Coffee House

We need to talk about democracy

11 October 2012

11 October 2012

I’ve been away from party politics for a few weeks and have watched the conferences as an interested reader rather than an active participant, so it is interesting (for me at least) to consider their aftermath this morning. It seems undeniable that, from the perspective of having gone about one’s normal working life for three weeks, the conference halls seemed very distant, almost as if they existed in a different sphere of reality. This is not to say that they are unimportant or even that the politicians found in them are out of touch, necessarily; but it is to say that there is more to our national political life than these salons for the tribal.

I was interested to read Fraser’s view that the fringe was more vibrant than the conference hall, because this was exactly my experience at last year’s Labour conference. The debates were fresher, the ideas keener.  And, most important and surprising of all, there was a constructive atmosphere between opposing views, a sense that the object was to reach an equitable solution rather than strike a pose. I recall one event particularly: a discussion about energy policy and its effects on heavy industry. The panel comprised a trade unionist, a representative of chemical businesses, an environmental campaigner and two Labour backbenchers. There was no name-calling and neither was there group-think, just reasoned argument which led to the conclusion that protecting the environment (and Britain’s environmental heritage) was as important as protecting skilled jobs, and that the present policy, at a national and international level, does neither. I have seen few panel events that better expressed Britain’s interest and belief in politics, and partisanship was conspicuous by its absence.

Parties exist to create dividing lines, as our adversarial system demands. This is as much a question of personality and presentation as it is of policy. Take this year’s conferences: Ed Miliband chose to present himself as the champion of the comprehensive school, to which David Cameron responded with the neat line that he wants to ‘spread’ privilege. The capacity for empathy is important in any human being, but as that fringe event at last year’s Labour conference proved there is more in heaven and earth than this comic strip approach to politics.

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The problem of division is, of course, historical. In a major study to be published next year, Sir David Cannadine will argue that history has been written to dramatize differences, often with a view to changing readers’ opinions rather than setting out facts or emphasising the blander points of agreement. This historical legacy, Cannadine apparently says, has often had disastrous effects on the way that we analyse policy. There was, to my mind, a perfect example of this a few weeks back during the advent of the coalition’s latest industrial policy, which proposes government support for emerging industries and a programme of deregulation in the employment market. This was met with consternation, both within and without parliament. Newsnight, for example, confronted the issue from the perspective that one simply cannot be in favour of limited government intervention and deregulation. Somewhat oddly, most of the ministers voicing the proposals agreed with Newsnight’s premise and gave a less than convicing account of themselves. But the analysis is illogical: there is no reason why you cannot be in favour of both intervention and deregulation, or recognise that both might be beneficial if properly managed. The dividing line dates perhaps from the tumultuous 1970s, when failed state interventions were all too many. The world has moved on since then, even if our political system has not.

The public has, unquestionably, lost faith in the parties; decades of low turnout and falling membership prove it. Parties have tried to renew themselves by creating more elected posts and tinkering with system: the recent failed attempts to create elected mayors in English cities and reform the voting system are cases in point; and the Tories, at least, will be hoping that elected police commissioners fare better. I have to admit pessimism on that score because I get the impression that parties and the multitude of elections they fight contribute to the general disaffection with politics. Indeed, many talented people are being put off electoral politics for this reason. I recently interviewed Patrick Hennessey – someone who has ‘done it’, as the saying goes, in the army and is doing it again, this time at the commercial bar. He is articulate, confident and blessed both with intellect and the common touch. Would he ever consider standing for office?

‘I love politics; I think that anyone who doesn’t is weirdly lacking in engagement because it’s something that impacts on their lives. But, especially in the current climate, it bemuses me as to why anyone would like to be a politician.’

It’s a good example of the malaise that has beset our system in that even the interested are opting out. The parties are aware of the problem, but so far their solutions have been rejected. Tomorrow, the Spectator will publish an interview with Professor Mark Mazower, who has written a book charting the history of international government from the Concert of Vienna in 1814 to the present day United Nations. His conclusion is stark: our confidence in government is low and our representative institutions have been hollowed out by economic and political forces. In short, ordinary people are dispossessed and this is a moment of political danger. He told me that ‘we are having great difficulty in explaining what we mean by democracy.’ It is hard to dissent from that view, which leads to a loss of faith in democracy and voting. Are elections in which turnout barely breaks 35 per cent a worthwhile exercise? Is there any value investing time, money and political capital in institutions and movements that are so obviously held in contempt? Do we cheapen democracy by doing so?

