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A woefully inadequate Panglossian account of democracy in the United Kingdom
on 7 May 2015
Dan Jellinek emerges in this book as a modern version of Dr. Pangloss. An authentically democratic society has been created in Britain, he suggests, and while our political system could perhaps do with a few minor tweaks to keep it up to date, essentially it works and pretty near all is for the best in one of the best of all possible democracies.
The opening short history of the franchise sets the tone for the whole book by resolutely avoiding any kind of theoretical analysis. Jellinek refuses to entertain the concept of conflicting class interests, scouting any suggestion that the wealthy classes clung to absolute power for as long as possible, and only conceded formal political equality to ordinary citizens under very circumscribed conditions, retaining for example as buttresses to their enduring ascendancy privately-owned media, royal prerogative powers and the House of Lords. Apart from a single veiled reference to "a few vested interests" (p.20), Jellinek's brief history of democracy therefore belongs to the vacuously plotless "just one thing after another for no particular reason" school of historiography.
To sustain his Panglossian stance, crucial problems cited below are avoided or barely alluded to. Necessarily so, as they are ones which could hardly be broached without raising the issue of the retention of power by a minority class of the wealthy and influential, and their control of the political system to serve their own interests.
Thus, while Jellinek notes how voters complain that the political parties are "all the same", he carefully avoids any discussion of the actual similarities between the assumptions and policies of the main political parties, even though this is one of the most obvious causes of a phenomenon even Jellinek cannot fail to note, i.e. the declining rate of voter participation in elections. Non-voting has increased as "rival" parties converge on a shared right-wing political agenda, yet Jellinek has nothing at all to say about this latter trend. He remains silent, for example, on cross-party support for neo-liberal economic policies and ostensibly rival parties' agreement to impose austerity, most notoriously on those least responsible for the banking crash, and further depress the economy by cutting their spending power. Likewise he fails to mention cross-party opposition to policies like the renationalisation of railways and energy companies - policies which have majority support in the country at large. Nor does he recall the cross-party support for the illegal invasion of Iraq, or mention the continuing spineless consensus on (as David Hare put it recently) outsourcing foreign policy to Washington.
He is similarly silent on the demise of internal democracy in the Labour Party. As he fails to observe, it could scarcely pursue neo-liberal policies that serve above all else to enrich the 1% and reduce the living standards of the bulk of the population if these policies were subject to a veto by the membership. Jellinek not only fails to observe that party manifestos are drawn up behind closed doors by a narrow elite, but (curiously in a book entitled "People Power") he doesn't even raise the possibility of their being drawn up instead through a recognisably democratic process.
Nor does he breathe a word about the scandal of party policy being, in effect, bought by wealthy individual and corporate donors to party funds. Politicians' consequential servility to City interests and their significant failure to prosecute wealthy tax evaders also goes unremarked - the failure to close down tax havens within UK jurisdiction being an examplary case of this variety of political corruption. Remarkably, Jellinek's index makes only one reference to corruption - in relation to legislation passed in 1872!
There are many other examples of the ways in which democracy is being undermined which Jellinek chooses not to notice. He ignores the concentration by political parties on courting voters in marginal seats, which has the corollary that voters in "safe" seats are taken for granted. There is no discussion in his chapter on the EU of the organisation's notorious practice of nullifying democratic votes by re-staging referenda which produce inconvenient results until the "right" outcome is secured. Also ignored is TTIP: the proposed trade agreement with the US which would establish secret commercial courts with the power to sue governments and thereby nullify much democratic decision-making.
Jellinek also ignores the undemocratic influence over party policy of commercial lobbying and of reports produced by think tanks financed by and serving big business. