Coffee House

Where does power lie? Or where should power lie?

19 November 2012

5:05 PM

19 November 2012

5:05 PM

Iain Martin has written a cracking piece for the Telegraph entitled: ‘The coming battle with the EU is about sovereignty.’ Iain recommends a new play, 55 Days, which tells the story of the aftermath of the English Civil Wars and the execution of Charles I. He was gripped by this tale of power and politics, and asked Tristram Hunt and Douglas Carswell why the civil wars continue to resonate.

Carswell, in his new book, The End of Politics: And the birth of i-democracy, argues that the 2010 intake, on both sides of the House, has revived parliament. MPs are defying the whips to assert their constituents’ views. The MPs are doing this, Carswell says, because the internet has brought them closer to their constituents.

Carswell equates himself and his colleagues with the heroes of the English Revolution; but to my eyes Carswell has anarchistic tendencies. The End of Politics is a profoundly anti-elitist book, full of rousing condemnations of administrators whose arrogance led them to order human affairs ineptly when such affairs are better ordered, Carswell says, by free individuals and the free market. Far from being a plutocrat like Oliver Cromwell, Carswell sounds more like a post-modern Leveller or a Ranter to me.


Either way, parliament does seem to be re-asserting itself; the recent rebellions over prisoner voting and the EU budget were expressions of its self-confidence against unaccountable, multi-lateral institutions such as the European Union and the European Court of Human Rights. Iain says that the financial crash and the ensuing political crisis have made us face the question ‘at the heart of 55 Days: where does power ultimately lie?’ He favours parliamentary sovereignty as a starting point.

Yet 55 Days poses another question, or at least another theme: politics as a messy, unplanned business. At one point in the drama, Cromwell says: ‘we are inventing a country’. Cromwell, who Milton famously described as ‘our chief of men’, has evolved into a mythic being over the ages. The Victorian historian Thomas Carlyle wrote of him, ‘I confess I have an interest in this Mr Cromwell; and indeed, if truth must be said, in him alone. The rest are historical, dead to me; but he is epic, still living. Hail to thee, thou strong one; hail across the longdrawn funeral-aisle and night of time!’

Yet some of Cromwell’s contemporaries were not so enamoured. Richard Baxter, a pastor invited by Cromwell to be chaplain to the Ironsides regiment, wrote of him: ‘he thought secrecy a virtue, and dissimulation no vice, and simulation, that is in plain English, a lie, or perfidiousness to be tolerable fault in case of necessity.’ Cromwell was, as the Earl of Clarendon dubbed him in The History of the Great Rebellion, ‘a brave bad man’, the ultimate political animal.

Douglas Carswell’s The End of Politics is a valuable read for anyone interested in the role that the internet might play in the renewal of representative democracy; but his optimistic conclusions recall Stalin’s retort to H.G. Wells – a man who, like Carswell, believed in the transformative power of technology (albeit to totally different ends) – that there is such a thing as politics. The ordering of affairs, both private and public, is not merely a matter of mathematics or algorithms. There is identity, imperfection and irrationality; therefore there is choice, confection and compromise.

Cromwell and 55 Days remind us that politics is a mess of pragmatism and expedience, especially at times of uncertainty. Such times require us to revisit what we mean by democracy; and last week’s shambolic elections appear to make that requirement even more pressing. I respectfully disagree with Iain Martin. The question facing us is not: where does power ultimately lie? It is: where should ultimately power lie?

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Show comments
  • Robert Bucke

    Media sells Power. People buy it through the press, TV and internet. We get what we pay for, having exercised choice as to what might transfer power from one to another. People power prevails, but so much is undetected or unused.

  • Daniel Tekel Thomas

    Power should always lie with the people. If the people are unable to see through the spin and sophistry and continue to loan their power to career politicians like Cameron, Clegg and Miliband they deserve everything they get.

  • pearlsandoysters

    The question of sovereignty is a sovereign in the political theory. It’s a common knowledge amongst the members of academia that the EU defies all conceptions of sovereignty and somehow wait expectantly what would come out of such a daring enterprise. From academic stand point(s) where the sovereignty resides in the EU is not easily answerable. One of the possible twists in the saga of the EU is slow and painful crumbling of the nation-states as such. Anyway, the nation-states have been with for a limited spell of time, so it might be a good riddance leading to regionalism and localism flourishing.

  • Kevin

    What! No tote board?

    I see, this is a discussion of British, not American politics.

  • Simon

    Where does power lie? Only hindsight will tell. If you had been with Ceaucescu, where would you have thought power resided as you were stepping out onto that balcony?

    Where should it lie? With the monarch and the people but exactly where, and through which representatives, varies from time to time.
    There can be no easy answers.