Elections are, of course, vital and it is important to remember that a lot of blood was shed securing them. The Palace of Westminster bears this history on its walls: from the scars of Blitz bomb damage to the empty suits of armour in the House of Lords, which represent the barons who forced King John to sign Magna Carta. This history is a reminder that democracy, and the institutions and principles tied to it, are flexible, changing with fashions in thought and association over the course of centuries. The modern world seems to spin ever faster, but our political system grows ever more sluggish and remote. Perhaps we’re entering a period where the political nation might force the political class to reconsider how representative and administrative institutions might be renewed and made more relevant, democratic and accountable.

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Show comments
  • William Blakes Ghost

    The problem has been that for probably 50 years or perhaps grasping polticians have been taking powerto the centre in the delusional belief that the problem was not them. Time after time the political elite refuse to acknowledge the wishes of the majority of the electorate (on immigration, energy, political crassness, foreign aid, justice, EU, the English Question etc etc) and instead obfuscate and prevaricate to retain their own perverse little liberal fiefdom where an equality crime deserves all but death but where the denial of property or violence other than extreme violence is treated as a nuisance. A fiefdom which has slowly sapped the resources, support and aspirations of the nation into non existence.

    Basically we don’t care anymore because we really haven’t got a say and the powers that be aren’t listening. Its typical of a society thats turning from decline into a tailspin. Desperate politicians acknowledging failure grasp more power to their bosom in the delusional belief that they can ‘fix’ whats broken. Sadly what they feel to recognise is that more often than not what is most broken is the poltical elite and their entourage.

    The answer of course is for political elite (and their various vested interests including their respective propaganda wings within the media) to give us our country back and to do that they must restore power to the electorate. Of course that means first and foremost kissing goodbye to Brussels and giving the English equality of democracy with the other Home nations in our case (don’t hold your breath). It also means undermining their own sad little fiefdoms.

    Sadly, it’s very clear that the three establishment parties that make up the political elite understand this but have no interest in a real redistribution of power back to the people. For some years they have disingenuously flirted with giving power back. However, their attempts to placate the masses are transparently false. They have shamefully and insidiously used supposed democratic legislation and proposals to strengthen their power bases (Devolution Act, Voting System Reform, Phillips Party Funding proposals, HoL Reform, boundary changes), further attempted to reduce democracy (the reduction in the number of MPs, the creation of appointed Quangoes and unelected ‘Independent’ Watch Dogs), reneged upon promises of referendums on the EU and the offering of irrelevent referendums on pointless issues like the voting system (i.e. shuffling the deckchairs between the three stooge parties) or on mayoralties (pointless figureheads if the power remains in London and Brussels). Even when potentially a decent bit of redistribution of power arises such as the elected police commissioners proposal it is not long before it is gutted (as the unelected House Of Lords did with that particular piece of legislation) and just becomes another tool of opportunity to provide soft incomes for party stooges and party has-beens.

    What is also noticeable is how desperately the stooge establishment parties are working to avoid discussing our democracy and in particular using the ideas of redistribution of wealth and the politics of envy (you just can’t get away from those bankers!) to deflect from the real problem of over centralisation of power within parties within Westminster and Whitehall and within Brussels and Strasbourg. Thats the point, its not so much redistribution of wealth the country needs but redistribution of power and most of that redistribution needs to be downwards to the lower levels of society.

    Now as it is I see few volunteers (Eric Pickles perhaps seems to get it, Carswell and Hannan aside) amongst the stooge establishment parties to resolve this very real problem and as such I predict nothing other than further decline and desperation for them as a result.

    So there it is, we the people want our country back, our debt and power addicted Bourbonic elite refuse and will continue to refuse to hand it back. It is after all like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas.

