sábado, 20 de fevereiro de 2016
Britain’s broken democracy
LETTER FROM LONDON
Britain’s broken democracy
Imagine a drunk driver hurtling toward a cliff edge with no idea where the brake pedal is. That’s Britain.
By AMOL RAJAN 2/15/16, 6:00 AM CET Updated 2/17/16, 4:58 PM CET
Three decades since the soundbite that made him millions, secured lasting fame, and quickly proved ignorantly myopic, it’s easy to castigate Francis Fukuyama for his naivety in declaring the end of history had arrived.
History never arrives, because it’s never leaving; it has no direction or purpose. Things get better, get worse, get better again; they change suddenly, only to stay the same. Whereas material knowledge — that is, science — is cumulative, moral knowledge is not; human history is largely the permanent effort to devise temporary remedies for insoluble conflicts. Suffering is reduced, wealth is spread, and rights are granted to the weak. This is called progress. It takes courage, intelligence, and industry.
But no amount of progress can deliver us from the competing demands of infinitely various people, and their warring belief systems, for the finite resources of earth.
To Fukuyama’s beady eye, writing after the intoxicating footage of the Berlin Wall falling, the stubborn reality of human affairs may have seemed a delusion. It was not just that a liberal — which is to say, capitalist — economic order was spreading, octopus like, through civilization and those parts of our species that still aspired to it. It was also specifically the triumph of democracy that seemed to indicate a mass enfranchisement of mankind and, with it, the universal triumph of what Churchill called the worst form of government, except all the others that have been tried.
The story of the 20th century was democracy’s triumph over totalitarianism. One by one, nations fell to the bewitching promise of people power, as the international stage hosted a game of democratic dominoes.
Fukuyama saw the charge of democracy clearly enough: After two unbearably hot wars, and one excruciatingly cold one, the story of the 20th century was democracy’s triumph over totalitarianism. One by one, nations fell to the bewitching promise of people power, as the international stage hosted a game of democratic dominoes.
From the defeat of Nazism in 1945 and the Partition in India in 1947, through to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 and the emergence of a rainbow nation that defeated apartheid in South Africa in 1994, nations everywhere seemed to be marching in step to the siren call of ballots rather than bullets. In the 1970s and 1980s alone, juntas fell in Greece, Spain, Argentina, Brazil and Chile. Who could blame our academic friend for discerning in this pattern a certain outcome for all the souls on Earth?
A good job, then, that he has been able to see his myth exposed in this, the tumultuous and deeply unstable 21st century. Every day the news agenda inserts a million pricks into the deflating tire of Fukuyama’s theory, now officially punctured by the evidence of events.
Democracy, far from spreading, faces two profound and possibly unbeatable enemies: first, rival systems of government; second, the disgusting complacency of those it has generally served well. A specific instance of the second is my chief concern here, but before we look inside our castle, it may be wise to shine a spotlight on the enemies at the gates, since their numbers and weapons are multiplying.
Despite the odd grumble and tumble, China has shown that autocracy and capitalism can cohabit. Whether democracy comes to China this century is far from certain, whereas the country’s economic pre-eminence isn’t. In a similar fashion, Singapore, from which the West is currently trying to learn much about government, isn’t much interested in plebiscites. Russia’s economy is hard to read, and while its government is popular, nobody inside or outside the Kremlin would seriously label the country, with its omnipotent president and pervasive corruption, a functioning democracy.
Democracy, far from spreading, faces two profound and possibly unbeatable enemies: first, rival systems of government; second, the disgusting complacency of those it has generally served well.
Across the Muslim world, a flowering of democracy has not followed the Arab Spring. Some countries, such as the regional powerhouse Egypt, have arguably gone backwards. There are reasonable grounds for believing that a literalist interpretation of Islam, which makes no distinction between the law and the word of God (unlike the Western distinction between Church and Roman, secular law), is irreconcilable with democracy. Turkey and Indonesia, the two great hopes for just such a reconciliation, are flirting afresh with tyranny.
