Britain is Mired in Democratic Crisis – But it Goes Much Deeper than Brexit

September 4, 2019

Growing up, I learned that leaders who threaten democracy normally came decked out in khaki green, in front of troops toting shiny hardware. They commandeered broadcast studios, captured national buildings and imposed curfews on the streets. What is happening in Britain this week looks nothing like those grainy TV pictures, but it nonetheless marks an assault on our democracy.

The government wants to shut down parliamentary democracy, claiming it is acting for the good of parliamentary democracy. From within No 10 Dominic Cummings threatens to end the career of elected MPs. And David Gauke, the Conservative MP who just six weeks ago was secretary of state for justice, wrote to his former government colleagues on Monday to ask them to obey the rule of law.

Just because the paradoxes are so glaring makes them no less dangerous. The self-proclaimed party of law and order has this summer dropped the first bit to become merely the party of order. In this battle of Brexit-blocking politicians versus the people, the tribune of us plebs is none other than Jacob Rees-Mogg. His leader is Boris Johnson, perhaps the most slovenly would-be authoritarian in contemporary history.

Yet the public protests across the country against all this are not especially large; away from the keyboard warriors of social media, the mood is not particularly restive. A friend messaged from a bus in central Bristol last Saturday where two fellow passengers, “ladies in their late 60s or early 70s”, looked out at a march against Johnson’s coup and loudly advised the driver to run them over. Yesterday, while the world’s media camped out on College Green for wall-to-wall chaos coverage, another friend posted on Twitter from a dentist’s waiting room in Newcastle. “Three Tory MPs debating Brexit on BBC News channel. Nobody watching.”

Some of this indifference is both eternal and welcome. Amid the greatest disaster, wrote Auden in his poem Musée des Beaux Arts, “the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse / Scratches its innocent behind on a tree”. But there is a more pressing and profound puzzle with which we must wrestle. When renowned historians are comparing this attempted putsch to the Reichstag fire, when denunciations are raining down from constitutional experts, when MPs and BBC broadcasters speak of little else apart from Britain’s democratic crisis – why does such heated talk leave most of the public so cold?

I detect no signs that Johnson has become the people’s prime minister, capturing the hearts of a grateful nation. Rather, over the past five years he has gone from being the Heineken Tory – reaching the parts of the electorate other Conservatives just can’t reach – to a Marmite politician who sharply polarises public opinion. Nor do I believe that what is happening this week has gone either under-reported or misunderstood – it is blatant subversion of the British way of doing politics.

The approach to the answer lies again through Auden’s poem: “[T]he ploughman may / have heard the splash, the forsaken cry, / But for him it was not an important failure … ” If today’s residents of Downing Street can so easily gut our democratic institutions, it is largely because many of those institutions long ago lost their importance to the public. In his own pseudo-bumbling fashion, Johnson is taking a leaf out of the book of Donald Trump, Narendra Modi, Jair Bolsonaro: he is deliberately outraging the norms that have governed politics and society, safe in the knowledge that for much of his electorate those conventions have already rotted away to useless totems.

‘Anti-democratic and unconstitutional’: Corbyn and Johnson clash over no-deal Brexit – video

Put bluntly: yes, Britain is mired in a democratic crisis. But it is one that is older, wider and deeper than this week’s debacle over Brexit and parliamentary sovereignty, and it features across our everyday lives. It’s there in our privately run academy schools, which will get another wodge of cash in Wednesday’s expected spending round from chancellor Sajid Javid. Under the auspices of today’s arch-Brexiteers, Cummings and his then frontman at the department for education, Michael Gove, turned our schools system into what an LSE study calls “highly opaque”, marked by “little transparency, democratic accountability or public or parliamentary scrutiny”.

It’s plain as day in the London borough of Barnet, where the Tory council outsourced the vast bulk of local authority functions to giant private businesses and then – when the evidence of service failure and ballooning costs grew too thick – this summer gagged local residents from asking too many questions at council committee meetings. It’s there in the sweetheart deals big builders cut with local councils and the one George Osborne cut with Google over their tax bill.

The master-text on the moment we’re in was published nearly 20 years ago. Coping With Post-Democracy was an alarm sounded by the British political scientist Colin Crouch towards the end of Tony Blair’s first term as prime minister. He coined the term “post-democracy” to refer to a country that still had its ballot boxes and elected chamber and rowdy journalists – only all were being drained of meaning. Democracy, argued Crouch, “thrives when there are major opportunities for the mass of ordinary people to participate”.

But the post-democratic order he saw taking shape was “a tightly controlled spectacle managed by rival teams of professional experts in the techniques of persuasion”, in which the interests of multinationals and big businesses would always trump “the political importance of ordinary working people”, especially with the withering away of unions.

From here it was a short step to today’s Westminster of “retail politics“, parties touting their “offer“ and the apparatus of marketing. For a while, the sorcerers of the new post-democratic system could buy our consent, as long as house prices kept rising and cheap credit could be thrust down our throats. But then came the banking crisis, which just showed our debt was the financiers’ credit and that they would always collect.

From the wreckage of that system came much of the 2016 vote for Brexit and it today ensures the indifference of the public as a bunch of posh boys try to strip us of our hard-won rights. Years before the advent of Facebook and Twitter, Crouch warned of a public habituated to a “negative activism of blame and complaint”, no longer interested in formulating constructive demands – but merely demanding some MP’s head on a pikestaff.

This is a different critique of what ails our democracy than the ones you and I are used to seeing, full of complaints about our arthritic institutions and calls for a written constitution alongside token gestures such as moving parliament to the Midlands. Such prescriptions will do no harm, although what the burghers of Dudley have done to deserve the sudden imposition of Peter Bone, I don’t know; but they don’t get near what we are seeing in Britain this week. The public will not be moved by finagling in parliament or cases put forward by well-intentioned lawyers – important as both are. To do that, our political parties, chiefly Labour, need to show the public what use they are in the 21st century. That means providing advice to voters, not just members, on welfare, housing and employers. It means acting to collectively procure cheap utility deals. It means laying on classes in how politics and economics work and why they matter. Real democratic renewal will not come through Westminster manoeuvring, or new pieces of legal text, but through building serious and sturdy new institutions.


Teaser photo credit: By UK Prime Minister 

Aditya Chakrabortty

Aditya Chakrabortty is a Guardian columnist and senior economics commentator.

Tags: Brexit, building resilient societies, democracy, participative democracy, UK politics