    How long will it be before what effectively can be summed up as an irresistible cry of “Give us our country back” having further fallen on the deaf ears of the self indulgent political elite grows beyond the current disaffection and derision to something far more serious?

  • daniel maris

    I would say let’s have a programme of introducing direct democracy over a 10 year period during which there would be some national eductional programme to encourage the public to focus on these new issues. I would say introduce these new responsibilities in phases, starting with social issues, then moving on to constitutional and finally policy.

  • Matthew Whitehouse

    Which political party would want to engage more with their public? The public tell them straight what they want, the public could make politicians lives easier if only politicians actually saw themselves as servants. THEY DONT! A case in point: Dave Cameron says (ref EU) “People dont want IN/OUT – they want a better deal” – Actually – The British people are a good mix of different opinions – so how can he say that? – It’s because it makes his job EASIER! I am a Tory voter that is almost completely disenchanted by (not just) the Tories, but by All Parties.

  • Tara Biles

    Some really intreging ideas, this article had been enlightening about the current state of democracy, i completely agree with many of the presmises and for me, this make it a promising and thought provoking read.

  • Jules

    Electoral reform to introduce pure PR

    Swiss style National referendums

    These two things will reinvigorate democracy in Britain, but the vested interests and the political class oppose them.

  • echo34

    Sod democracy, we need to talk about the apathy.

    • james102

      They are related.

      To the average member of the electorate, not the football
      fan like party loyalists, there is no difference between the parties.

      They don’t vote or vote with little enthusiasm because they
      know it makes very little difference.

      Every time a judge overrules a politician, everytime a
      directive is issued by the EU, that has to be implemented, the Apathy
      supporters point to it as proof voting does not matter.

  • TomTom

    Democracy is a dead concept never present in political parties. It was promoted to get men to die en-masse in two world wars but is hardly relevant today when vested interests buy policy. Parties are simply franchises bought by moneyed interests and peddle soap to the masesin return for votes, but fewer are convinced and turnout collapses. There is no inherent right for any Man to rule Another and no legitimacy to political power – it rests on crude violence and intimidation.

  • munchkinette

    i do go to the polling station out of respect for those who died so that I might be free to exercise my vote. I then spoil the ballot paper out of disgust. The world is increasingly running horizontally (global corporations, global terrorist groups, global brands, etc) resulting in vertical structures (the nation state) being left out in the cold. My prediction is revolution and a reversion to localism. It’s already starting as people barter to survive. I am now old enough to know that what goes around comes around – so it will be with “politics”

  • rubyduck

    Start by taking the party off the ballot paper. We vote for individuals.

  • dorothy wilson

    “The democracy will cease to exist when you take away from
    those who are willing to work and give to those who would not”.

    Thomas Jefferson, 3rd president of the USA

  • Charlie the Chump

    Welcome back David, you have been missed recently.
    I profoundly disagree with the idea that governmen intervention in anything has ever been successful. Things work better the further away government is.
    As to involvement in politics why would anybody wish to attend a poitical conference now? The expense is great, time off (except in public or council service) difficult, the public is used to online forums, surveys and interaction, online shopping and next day insurance cover or delivery is an expectation not a wish.
    Why will we need the continued intermediation of politicians or political parties when a broader and deeper public consultation on any and every issue can be achieved online? Who knows participation might just go up with more security and less fraud!
    Even referenda are now out of date.
    Why would mass party membership model – developed over 100 years ago – be relevant now? Join a party and your views will be in many cases ignored as outside the group think of those few who run the local constituency party comittee or trade union bloc?
    The outdated Democractic model and its institutions are just not relevant to the modern population hence the continuing drop in party membership, activism and the increase in single issue politics.
    We even have to question whether the constituency is the best basis for aggregating votes with out of date census information leading to mis-sized electoral maps.

    • Dimoto

      And who do you suggest is going to collect distill, and interpret, all of these “public consultations”, Victoria Derbyshire or Simon Cowell ?

      • Dimoto

        Or even Lord Hutton ?

