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It wasn’t so much a problem when human beings lived in small hunter gatherer tribes of 20 to 40. Then, they worked together, sharing the tasks of hunting, foraging, making fire, cooking, shelter, defence to ensure their survival. The dilemma occurred after they learnt how to grow, harvest and store food and to domesticate wild animals and were able to settle in stable communities that grew to hundreds and then thousands of people. This necessitated the allocation of roles for purposes of food supply, trade, defence and public health and a system of laws to regulate societies.

Initially such city states were ruled by strong or powerful kings; warlords who defended the community and organised the people by force. As the threat of invasion receded, this type of leadership could so easily become tyrannical and burdensome. Democracy or ‘rule by the people’ was introduced in Athens in about 500 BCE. Plato, writing at the time, feared that allowing people to govern themselves would lead to anarchy or mob rule, which would inevitably revert to tyranny or dictatorship. It is perhaps no surprise that he favoured a benign oligarchy of philosophers, but what arose in Athens was a somewhat larger more representative ruling body of ‘free’ citizens, that excluded slaves, foreigners, women and children.

As states increased in size, direct rule by the people led to chaos and inertia. It had to be managed. Democracy’s dilemma has always been how to guarantee the right of every citizen to have a stake in the running of the state, while ensuring that decisions regarding defence, food supply, trade, property and public health could be made under sound logistical and moral principles without undue argument and delay. The answer was to elect or appoint people who could represent different factions within the community. However, only those with sufficient political and moral training were considered able to supervise the legislative, executive and judicial functions of the state. Some states created an extra tier of organisation to safeguard effective governance. The government of ancient Rome offered power to the people through the election of tribunes, but political authority was held by the senate, who listened to the tribunes and transformed the will of the people into workable laws. America’s congress is based on the Roman model with a house of representatives and a senate. Each state within the union appoints two senators. While representing the interests of each state in the political process, they review and debate bills, treaties, and proposed legislation and oversee the president’s administration.

An ideal democracy, while acknowledging the diverse opinions of the electorate, must, none-the-less modify voter preferences to ensure good government. Such transformation of popular needs and concerns into effective legislation needs to be conducted with transparency, honesty and equity, ensuring that the opinions of different factions are heard and debated in order to attain a workable consensus. Moreover, the legislative, executive and judicial roles of government should be kept separate so that each is independent. Finally, the decisions of government should be carried out in accordance to a written constitution, which is nevertheless subject to periodic review.

How many modern democracies operate entirely according to those principles? The answer, of course, is none, although most claim accountability to the people they represent. Practical expediency necessitates at-best, compromise and at-worst, subversion.  As a system for running a state, Churchill once declared that ‘democracy is the worst form of government except for those other forms that have been tried from time to time’.

In his recent book, ‘Democracy and its Crisis’, the philosopher, Professor Anthony Grayling, outlined three reasons why modern democracies, particularly those in the UK and US, are failing. They are: governments are too self serving of their own class and faction, the electorate is inadequately represented and insufficiently informed and there is too much interference in government by external agencies.

An Elected Dictatorship.

In the UK, the prime minister and her cabinet effectively run the country, subject to the ‘approval’ of parliament. They organise both executive and legislative functions of government and are only accountable to the people inasmuch as they can either be endorsed or rejected after five years. Bills may be delayed by resistance in The House of Lords, but they cannot be blocked. Even the judiciary lacks the power to strike down laws made by parliament, although it can ask parliament to reconsider laws that contravene legislation on human rights. In the nineteen seventies, Lord Hailsham called the UK system of government an elective dictatorship. This has not changed.

A similar system exists in the United States.  Executive authority resides with the President and the House of Representatives, though the senate does have the power to overturn legislation. For a good part of the history of the United States, there has been a de facto combination of powers with the legislature and executive, both houses of congress and the President working together when the same party has a majority in the house and the senate.

The distortions and inequities of the electoral system and party divisions means that governments of both countries do not represent the diverse views of the population or even majority public opinion. Instead, the executive government represents the background and experience of those members, the President or Prime Minister have appointed. You would at least think that the executive could be held to account by their individual members, but the reality is that in the UK they are bullied, bribed and blackmailed by the ‘whips’ into supporting the party line. It was the whips made sure that article 50 was triggered for Britain to leave the European Union, even though the result of the referendum was only ever meant to be advisory document and only 37% of the electorate voted for it. On a matter as important as leaving the EU, a two thirds majority would have ensured that the people truly decided. Unfortunately, the executive was able ‘to make it up as it went along’, partly because Britain does not have a written constitution. Even party manifestoes are less an agenda for the next parliament than a wish list that may be discarded as situations change.