  • wrinkledweasel

    I don’t understand why you call Carswell an anarchist. Look at him for goodness sake, I’ve never seen him without a shirt and tie! Carswell is Establishment. It’s just that the Establishment got hijacked a while ago by nutty liberals and he wants it back.

  • wrinkledweasel

    Power lies in this rotten BBS which appears to have the power to freeze my computer every time I visit it.

  • TomTom

    What a messed-up and incoherent article. The fact is that the system has been distorted by two world wars and Democratic Centralism which has led to all subsidiary institutions being malformed. I would hate the “local” council of 550,000 citizens to gain more powers…….it is simply unrepresentative and corrupt…..there is nothing left – either direct rule from Westminster or a return to the pre-1972 local government system

  • Daniel Maris

    It’s not rocket science. We need a referendum democracy with a strong PR element if we want people to engage with politics and feel their views are being reflected by the body politic.

    I think the House of Commons should be 50-50 first past the post constituency and a single national PR constituency. That way we get the best of both worlds I think.

    • TomTom

      Doesn’t work in Germany or Israel…………..simply need parties to break down

  • eeore

    We live in an age of cameras, health Tzars, google tracking our keystrokes, the papist EU, government imposed patriotism, controlled media, and authoritarians imposing psychological guilt at every turn.

    It reminds me of nothing more than the rule of the Major Generals.

    Which makes me wonder when we had the civil war, what was said at the modern Putney debates, and who we have to dig up and hang come the restoration.

  • Boudicca_Icenii

    Iain might have written a cracking piece …. but it is basically only what thousands of ordinary commentators have been saying on the DT, DM, Express and Spectator blogs for months and years.
    We are quite happy to trade with the EU. We didn’t mind the idea of a Common Market. But we never gave our political elite a mandate to outsource our governance to the EU. This is about Sovereignty: it has always been about Sovereignty: it always will be about Sovereignty.
    We want our Government to make the laws in the UK and we want our Government to be accountable to US.
    It’s good that Iain Martin has woken up …. and a few others are starting to do so. What a shame The Spectator has failed to do so and James Forsyth acts as Cameron’s Cheerleader.

    • 2trueblue

      Did Cameron give it away?

  • EndOfTrolls

    Power must lie with the people. How easily we have allowed our leaders to give it away to uncaring jobsworth bureaucrats in the ‘public service’, to the police and unelected judges, to the European Court and the European Commision and Parliament. My ancestors and near family’s blood has been spilled in the gaining and maintenence of democracy and I will not have it stolen from me by corrupt politicians and left-leaning liberals and fools who see the circumvention of democracy as a means to a socialist end. Add to this list the liberal media, especially the BBC and foolish commentators on his increasingly lefty magazine who ignore the new facism ensnaring Italy, Spain and poor Greece thinking it could not happen here, seemingly unaware that it already has. Churchill would weep.

  • William Blakes Ghost

    So Blackburn attempts to smear Carswell in the same way that our corrupt ruling elite has smeared Eurosceptics for a generation and so called establishment ‘electoral reformers’ have smeared those in favour of ‘first past the post’. (Anarchists, Fruitcakes, Swivel Eyed Nutters, It’s all the same smear).

    I suppose it was always going to happen once it sunk in amongst the elite and their stooges that the faux democracy and the elite’s lies that have kept the electorate at bay for almost a century no longer has the appeal it once did.

    People are more educated and communications advances have been such that no longer can a corrupt ruling elite hide it’s rotten underbelly of nepotism, narcissism and corruption behind a wall of dishonesty and distraction. People realise more and more what this corrupt self-serving elite are and how they carry on regardless of the nation’s wishes and people don’t appreciate it. They want real democracy as a result. They are disillusioned in ever increasing numbers. They want a real choice between diverse political views not the same political view (the statist establishment view) served up by donkeys wearing different colour rosettes all with the intent to deliver the same undesirable outcome..

    People don’t want pretend offerings (AV referendum, lop-sided devolution, Police Commissioners, Town mayors, Lords reform and the rest ) of power redistribution which in effect only further entrench one, some or all of the ruling elite faction’s power. They want a real redistribution and devolution of power. They want meaningful and lasting reform.

    Blackburn asks where should the power lie? That is a red herring because the answer to that question is still the same as what it has always supposed to have been for the last 85 years – WITH THE PEOPLE and not with the political parties, the vested interests and their associated parasites (think-tanks, pr and ad men, management consultants, pollsters, media etc etc.).

    They want to have power where it should be with them and with their representatives in the community and in Westminster and not in the dull anonymous back halls of bureaucracy and vested interests, in Whitehall, in the CIty, in Brussels and around the Globe.