        • Charlie the Chump

          Classic establishmeny cover up, exactlry why we need to change things

      • Charlie the Chump

        Forget about radio 5Live or whatever crap you listen to and think, just think how the world has changed and how our institutions haven’t. That’s all, just try thinking.

        • prince hairy

          Sorry, chum. No thinking allowed. There’s party lines to be toed. Mind.

  • Justathought

    We are told by our leaders that we are all in ‘this’ together yet when you turn on the TV the presenter and their supporting cast are likely to be paying less tax at the connivance of the BBC. Ditto for a plethora of major companies. Ditto for top civil servants etc. The truth is that it’s everyman for himself and that they take the high road while the rest of us can go to hell in a hand cart.

  • alexsandr

    politics has failed because we have allowed it to be taken over by the professional politician, people who have no experience of life as the electorate know it, nor of business.
    And parliament continues to be debased by the whip system. MP’s should be there to represent their constituents, not sheepishly follow party lines.

    • TomTom

      Whips derived from the Hunt – how typical of the British Parliament

  • wrinkledweasel

    Sorry, but what does “Magna Carta” mean exactly?

    The document was signed because a lot of very powerful people wanted to stay that way, a bit like being in the EU, but without the grand pretense that it had anything to do with democracy.

  • wrinkledweasel

    Sorry, but what does “Magna Carta” mean exactly?

    The document was signed because a lot of very powerful people wanted to stay that way, a bit like being in the EU, but without the grand pretense that it had anything to do with democracy.

    • james102

      Like the so-called Peasants’ Revolt and beheading a King, a
      century before the French, Magna Carta showed the English did not believe in
      the God Given Right of Kings. They like the Show Biz aspects but don’t like
      them to have any real power. It is the same with our political class, we don’t
      like them getting above themselves. It is a very different history than
      continental Europe.

      • Charlie the Chump

        Magna Carta established the right of the Barons to escape overall control by the KIng; the Bill of Rights shattered the divine right of Kings and established true parliamentary democracy. This now has to be updated for the 21st century.

    • Charlie the Chump

      More relevant to us today is The Bill of Rights which needs to be updated to prevent the new elites – both here and in Europe – from deciding the future without the consent of the electorate.

  • Rhoda Klapp

    Well, I have often criticised the Spectator crew for triviality, for concentrating on the ephemeral at the expense of what is important. This item at last begins to discuss serious subjects. Please let us make it a harbinger rather than a freak.

    Now, what to do. There is nothing the ordinary voter can do. Your vote is wasted, parties do not stick to their promises. Things which were not in the manifesto turn up in policy within days of securing an election. So who can do anything? Those guardians of democracy the media. And that means you. David Blackburn, Fraser Nelson, James Forsyth et al. You should be calling out every undermining of democracy, every failure of process, every example of fiddling or corruption, every time some damnable lobby outfit gets access to a ministry to fix some rent-seeking scheme. But you don’t. You are as partisan and as ineffective as the rest of them.

    • dalai guevara

      Bingo – ‘the government’ has just revealed that it lost key evaluation data on the West Coast Rail franchise bid. I rest my case, see list below…

      • james102

        This really needs to be dragged out into the open. This time
        the officials need to be brought before a committee of parliament, meeting in
        public and with QCs doing the questioning.

        • dalai guevara

          The bible needs to come out more often, none of this Tucker chit chat – I am not referring to ‘In The Thick Of It Opposition’.

        • TomTom

          Kate Mingay, Cambridge, LBS, Goldman Sachs……Omerta Rules OK

      • TomTom

        Where Goldman Sachs is involved shreeders work overtime

    • HellforLeather

      Rhoda, spot on — as ever. I once asked Fraser Nelson to enlist you as a columnist/blogger. Didn’t even bother to reply. Says a lot about this lot.

      • telemachus associates

        Democracy in Europe is a failed experiment.
        Witness the Weimar republic now being duplicated by the increasingly dictatorial Merkel-Brussels Prescription Regime.
        Westminster has long been the dictatorship of the Downing Street Elite through their control through the whip system of the legislature.
        How else would we have found ourselves in Iraq and Afghanistan?
        Do you imagine we have a free press?
        They are controlled by a ruling elite always hand in glove with Downing Street.
        The current Prime Minister arranged the safety valve of Leveson to latterly hint that he will ignore the outcome.
        The important question for our Nation is whether we will be more comfotable with a dictatorship of Merkel-Brussels or a dictatorship of Downing Street.

