#47. Britain – the dangerous democratic deficit

You really, really couldn’t make it up. Just months ago, the Scottish National Party (SNP) was urging Scots to leave the United Kingdom. By May, the SNP could be running the whole thing.

According to seemingly well-informed observers, the movers-and-shakers in Britain’s establishment parties may even be giving serious consideration to something that hitherto has been unthinkable – a “grand alliance” between Labour and the Conservatives, designed to prevent the SNP from becoming the king-makers after May’s election.

The democratic deficit

The basic problem is a simple one. Essentially, Britain’s supposedly “democratic” political system is nothing of the sort. A skewed electoral model entrenches the power of the establishment parties, customarily enabling one or the other to form, on the basis of one-third of the votes cast, an “elected dictatorship” with a stranglehold over legislation as well as the executive. Some parties with big popular support can be left unrepresented, whilst others, with small but concentrated electorates, can garner disproportionate influence.

Two trends have compounded this constitutional weakness. First, most of the checks to power that regulated the system back in the 1950s – including mass party membership, local decision-making, local government, party conferences, the cabinet and the senior civil service – have been neutered by a relentless process of centralisation.

Second, the forces of “corporatism” have staged a coup-by-stealth, taking over almost all of the levers of political and economic power.

Smoked out by Salmond?

The electoral arithmetic shows how easily the king-making role could fall into the hands of Alex Salmond and his colleagues. Based on recent projections, Labour (with 34% of the national vote) is likely to win 301 seats – 25 short of a majority – whilst the Conservatives (32%) may secure 265. The SNP, with a projected 46 MPs, could thus put Labour into government, enabling Scots to determine government policy in a way unprecedented since the accession of James I (of England, VI of Scotland) in 1603.

Both major parties, it is said, fear the price that the SNP might demand for its support. Even if the SNP did not demand a re-run of the independence referendum, it would be certain to insist on the devolution of further powers to Scotland.

If the SNP wanted to do such a deal to put Labour in power, they could be pushing at an open door, since Ed Miliband, like David Cameron, signed up to additional powers for the Scottish Parliament during their parties’ undignified panic in the days before the referendum. Additionally, the SNP might push Labour further to the left than its leaders really want to go.

The tail wagging the dog

We need to step back here and look at what this really says about the British system of government. The very idea that the government of the country could be determined by a party with less than 4% popular support shows just how far from real democracy Britain actually is.

To win 46 Westminster seats – 78% of Scotland’s 59 constituencies – the SNP needs to secure 43% of the Scottish vote. That isn’t even a majority in Scotland – and in Britain as a whole it is just 3.7%. Yet UKIP, at a projected 14% of the national vote, can expect to win just one seat. Even the hapless Liberal Democrats, with a share of the vote projected to slump to less than 8% from 24% in 2010, could expect to hang on to 15 seats, vastly more than UKIP and the Greens (21%, 2 seats) put together.

Might it be time for real democracy?

The simple solution, of course, would be to introduce a fully democratic and proportionate system of government. This need not involve severing the valuable geographical basis of representation, since a system of single transferable votes (STV) would, in each constituency, return the candidate with the largest share of first-, second- and third-preference support.

Yet the very idea of STV is anathema to the two major parties, as well it might be – on this basis, there would have been few if any one-party majorities in Parliament since 1945. Coalitions, then, would have been the norm – and experience elsewhere (most notably in Germany) suggests that this might have been a better way of governing.

After all, the current coalition has performed pretty well in staving off the economic consequences of the last single-party administration, and is also the first government of modern times with majority electoral support (even Labour’s 1945 “landslide” fell just short of 48%).

A system subverted

Of course, the skewed electoral process – well described by one writer as a “system of government by hypocrisy” – isn’t new, and neither is the lamentable lack of a separation between the legislature and the executive.

But recent decades have witnessed the demolition of almost all of the previous checks to “elected dictatorship”. Thanks to party centralisation of policy and of candidate selection, and the stripping of decision-making powers from conferences, the multi-million membership parties of the 1950s are long gone, as is much of the autonomy of local government. In an era of spin machines and centralised “sofa government”, even the cabinet has lost most of its ability to restrain the leadership, whilst senior civil servants have been sidelined by the imposition of political “advisers”.

As I have explained before – in a mini-series beginning herethe real battleground in British politics isn’t “right” versus “left”, but “corporatist” versus “individualist”. In parallel with the relentless centralisation of power, the corporatists – in a broad sense which is by no means limited to private enterprise – have accomplished a stealthy coup, handing wealth, power and virtual immunity from consequences to the “Directorate”, that group which controls the big private- and public-sector power blocs.

