Wednesday, 4 April 2012

The illusion of British democracy

This appeared in the Yorker in April 2012
It is an amusing irony that many nations that proclaim so loudly to be democratic are those which are the most anti-democratic. These states are democratic in no aspect, aside from their official rhetoric. As China faces questions of moving towards democratic reform, we are yet again beset with a bunch of smug commentators polluting the media congratulating Western Democracy and scolding the rest. At the same time Britain faces NHS and budgetary reforms that have little mandate, which clearly lack popular support and protests against which are met with armed police. Very little attention is paid to these protest movements from the corporate media, whose allies will no doubt benefit from the stealth privatisation, and every time the authorities are directly questioned, we are told we do not get it. Is it really too audacious to claim that Britain too is merely a rhetorical democracy?

So what, we get to vote every few years. In reality, only one of two highly similar factions will hold power and the system itself is arguably the least democratic one we could have. This tiny snapshot of popular opinion is used to justify disproportionately radical policy programmes.

Beyond this few people express their political opinions. So it is surely not possible for any government of recent times to claim its policies have had a democratic mandate. Not least this government, whose reforms on the NHS and tuition fees, among others, were not mentioned during the election and had no mandate whatsoever. In the face of mass popular unrest against these policies, the ministers simply smiled and said we did not understand.

More importantly, power and influence over the system here is determined excessively by wealth and privilege. Think about it. Media, corporate leaders, politicians, they all come from a very similar background. Some of them even went to the same schools, and certainly many of them, the same university (59% of the cabinet is privately educated, and 23/29 are millionaires). Hell, we already have famous political siblings in the Miliband brothers. When James Landale, the BBC's deputy politics editor follows Cameron on tour, he is following his old Eton alumnus. The government does not cut and 'reform' (privatise) because it actually believes in neo-liberal ideologies, they simply do it to help their friends who run the big companies, like A4E, Atos and G4S that benefit from these policies. Its remarkable how many politicians end up with cushy jobs at these big firms, while many leading politicians come from corporations or mass media. Vince Cable was a leading economist at Shell, while Michael Gove and Boris Johnson were journalists at The Times and The Spectator respectively.

This is not a radical, Marxist view. Raging paleoconservatives like Peter Oborne and Peter Hitchens have also lamented this new 'political class'. Most annoyingly, these people, and quite a few lower classes as well, claim they deserve to be at the top out of 'hard work'. If you went to private school and Oxbridge, with some nice unpaid internship at Daddy's firm, then you have had a vastly unfair advantage over everyone else. You cannot claim meritocracy. And in the end, our leaders are always more likely to listen to their old school friends and classmates, those with the wealth, influence and contacts to really affect change in our so called 'democracy', than to us. Since May 2010, government minsters have met with corporate representatives on 1,537 occasions compared to just 130 times for trade unions. Think about it.

Reflective of this is how the recent budget seemed geared to pleasing the interests of business leaders. Cutting the 50p rate of tax, corporation tax, and continuing to attack those on benefits. No one dared to suggest that the budget should actually serve the interests of ordinary people instead. Here is a chilling contrast; hundreds of thousands made clear their rejection of the NHS and education reforms and the government did not budge. A handful of rich economists and business leaders complained about the 'tyranny' of the 50p tax rate, and Mr. Osbourne kowtowed to their every whim. If this is what you call democracy then I don’t see what all the fuss is about.

And what of the fourth estate? They, being comprised of the same class of people (only 14% of top journalists attended comprehensives), simply applaud the government's 'reforms' as enlightened and offer a false singular discourse on the economy, or in the case of the Guardian (20 leading Guardian writers went to private school, including lefty heroes Polly Toynbee and George Monbiot) they meekly offer fabricated opposition, that essentially boils down to the same thing, but in a nicer way. The media simply works to hide the innate contradictions of the system from ordinary people and get them to blame all their woes on minorities and those on welfare. Hence these worrying myths about everyone on benefits being a workshy cheat. In our popular culture (60% of top music acts are privately educated) we can see similar trends, with political activity discouraged as not 'laddish' enough, and free thinking drowned up in a sea of rapid populism, which urges selfishness above all else.

 Finally, when people do find the courage to protest and challenge the system, the whole framework acts simultaneously to prevent true democratic process. Increasingly the government uses authoritarian tactics against protesters. Kettling, the presence of armed police, the subtle threats from Theresa May of hose pipes and CS gas being used, all of these should show the anti-democratic nature of Britain to any sane person. Meanwhile the 'free media' only reports protests if the story can be twisted to show the protesters being violent. I did not realise until reading an article on here, that there were actually fairly large protests against austerity on budget day. The media did not care. The press has a profound dislike of political activity that challenges its beloved hegemony. This was shown openly by the rancid Kay Burley in 2010 as she effectively demanded that voting reform activists “go home”.

Paradoxically, all the above was justified on the grounds of 'democracy' based on the 2010 election. The slow death of what little people power we have left is defended on democratic grounds. A real democracy must be about more than just one election every few years. A true democrat votes everyday, and whilst I am not advocating anything near direct democracy, I do feel people need to more actively question the status quo. Most vitally, people need to look at the facts more and think for themselves.

As a Green I am often told that my cause is futile because we live in a “conservative country”. I disagree. We live in a nation where many people do not think properly about politics. If they vote (and a substantial minority don't) they do so on some vague stereotypical assumption or based on the personality not principles of leaders. In a real democracy people would vote based on their conclusions gained from looking properly at the facts, from having a full understanding of the institutions and issues concerned. Currently, we do not have such a situation. Moreover, this ideal state of affairs would entail equality of influence and power.

Democracies should ignore wealth, talent, prestige, charisma, control of information and so many other arbitrary influences that so corrupt our illusory democracy at the moment. Press ownership regulations, a more equal society, a fairer education system (no more private schools), paid internships and so on, along with an attack on the political-media class as a whole is vital to achieve this.

Apathy or disinterest is no excuse, these issues affect us all, and the only way we can preserve our threatened freedoms and democracy is via proper political engagement.