    The problem has always been that the electorate can only be empowered in a democracy if the ruling elite are honest. Every time a politician or one of his flunkies lies, misrepresents, spins disingenuosly they are undermining democracy .Sadly honesty is one characteristic that does not visit any of our establishment political parties or their leaders on even a haphazard basis and hasn’t for several decades (it’s hard to discern exactly how much honesty there has been in the last 60 or so years ~ certainly by the mids 70’s when Heath and Wilson betrayed us real honesty was a thing of the past).

    So the real question is not where should the power lie but how do we rest power from a corrupt insular self-serving elite who show no desire to want to change a status quo that tantamount equates to continual national decline and failure. The question is how do we empower the electorate despite the ruling elite and how de we force the ruling elite to be honest?

    Now given the elites track record of self-interest, dishonesty and misrepresentation and their clear desire not to co-operate at any level and do what needs to be done in the best interests of the nation (not just in sovereignty and electoral terms but in terms of our obese, unbalanced and dysfunctional state, the economy and numerous other consideratiobs as well), I must admit, I find the idea of a few executions of their leading lights along the lines of what happened King Charles an option that might actually provide some results in actually providing the electorate with the power that is rightfully theirs!

    PS I find it quite astonishing that Blackburn has to be told where the power should lie in a democracy. Was he being obtuse or just plain stupid? Of course might be suggesting an alternative to democracy? He can try and justify doing away with democracy but then I suggest we would be in the realms of real “anarchists, fruit cakes and swivel-eyed nutters”!

    • mikewaller

      In responding to this I am put in mind of Oscar Wilde’s witty observation regarding the death of little Nell: “One must have a heart of stone to read [it] without laughing”.

  • telemachus

    Just what vicar has homophobia to do with where pore lies

    • Colonel Mustard

      Ah, the phobia word rears its ugly little suffix. What phobias lie in the creeping, crawling darkness of the left wing, telemachus? What nasty, dirty secrets of bigotry, prejudice and hate?

      What, there are none? No, no, no. Toryphobia, Thatcherphobia, Freedomphobia, Freedom of Speechophobia, Libertyophobia, CoffeeHouseWallophobia (great big phobia that one, you just can’t let go), Anglophobia, Thinkforyourselfophobia, Christianityandeverythingthatwasoncepureandtrueinthisgreatcountryophobia.

      • telemachus

        I love mankind
        That is why I hold my views

        • Colonel Mustard

          You are bogus. Like most lefties you love only some of mankind. You hate those who disagree with you.

          Someone who espouses trumped up charges to destroy a legitimate political party does not love mankind but is the worst example of mankind.

          You are bogus. And a troll.

        • Fergus Pickering

          People who love mankind generally don’t like anybody.individually. You may say that you love Ed Balls. But he isn’t a person, just an empty suit.

  • Cogito Ergosum

    Cromwell is indeed an interesting figure. He led the parliamentary forces that defeated Charles I because Charles ignored Parliament. But Cromwell in power was equally disdainful of Parliament.

    Originally the power struggle was Parliament v. King. Since the Civil War it has been Parliament Patricians v. Parliament Plebs; a much more blurred scene. Perhaps we should borrow some ideas from the USA to clarify things.

    • the viceroy’s gin

      …or borrow the headsman from that drawing up top this blogpost.

    • TomTom

      Yes the Us political system works well and Americans are so appreciative of Congress and its fine ethical standards…… must smoke pot

  • vix

    Watch and wait for the changes to constituents’ rights to remove their MPs once in power. All the Cabinets value a good whipping when the going gets tough.

    My MP has an automated reply service (probably unpaid ‘interns’ – there’s another subject) to tell me he so values my letter/call/interest. He doesn’t vote or speak up to any my values subsequently though. He’s a Tory btw.

  • Coffeehousewall

    Certainly our MPs should listen to constituents much more closely. But what evidence is there that they do? I don’t believe that my MP does. She is willing to vote to criminalise the majority of the constituency who oppose the redefinition of marriage. And she is closing her constiuency office because she is too busy in London.

  • Adrian Drummond

    It’s disappointing that this question – “where should power lie” was first considered by some of us more circumspect thinkers years ago and it has only until now that it has begun to be taken seriously.

    • telemachus

      As David says we must learn from the Levellers

      (The Levellers came out of John Lilburne’s demand that
      an entirely new form of government, answerable to the People, should be
      constituted from the turmoil of the civil war.

      The Leveller program included religious toleration, reform of the law, free trade, rights guaranteed and a government answerable to the People rather than to King or Parliament.)

      In short this charismatic man was a latter day Ed Balls

      • BlackBob

        The Levellers also demanded equal electoral districts, and we know just what Mr Charisma thinks of that now don’t we?

        • vix


        • telemachus

          Lilburne had many speeches apposite today

          “If our hearts were not over-charged with the sense of the present miseries and approaching dangers of the Nation, your small regard to our late serious apprehensions, would have kept us silent; but the misery, danger, and bondage threatened is so great, imminent, and apparent that whilst we have breath, and are not violently restrained, we cannot but speak, and even cry aloud, until you hear us, or God be pleased otherwise to relieve us.”