This explains why no senior person ever seems to be held to account for banking, corporate or public service disasters. It also explains why the innocuous label “miss-selling” is applied to corporate actions which, if carried out by a small business, would be treated much more seriously.

Seen in evolutionary terms, then, what has happened is that a quasi-representative system, shorn of its checks and balances, has concentrated power whilst taking away many of the liberties of the individual, a process accompanied by increased surveillance and restrictions on the right of free expression.

If it were not so serious, there would be a delicious irony in the possibility of the system reaching a logical conclusion where a party with less than 4% of the popular vote dictates government policy and, quite conceivably, furthers the break-up of the United Kingdom.

The dangers of the democratic deficit

There are two main consequences which may follow from this impasse.

First, government may be rendered incapable of dealing with the most pressing problems facing the country.

The first of these problems is dealing with an economy which remains addicted to spending more than it earns, and depends on overseas borrowing, and the sale of a dwindling net asset base, to plug a 6% hole in its GDP. Obviously, this habit of living on tick is time-limited by the deterioration of Britain’s net international investment position (NIIP), which now stands at –26% of GDP and continues to deteriorate rapidly.

The second problem is a grave miss-match between the public services that people expect and the limited ability of the economy to pay for them.

The third imperative is tackling a dangerous run-down in defence, a process whose consequences are worse even than purely numerical measures may suggest. The final, related challenge is the threat posed by Islamic fundamentalism and the ambitions of a newly re-assertive Russia.

No safety-valve

If policy challenges are one consequence of the breakdown of the system, the other is the gap between governing and governed.

A truly representative democracy offers a safety-valve for public discontent, which is why Syriza was victorious in Greece, and why both Podemos in Spain and the FN in France are making major political progress. If Syriza fails, Greek voters really will have no-one (other than foreign lenders) to blame but themselves. No such logic operates in Britain.

As outlined in my final article on corporatism, a charter movement may be one way to restore accountability. A second would be for the incumbent parties to opt for a proportionate system of representation, though I won’t be holding my breath on that one.

If neither of these things happens, then the prospects – in politics, economics and defence – do not look good.

13 thoughts on “#47. Britain – the dangerous democratic deficit

  1. Great stuff, Tim, albeit yet another depressing commentary on the state we’re in. I say that in the context of other recent similar commentaries, not least Jeremy Warner’s DT article ‘British productivity is a national disgrace’ (http://tinyurl.com/np4lsd4). Your post above also chimes perfectly with Peter Oborne’s similar analysis, ‘The Triumph of the Political Class’ (2007). I remember reading Oborne’s book a few years ago and lamenting the extent to which the political class’s grip on our lives is not only vice-like, but also self-reinforcing. In other words, it’s difficult to see how this appalling constitutional mess will be unravelled and changed for the better. The politicians, their cronies and all those with vested interests in maintaining the status quo will not relinquish readily the power they have and everything that goes with it.

    On my bleaker days I struggle not to conclude that we’re sleepwalking in to a New Dark Age, one way or another. Our (supposedly) democratic and constitutional systems are not fit-for-purpose (understatement); the grip of the sinister European Union tightens around European societies by the year (within which, of course, I include our own); the geopolitical scene becomes more uncertain and alarming by the day, with a relentless rise in barbarism; the world’s energy and natural resources are being strained to the limits. Meantime, our politicians spend more time up their own backsides at our expense than merits consideration.

    Is it too fantastic to predict in the end a re-run of the English Civil War which was, after all, a war about the way we were governed?

    • Thank you, M. The main points for me are the stealthy triumph of the “Directorate” (my broader term for “the political class”), and the lack of a safety valve. If Lab and Con did get together, the result would be a huge paradox – a government (a) with near-70% support, yet (b) hated by almost everyone!

      I too fear a new Dark Age – and indeed wonder how far from it we are now. No less a person than a then-Information Commissioner warned about “sleep-walking into a surveillance state”, and that’s where we seem to be now. The BBC seems ever less impartial and ever more a propaganda vehicle for PC ideologies. If the idea of a non-flat world was newly discovered today, would its discoverer be allowed to explain his new discovery? I wonder. Sometimes the hypocrisy of government is breathtaking (and you may have heard Alan Bennett’s recent piece on hypocrisy?)