        • Matthew Whitehouse

          The EU has just WON the NOBEL PEACE PRIZE – for (amongst other things) The Advancement of Democracy (what a joke!)

    • bloughmee

      You’ll have to wait until today’s media go bankrupt, and they appear well on their way to that outcome.

      I suspect the Spectator has a financial sugar daddy of some sort or another, similar to the way Carlos Slim is financing the New York Times, as they continue to slide The legacy media is still withering away, even as the dictatorship of the proletariat replaces them. We won’t see significant change and accountability until today’s media placeholders disappear.

  • james102

    If ‘democracy’ as we normally think of it in the UK, is to
    survive we need to move to more direct democracy.

    The problem, of course, is this is in direct opposition to
    the rise of a political class and the political culture of Continental Europe,
    which for this purpose is the Franco-Germans.

    The recent conferences show that our media and political
    class still think it is about a high tech version of soap boxes and the talents
    that stood out at university debating societies.

    dalai guavara makes the
    point above, how accountable are politicians and officials? The further we move
    towards proportionate outcomes, in appointments, the more this question will be
    asked. One official said to be involved in the Rail contract fiasco is said to
    have been criticised by a judge when in charge of Birmingham’s election process,
    then took up a senior position with the later judged ‘not fit for purpose’
    border agency and from there to involvement with this farce. A politician may
    face questions from a committee she and her highly paid colleagues will not.

    • Dimoto

      Absolute cobblers.
      Deference has ended.
      That doesn’t just mean that ‘hat doffing’ has ended, it means that any half-witted, know-nothing product of our buggered society and crippled education system is now taught that his/her opinion is of equal weight to the most erudite, experienced and thoughtful specialist. Not just in the election of a government, but in deciding every complex issue of national life.
      And you want “more direct democracy”, no doubt fondly imagining that Joe public will agree with you on your favourite hobby-horses.
      Representative democracy is the only way. The problem is to make the representatives more representative and drawn from a far wider spectrum of society.

      BTW, Why has ‘Cable the Intervener’ been so studiously silent on BAE/EADS and Barclays increasing it’s share of the UK retail savings market yet further, wasn’t he supposed to be in favour of more competition ?
      One might even think that our Business Secretary is all hot air, or not a ‘master of his brief” or even exhausted after all those taxing hours thinking up juvenile jibes to throw at the Tories at ‘Conference’.

      • james102

        Obviously you do not believe in the wisdom of crowds.

        I don’t expect people to agree with me or support any hobby
        horses I may have: that seems the weakness of the political class.

        Who are the erudite thoughtful and experienced politicians
        you refer to ?The average MP?The average councillor?Cameron?Clegg?Miliband?They have never held senior positions outside politics and in the case of Cameron and Miliband they never held senior positions until being elected leaders of their parties. They are untested.
        By the way “Cobblers” is not a word that is usually associated with an erudite type argument.

        • Dimoto

          The “wisdom of crowds” was supposed to be about the superiority of collective decisions by informed people, not decisions reduced to simplistic questions, decided by entirely uninformed, but suggestible masses, after a distorted campaign of propaganda by a deeply corrupt media/lobbyists.
          Not to say that major, constitutional issues shouldn’t be put directly to the people though.
          Maris has a new nirvana, Germany is now passe, Switzerland is the new Germany. “If it’s good enough for the Swiss, it’s good enough for us”. Apparently.

          • james102

            No, in fact seemingly uninformed people seem to make rather
            good decisions.

            If you get a chance read James Surowiecki’s ‘wisdom of crowds’.

            Think about the average MP or councillor—what aspects of your life would you leave to their decisions? Think about Prime Minister’s Question Time, do you think that is a model of reasoned argument? Think about your local councillors, are they
            really so much better than the average voter?