Both the current UK and US governments could be accused as being out of touch with the electorate and only serving the interests of a small executive group. History teaches us that such unrepresentative government can lead to envy, riot, and replacement by a more populist regime, risking another form of dictatorship. This has already happened in the US while in the UK, an alternative government is biding it’s time, waiting for the current incumbents to implode.

Representation

Government should represent a diversity of views, but the absence of proportional representation in the ‘first past the post system’, operated by both the UK and the US, means that certain views are under-represented or not represented at all. Climate change is arguably the major threat facing mankind, yet tackling it is only championed by The Green Party in the UK. Although, over a million people voted for the Greens in 2015, only one member was elected. And in the United States, Donald Trump, a candidate with no qualification for parliamentary leadership, won more states, even though  Hillary Clinton, with three years experience as Secretary of State, got 3 million more popular votes. The major parties argue that proportional representation would lead to coalition and weak government, but coalition would mean greater representation of the views of the electorate and less manipulation by class based ideology and powerful external agencies. As such, it would be more democratic.

Fake News and Bullshit.

External agencies, particularly the news media have too much influence on both the electorate and MPs. Post truth, fake news, distortion, propaganda, ad hominem attacks, even the caricatures of cartoonists like Peter Brookes create what political commentator and presenter of BBC’s Newsnight, Evan Davis, calls ‘bullshit’ and can all too easily affect the way people think and vote. Bullshit is the political journalist’s stock-in-trade; they are there to probe, to question, to stir things up. It gives them access to the levers of power without any of the responsibility? But it none-the-less undermines our faith in any kind of government. Many people were manipulated to vote for Brexit by exaggerated fears of foreign intervention and immigration?

Social media has made this much worse. Google and other social media outlets can create profiles of every voter. This allows them to target voters in key constituencies or states to swing the vote in a particular direction.

Government can be manipulated by donations from rich individuals or sponsorship from big corporations, while within government, networks of military and civilian officials have a major influence what the executive decides.

For the Many not the Few.

Most MPs and members of the US congress have grown up at a time of peace. Britain and the USA and most of Europe have had no wars on their soil for over 70 years. This may explain an attitude of complacency on the part of government. David Cameron – remember him – failed to factor in a vote to leave the EU or appreciate the inherent inequality in income and opportunity that many in Britain suffered. ‘For the many, not the few’ chimes with the resentment and aspirations of lower paid workers. They are fed up with excuses and inaction, fed up with being fobbed off with the same tired old rhetoric that promises everything and never delivers, fed up with the brouhaha of party politics, fed up with the way the news media create a crisis out of everything. Although we may recognise the criticism of the government of the day and the promises for something different and better as just so much bullshit, we nevertheless are drawn in by somebody who promises to transform the political arena into something different, more can-do. This is the appeal of self appointed populist leaders like Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn, though only the latter can claim hard won experience of government.

So now, a hundred years on from a proletarian revolution in Russia, the US seems threatened by a new form of tyranny while British democracy is rapidly losing all credibility and influence. Can we ever pull ourselves back from the brink and reform the democratic system? Or do things have to get much worse before there is the will to change them? Can we introduce a fair system of proportional representation? Can we reform parliamentary procedures and abolish the party whips? Can we ensure transparency of funding for elections? Can we abolish the manipulation of elections by profiling and targeting voters? Can we in Britain replace a defunct House of Lords with an effective and more representative senate, able to challenge the executive when necessary. Can we increase the political effectiveness of local communities? Can we hold the media to account to fact-check what they publish?

It seems that if we are ever to change our system of democracy, we need to be more involved. Government is too distant and centralised. If people could become more involved in local government, they would understand the workings of democracy. Then their deliberations could feed up to higher levels of government. But how many would wish to be involved? Call me an old cynic, but my experience in running a charity suggests that most people would rather others did it for them. Perhaps if we educated our teenagers to understand how democracy works and gave them the vote at 16, they might feel motivated to make a difference.