      The English Civil War (which I studied aeons ago) wasn’t really a revolution – it was a spat between two groups of “haves”, and Cromwell put down the “have nots” (the Putney debates and the Levellers) with maximum force. Only a minority of the “commissioners” signed the king’s death-warrant, the majority refusing to do so, but the king was executed (a.k.a. murdered) nonetheless. But I digress!

      My hunch is that we’ll have a second election in the autumn, by which time contempt for the political class will have deepened further. With suitable modesty, I do wonder if my “charter” idea might work if someone took it up.

      But look on the bright side – all unrepresentative forms of government either reform themselves or tumble in the end. The King, and considerable liberty, were restored in 1660, after the ghastly excesses of the Puritans.

  2. Tim,

    Have you heard of mixed membership proportional representation? They use it in Germany, and it seems a decent system. It seems the best compromise between ensuring that people end up with a local representative who’s voted in by a majority, or at least something close to one, and ending up with a national parliament which accurately reflects the preferences of the electorate. Much as I dislike UKIP, it seems wrong that given their significant share of the vote they’re denied a place at the table.

    Certainly our current system seems far from optimal in many ways. See labour promising to undo half the conservative reforms if they get voted in. Whether or not one agrees with labour or conservative viewpoints, it seems a remarkably foolish way to govern a nation. Perhaps a system which makes an overall parliamentary majority less likely would ultimately lead to better decisions, as they would have to be forced through based on their merits and evidence, rather than because they conform to party ideology.

    • Yes, I like the German system, and it doesn’t seem to have undermined their economy or turned Mrs M into a worshipper of the consensus!

      Ideology is the bane of politics (just as fanaticism is the bane of religion). Back in 2008 (and since), building council houses was the no-brainer stimulus for the economy, yet neither major party would go for it.

  3. Another excellent essay, Tim.

    Depressingly, you echo my feelings entirely. It sometimes seems that virtually every single aspect of the way we have been governed for the past 20 years has been so self-destructive and the policy decisions have defied all common sense. I feel that a safety valve must inevitably emerge when the gap between the ‘governors’ and the governed is so great and, perversely, I almost wish that the SNP nightmare scenario comes about in the hope that it accelerates this process.

    Phillip Downs

    • Thank you. Failure does seem to have become habitual. For example, economic growth is debt-dependent; our defence capabilities and role in the world have diminished; public services don’t seem to be as reliable or as affordable as they once were; and public trust in institutions seems to have eroded just as public cynicism has grown. If the UK public were a patient, a doctor might diagnose some form of depression.

      A catalyst for change seems necessary, and the SNP might provide it – stranger things have happened. When government operates a non-dom tax scheme which benefits rich foreigners, and also bails out bankers, yet sternly instructs ordinary people not to pay cleaners or gardeners in cash, something is clearly very wrong. I have not seen comment elsewhere on the “safety valve” issue, but history shows just how important this is.

  4. Tim,
    Once again your analysis hits the spot. Government in the UK has never been a perfect democracy (if such a thing could ever exist), but the current state of corporate capture and almost palpable sense of decay are stark warning signs of trouble ahead.

    Surely our welfare model must be reformed by the next government? Borrowing on large scale to boost the wages of people already in work is a sign that system has gone rogue. No banker would ever provide an unsecured loan to fund consumption, and it’s no different at national level.

    That said, I wonder whether you’re overdoing alarm at putative SNP involvement in government. Judging from their competent performance in Scotland over the past 5 years, I reckon the UK would benefit from a sizeable SNP contribution to the executive. Naturally this will sit uneasily with many in England, but the union cuts both ways!

    Personally I think devo-max will show the way for the whole UK to reinvigorate democracy.

    Finally, is it not true that most coalitions give disproportionate weight to the minor partners? Such is the nature of politics!

    • Thank you. On the SNP, I’m not alarmed at the prospect, but my article is about how alarmed the establishment undoubtedly is! They’ve done a decent job in Scotland, and are the only party articulating opposition to (for example) the part-privatisation of the NHS.

      PR does tend to give small parties coalition-making power, which isn’t great, but arguably is better than giving a single party absolute control – and countries like Germany are accustomed to handling government by coalition.

      The economic model is indeed based on certain levels of consumption – private and state – becoming essential, whereas affordability should determine what can be spent.

      Borrowing-for-consumption has become the basis of the UK’s failed economic model. When it depends (as it now does) on borrowing from abroad, and selling assets, it is simply not sustainable.

  5. I think we may well require something retarded like this to force the issue. A start would be a written constitution – but then you are stepping on the toes of the real rulers.

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