Some examples and consequences of a failing UK democracy
Once leaders of nations have broken laws and rules to gain power, they then have to break more of them to retain it and make use of it. This slippery slope is seen very clearly with Putin’s Russia, committing vile crimes against innocent people in Ukraine, and where the state increasingly clamps down, illegally and immorally, on any sign or perception of dissent or so-called disloyalty. The state is in the control of a caucus of powerful self-serving people, mostly men, who want to keep it that way, so disinformation is all-pervasive, total loyalty is demanded, and suppression methods become increasingly vicious and abhorrent. Paranoia reigns, and the people become zombified into brain-washed, ill-informed sacrificial pawns (most of the Russian population).
Lust for power can afflict any family, organisation or nation. Individuals and groups will break any law, rule, moral code or convention to achieve, retain and benefit from power. Nations where lust for power is successfully regulated form democracies; those where it is not become autocracies or totalitarian states.
But the route from autocracy to democracy is a very difficult one. The Russian people tried and ultimately failed to follow this route after the revolution in 1917. Many countries have tried and failed this century, and Ukraine is being thwarted by Putin from doing so now. By contrast, the route from democracy to autocracy is not so difficult. Donald Trump and his Republican Party co-conspirators almost took it in the USA, with his ‘Lock Her Up’ message, ‘Stop the Steal’ campaign, and many other anti-democratic horrors. Republicans are still desperately trying and succeeding in undermining democracy and regain power today. Power lust in action destroys democracy.
There is no clear dividing line between an autocratic and a democratic state. There is a spectrum ranging from extreme autocracies through to well-functioning democracies. Within democracies, there are forces, driven by the lust for power or even just by sheer self-interest, ignorance, inertia or complacency, which erode the foundations of democracy. This is happening in the United Kingdom today.
The poor health of UK democracy
The UK Parliament, the ‘Mother of Parliaments’, was the envy of the world. Yet now few would agree that it is any kind of ‘Mother’ figure, or that other democracies envy it. Our MPs and Government ministers do not reflect to any great extent the range of most British citizens’ interests, values, income levels, beliefs and aspirations.
Many of the established institutions, conventions and Parliamentary procedures aren’t working or are being prevented from functioning in support of democracy. There is no mechanism within the system for correcting these shortcomings or for evolving towards improvements. Quite the reverse.
The system is moribund, anchored in the past and open to abuse, with the quality of Government suffering accordingly. Divisive partisan or minority elements have often secured control or driven the agenda, taking the UK away from being a caring and united society towards a more acrimonious and adversarial one. Examples of this are legion:
- more privatised health care,
- inadequate investment in public health, social services and education,
- diminished democracy in elections,
- a weakened public national broadcaster,
- an absence of regulatory control over the press or advertising,
- weakened protective regulations on health, the environment and the workplace,
- lower public service and welfare state provision,
- forever culture wars.
All resulting in a more divided society.
According to Mark E. Thomas, The Post-War ‘Social Contract’, where Government took responsibility for ensuring freedom from Poverty, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Unemployment, has been replaced by Free Market Fundamentalism, whereby any activity which could be privatised should be privatised. This is clearly contrary to the best interests of the majority of citizens.
Some examples of UK democracy failing
Thatcherism. A strong and ideologically-driven Prime Minister with strong Party support had a divisive and strongly individualistic agenda (“There is no such thing as society”) and a confrontational approach to politics (moderates were ‘wets’ and her ‘handbag’ was employed towards Europe). Power went to her head. The successful outcome of the Falklands War gave her a landslide victory in 1982. But the ruthlessness with which the miner’s strike was suppressed, the needless sale of council houses, the extensive privatisation of state-controlled and publicly-owned industries, the abolishing of the Greater London Council (GLC), and the poll tax were all examples of a Government not representing all its citizens’ best interests. That Thatcher’s Government was able to do all that was an example of excessive Prime Ministerial power and a failure of democracy.
The Iraq War. A powerful Prime Minister following his own personal agenda, criticised for its informal ‘sofa government’, was allowed to control the narrative and, using unsafe intelligence and dishonesty, successfully pushed for what he personally thought was right. Only one cabinet minister, (the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook), dared to argue against this agenda, which was a failure of Cabinet Government itself. The consequence was a disastrous Iraq war.
Austerity from 2010. A Conservative Government hell bent on balancing the nation’s books and repaying national debt at any cost, without imposing significant tax increases, inflicted swingeing cuts to all public services and welfare, hurting ordinary people, particularly poorer people, very hard, thereby increasing poverty and inequality levels. Large Chinese investments were avidly sought as a makeweight, now regretted by many. Misplaced ideology and misleading information about the national debt was prioritised over duty of care.
Brexit. The Cameron Government, committed to EU membership, offered a referendum as a trick to stay in Government, which they couldn’t do while a minority of noisy Conservative MPs responding to a UKIP Party led by Nigel Farage made Government impossible. That the Leave campaign was able to persuade 52% of the voting public of their case in the 2016 Referendum is surely testament to some very serious system failures around the democratic process, particularly in the provision and control of public information, and particularly regarding how such a blatantly untrue and wrong-headed narrative could be promulgated and believed so widely. Even to implement a referendum decision which was extensively against citizens’ best interests was a massive failure of Government and democracy on all counts.
The Environment. Successive Governments have paid lip service to protecting the environment and confronting climate change. Once in power they have ignored what is high on the priority list for many voters. The May Government made a legal commitment to achieve net zero by 2050 and the current Government issued a document, ‘Net Zero Strategy – Build Back Greener’. However there appears to be no Government urgency or serious coordinated attempt to actually implement that plan and make it a success. Recent policy U-turns on fracking, new North Sea oil licences and on-shore wind farms, and a lack of incentives and regulations to insulate homes or invest in solar heating indicate a Government more concerned to favour the fossil fuel and building industries than its own citizens.
The consequences of UK democracy failing its citizens is being felt in many ways such as poverty, inequality, NHS and education shortfalls, housing shortages, accountability, exploitation, corruption and immigration chaos.
All this lack of Government seriousness and competence about democracy, and there are so many other examples, despite all the warm words and grandiose manifesto commitments, means there is a failure and neglect to address the concerns and meet the priority needs of the public. This largely arises from an out-of-date and degraded democracy where voices favouring more public-friendly policies or urgent climate change action for example are not sufficiently heard or acted upon.
Democratic and representative Parliamentary governance in the UK is now being degraded at an increasing rate. The public are being gas-lighted at every turn, without consequence. This has been brought about by current and recent Governments breaking, changing, undermining or swerving established democratic processes and traditions for the enhancement of their own power and electoral opportunities. This unthinking, neglectful and careless attitude towards democratic standards means that citizens’ interests are not safeguarded or advanced.
Democracy is an all-encompassing concept which includes truth-telling, honesty, decency, competence, accountability, respect for the rule of law, and dedication to public service, as well as respect for constitutional democratic traditions which have served well in the past, and a willingness to improve them. These aspects have all been degraded in recent decades and particularly in recent years, as Party and personal agendas expanded and lust for power is allowed to get away with it and blossom. To put this right there is a great deal to do and many opportunities to do it, but a strong and widespread determination has to be there.
Ed: Part Two identifies some specific reasons why the democratic system is failing, and Part Three provides some ideas for reversing the decline in UK democracy and modernising the UK political system.