            Do you think John Prescott would make better decisions about transport etc than a randomly chosen member of the public?

            Even on this blog the most partisan defenders of the political class can’t put an argument without being offensive to people who don’t share their views.

            • Charlie the Chump


          • Charlie the Chump

            Who said we have to continue with rigged simplistic questionsas delivered through the existing party stitchup , simply put the information out there and trust the wisdom of crowds.

            • Charlie the Chump

              Can’t say I particularly like the Swiss though

          • Daniel Maris

            I have the revolutionary notion we can learn from other people. We can learn from the Japanese about robotics. We can learn from the Swiss about direct democracy. We can learn from Germany about how to do renewable energy.

      • Daniel Maris

        Why is representative democracy the “only way”? The Swiss have direct democracy and none of us have a clue who their President or Prime Minister are. Good. That’s the way it should be.

        No one is talking about the people deciding on what to plant in the Royal Parks. We are talking about the big, broad outlines: social issues such as criminal justice, marriage qualification, abortion, and so on. Many countries deal with such matters through referenda. Then there are the big constitutional issues. These should always be through referenda. I would also say we shoudl decide on major tax and welfare policy matters and major infrastructure developments.

        • Charlie the Chump


      • Charlie the Chump

        I would trust the public to give an independent, considered response any time when compared to the back room party/whip system that has corrupted parliament for too long.
        Totally agree about that socialist tosser Cable.

    • Daniel Maris

      I agree entirely James. If it’s good enough for the Swiss it’s good enough for us.

      We need direct democracy so the people can reclaim ownership of the system.

      The people are perfectly able to decide on the big social issues and the big constitutional issues.

      • james102

        And we now have the technology.

        • Daniel Maris

          The technology needs some work on it. We don’t really have technologies that can’t be hacked into and abused.

          We might have to stick to paper ballots for the moment.

      • TomTom

        Switzerland is a Confederation – Britain is a Unitary State

  • dalai guevara

    We need to talk about accountability:

    1- when rail franchise is a shambles, just Greening her out? Who is accountable.
    2- when no clinician is in support of NHS privatisation part II, just let Lansley pause and listen? Who is accountable.
    3- when BSkyB is not forgotten. Who is accountable.
    4- when Bahrain is calling for some Yardies. Who is accountable
    5- when defense cronyism even moved into the cabinet. Who is accountable.
    6- when titles are all you strip. Who is accountable.

    Give us a break and act in a way that catches our attention. Trustworthy is what you are not.

    • Dimoto

      You are right.
      A long term of imprisonment for Brown, Balls, (and their sleaze factory operatives), and perhaps 2000 hours of ‘community service’ for their bag-carrier Miliminor, beckons !

      • dalai guevara

        You should have realised by now that my list does not stop at party boundaries.

        • prince hairy

          But party boundaries are the only things that matter to party drones.

          There’s no thought. No analysis. Just blind devotion. It’s absurd, but there it is.

      • Charlie the Chump

        I will turn the key!

  • David Cockerham

    Surely there’s absolutely nothing new about this question; millions of us have been asking oyrselves it for some years now. What we expect from The Spectator is attempts at an answer.

    • james102

      As I wrote before Douglas Carswell MP has some good ideas as
      does Daniel Hannan a couple of articles by them on the subject would be worth

      • Charlie the Chump

        More informative, entertaining and relevant than Isabel Hardman too.
        And what about devoting a whole new part of the site to the “new intake” where ideas are the currency of the day?

  • toco10

    Red Ed Miliband needs to learn about democracy before launching Marxist hypocritical attacks.Having never had a job one wonders just how he lives in a house worth circa £2.5 million and can afford expensive tax professionals to ensure he doesn’t pay his fair share in Inheritance Tax.He should try to be a man and give back the tax he has legitimately avoided if the rumours are correct about this duplicity.

    • james102

      The Milibands’ family background tells you all you need to

      The grandson of a Russian revolutionary who after the
      revolution turns up in Belgium. The son of a leading Marxist historian who
      could not disguise his hatred of the British despite the fact they saved his
      life by allowing him to live here.

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