          I fear he is describing the coalition

          • Hexhamgeezer


      • eeore

        Given the nepotisim within the Labour party, and their brand of sectional politics based on serfdom. surely they would be the royalists.

      • Boudicca_Icenii

        Balls’ agenda seems to consist of taxing anything possible and c+cking up the economy. I fail to see any correlation between this repulsive man and the Levellers.

        • telemachus

          Read the works
          Read the agenda
          These men were at one with the aims of the parliamentarians
          Until Cromwell became more royal than Charles
          Then they clapped lilburne in irons
          But he overcame
          Ed may be vilified among the chattering but he will prevail

          • Colonel Mustard

            I always suspected Labour had joyless, po-faced, puritan round-headism as its core. The sort of people who ban Christmas trees and dancing. No wonder they seem to have so much in common with the Taliban and radical Islam. Balls even looks like a roundhead – or a member of Rohm’s SA. Miliban – Taliban.

            And of course we all know about your attraction to the dark side of politics – Stalinism, secret policemen, trumped up charges – any means to an end. The “reasonable” mask ever slipping to show the beating heart of evil – as ever was.

            • Dimoto

              Daft post.
              Irresponsible, spendthrift, wasters, spending the naval budget on a lavish court and jobs for the (mostly Scottish) boys, with an eye for every frippery, up to their scrawny necks in debt, taxing the burghers to death, and with a power base in Scotland and at Oxford and obsessed with “being at the centre of Europe” and fanatically abasing themselves before the corrupt Euro-power – if you want to make these far-fetched analogies, Labour are definitely rotten Stewart/Stuart royalists.

              Off with Balls’ head !!

            • telemachus

              You missed the Joy of Manchester
              In any gathering we hear the brethren
              OK if every now and again we need to consider suppressing dissent for the sake of the forward march of reasonableness and return to competent economic management that espouses growth and the prosperity of the people
              Lilburne did not court popularity but knew what was good for ALL the people
              You should read his works

          • eeore

            Indeed, but unlike Lilburne he will be left at liberty for his is less dangerous while people hear his message.

          • Fergus Pickering

            You are a funny fellow, tele, but deluded. And you know no history.

  • mikewaller

    Carswell has so far escaped my notice, but going by most of the more recent MPs I have so far managed to observe, rather than being a latter-day Cromwell, or a post-modern Ranter, he is far more likely to be a bog-standard narcissist. This can be determined by seeing if his mind holds the following as core values (i) As I am not part of the Executive, it must be crap; (ii) Being loved by my constituents and cronies is my right so anything that in any way threatens this must be wrong.

    It is a simple enough test to apply.

    • Rhoda Klapp

      How wonderful, if you don’t know who he is, you can proceed to dismiss him on no actual grounds at all and not engage with his arguments. That tells us more about you than about him.

      • Dimoto

        Fair enough, but he has also got Carswell (who sees himself as a latter day Enoch Powell), bang on. These days, even a Carswell, Dan Hannan and bloody Miliband can pose as deep political thinkers.

      • mikewaller

        Is it not sad how poor the average Englishperson is at grasping statistical concepts? Not knowing the man, I made clear that my assessment was purely probabilistic and then helpfully gave a test that would enable others more knowledgeable in matters Carswellian than I, to form a fact-based view. Could I have been fairer? Dimoto, to his credit, seems to have the intellectual ability to understand what I was saying and apply the tests..

  • Vulture

    You are right, David: we all know WHERE power lies. (In the wrong place, as usual & in our time increasinglty with the undemocratic Leviathan, as the Civil War philosopher Thomas Hobbes would have described it) the EU.
    It should, of course, lie with us, the people represented in a free and sovereign Parliament. It’s a shame that Westminster has degenerated to the level of the Rump rightly dismissed by Cromwell (read his speech sacking it as a cracking example of withering English prose at its most excoriating and then deliciously imagine him addressing it to the current crop of troughers).
    Cromwell was doubtless a dictator, and a religious nut and all that. But two things ytou can’t take from him : he was a military genius who never drew a sword in anger till he was poast 40 and never lost a battle thereafter; and he was a master wordsmith – the equivalent, I would say, of his mate Milton.
    Carlyle had it right: he was a great bad man. Shame he isn’t around today to do the necessary to Dave.

    • Fergus Pickering

      Cromwell was NOT a religious nut. He was surrounded by Presbyterians who were (and come to that are) religious nuts and Levellers who were nuts tout court and Independents and I don’t know who else. The man whose head he caused to be cut off was a religious nut. He thought he was anointed by God. Cromwell was a sensible fellow. And a great man too.