Meanwhile the Gulf states are hardy paragons of people power; the House of Saud both won’t fall and — given Western interests — may need to be propped up. Syria and Iraq aren’t likely to hold free and fair elections any time soon. Meanwhile, across vast parts of the world, not least in Africa, tyrannies are on the rampage, and war and famine make the prospect of voting a distant concern, bordering on irrelevance.
These, then, are the external threats. Mass migration, globalization and refugee crises have brought them closer to home, but they have not yet caused us to abandon democracy. And yet, at the same time and for different reasons, Western democracies have suddenly become weak and ineffective.
In light of all that’s been said about America’s recent politics, suffice it to say the constitution is a couple of centuries out of date, the White House is now just one of several branches of government that parties covet, the theocratic propaganda of Fox News has undermined the very possibility of truth in political argument and … well, then there’s Donald Trump.
Mass migration, globalization and refugee crises have brought [external threats] closer to home, but they have not yet caused us to abandon democracy. And yet… Western democracies have suddenly become weak and ineffective.
Germany’s Angel Merkel, the most powerful woman in the world, has seen her popularity take a hit by doing the right thing for refugees. The French have made a habit of electing abysmal or eventually corrupt and excessively priapic public figures, and the economy is so sclerotic that few politicians have been able to achieve reform of any meaning.
Yet it may be in Britain, that cradle of civilized values and parliamentary procedure, that modern democracy has taken the biggest tumble. Though perhaps that is too weak a metaphor. To understand the condition of people power and mass enfranchisement in the United Kingdom, imagine a drunk driver hurtling toward a cliff edge with no idea where the brake pedal is.
I may as well admit that I have a preference for democracy over rival systems. It is right that people have a say in how they are governed; that in itself encourages civic virtues that in turn breed better societies and people. I work in the media not despite but because it is politics by other means: A raucous, brave, intelligent media is a pillar of democracy, on which I wish to lean.
Moreover, no two democracies have ever gone to war, either, which seems another sound reason to defend the principle. From what, exactly? From a brutal end — from the harm caused by that drunk driver. Here are the five greatest threats to modern British democracy, in no particular order.
1. No opposition
Labour has ceased to work as an effective parliamentary force. This is not just because of the woeful mismanagement of the party by its current leader, with ludicrous and outright deceitful reshuffles adding to a general woe. Parliamentary opposition is a noble, lonely crusade, in which legislation is scrutinized and countless hours are spent in an empty chamber. Labour has little appetite for this inglorious activity just now. Nor is its current futility owed to Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate coming from new party members whose lofty worldview has never been tainted by power. The Corbyn Gang simply don’t believe in parliament.
Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer John McDonnell said a few years ago that there are three ways to affect political change: insurrection and revolution; trade union action; parliament. His type of politics venerates the former two and denigrates the latter. And for Labour’s current leaders, politics is about the streets. As a result, we have one-party government in both England and Scotland.
2. A broken electoral system
The First Past the Post electoral system, kept in a referendum, achieves parliamentary majorities and strong government, but only at the cost of absurdly unjust disproportion and mass disenfranchisement. Because of this system, two-thirds of voters live in safe seats, and so even during a general election — the one time in five years they might tune into politics — they are largely ignored.
It is plainly appalling that UKIP, with nearly 4 million votes, should have one MP, whereas the Scottish National Party, with fewer than half the voters, should have 56. Some years ago, Roy Jenkins’ commission looked at how you could obtain the best of First Past the Post — especially the constituency link for MPs — while addressing some of these terrible injustices. His eminently sensible suggestion, the Alternative Vote Plus (AV+) system, is much too clever and theoretical for the British, who object to being made to count to two when stating their electoral preferences. Tony Blair then flunked the chance to introduce it in his first parliament.
