tragedy of the London Bridge attack is not prepared to release the House of Commons intelligence and security committee report into Russian interference in British politics, assuring voters ‘there is no Russian interference in politics’. This is deception, ignoring the Salisbury murders and closer to home for Boris Johnson, the industrial scale funding of the Tory Party by Russian oligarchs and dark money, some of which would be revealed by the suppressed report.

If that were not enough there is the dilution of the universal right to vote. Inexorably over the past five decades the number of voters not registered to vote has been rising – a trend aided by the recent Tory decision to change the registration system from household to individual basis.

Despite the last minute surge in voter registration which seems to have become a feature of UK election we are left with nearly seven million people who should be on voter rolls missing and not registered. This amounts to 13% of the potential size of the electorate, and they are disproportionately younger, poorer, in social housing, and from black and ethnic minorities.

This shameful picture has been getting worse at election after election, and has until recently been uncommented upon. We are not yet in as appalling a place as the USA where voter suppression has become an active part of Republican dirty tricks: a new form of an old story whereas until the Civil Rights Act they just used to shameless exclude black voters by various Jim Crow laws.

In the UK the exclusion of nearly seven million people means they are doubly disenfranchised: they don’t count politically in any sense. Their non-voting is just not counted or registered in the election; they are literally the missing millions in every sense. Seven million voters is a huge section of people and voices in the UK – and a larger group than the winning margin in every one of the twenty general elections held in the UK since 1945.

The state of democratic atrophy and decay mixed with complacency and an air of self-congratulation, might nor serve most citizens well. But it works for the insider groups who gain most in the way that things are: corporates, corporate advocates such as the big accountancy firms, business lawyers, and right-wing think tanks. It isn’t some accident that the latter – groups such as the secretively funded IEA or Taxpayers’ Alliance – never produce any plans for the democratisation of Britain.

They not only believe that no change is needed, but they are prepared to openly campaign and oppose any far-reaching change which might threaten the cosy state of affairs that exists. This is the backdrop to an election which is posing a crossroads in the future direction of the UK and Scotland.

This is a rotten, undemocratic, obsolete political system long past its sell by date which should be comprehensively challenged and overthrown. It is a 19th century set of institutions and rules which have been used to the advantage of 21st century robber baron capitalism.

The inadequacies of our political system and democracy are directly linked to the most offensive characteristics of society: the widespread poverty, hardship, insecurity and blighted lives alongside unparalled wealth and consumption in one of the richest economies and societies human civilisation has ever known. However you vote on December 12th – if you are registered – don’t believe for one minute that this economic and social order and this flawed democracy is the best we can do. If you think that you are colluding in this state of affairs.