3. Fraudulent party divisions
As a result of this absurd electoral system, British elections are always won by coalitions, whether formal (such as the Con-Lib government of 2010-15) or informal, such as Blair’s coalition, between Scotland, the union movement (via John Prescott) and Middle England. But these coalitions have so much crossover that the current distinctions between parties are stupid. Peter Mandelson, Chuka Umunna and Tristram Hunt want to save and reform capitalism. Corbyn and McDonnell want to abolish and replace it. There is no common ground here, and we should stop pretending there is.
A new Liberal party, of social and economic liberalism, would unite the becalmed Orange Bookers on the right of the Lib Dems with One Nation Tories under George Osborne and the Labour trio mentioned above. It ought to exist, and call itself the Whigs, though there is already a party with that name. Next time you hear talk of Labour or Tory splits, ask yourself if those who have split had anything in common in the first place.
4. A farcical House of Lords
Corrupt, venal, and full of placemen, the House of Lords is perhaps the most shameful manifestation of our democratic malaise. These are men (usually men) who are there by birthright, so called hereditary peers. There are bishops too, deciding the law of the land, who take their place on account of their particular variety of superstition. Many if not most who sit on the red benches have paid to be there, if not in hard cash then in dignity. And there are just so, so many of these people: Ours is the second largest legislative assembly anywhere — after the National People’s Congress of … China!
An effective House of Lords, full of the smartest brains in the land, who earned their place through intellectual and professional merit, would be a wonderful thing. There were signs of it in the rebellion over tax credits. Which is why, farcically, David Cameron appointed Lord Strathclyde, a former Tory leader in the Upper House, to review the whole darn thing. Ironic, given that, as someone who inherited his seat, Strathclyde has no right to be anywhere near the Lords in the first place.
5. Shameless gerrymandering
A series of smaller measures, each the luxury of a one-party government, are designed entirely to maintain the Tories’ stranglehold on power. Boundary changes are going to deliver the Tories at least another 20 seats. The so-called “short money” that finances opposition in parliament has been sneakily reduced. Trade unions, the main financial backers of the Labour party (especially under Corbyn), have been ruthlessly pummeled by this administration.
With admirable chutzpah, the Tories are simultaneously extending the franchise to more expats (who are inclined to vote for them), and introducing individual electoral registration, which will probably reduce the number of anti-Tory voters on the electoral roll. On top of all this, the astonishing rise in Statutory Instruments — a way of achieving legislation without full parliamentary scrutiny — has been exposed, not least in the Independent, as an attempt to force through some hugely controversial measures, from cuts to tax credits to the abolition of maintenance grants for students.
It does strike me as very bizarre that so many people on the Left, who ought to attach a premium to sovereignty, are willing to abandon it without so much as a whimper.
Of course Europe, with its intolerable assault on sovereignty and empowering of sundry unaccountable chaiwallahs — the Brussels Bureaucracy — merits an entire essay of its own.
There is a strong case for EU membership, but there is also a strong case against it; and it does strike me as very bizarre that so many people on the Left, who ought to attach a premium to sovereignty, are willing to abandon it without so much as a whimper.
Democracy, of its very nature, comes by degrees. It has no pure form. Remedy the above ills and we won’t declare, some day years from now, that — hurrah! — Britain is a vibrant democracy again. But, to return to the misty-eyed worldview of Fukuyama, and share his reading of the 20th century if not his prognostications about the 21st, it would be an act of unconscionable negligence to forget that a generation of men and women went to war, and often died young, so that we may vote our rulers in and out of office. When you think of what they fought for, our own complacency is sickening; and that should spur us to action.
Our nearest British ancestors were animated by ideals of freedom and sovereignty that have their fullest and frankest expression in the system devised by the Greeks: demos, kratia — power to the people. Barely two generations on, we are forfeiting that power by sheer indolence, sleepwalking into the very tyranny from which they thought, and prayed, they had delivered us.
Amol Rajan is editor of the Independent.
This article was updated to correct the date of the Partition and to clarify that the White House is the executive branch of government.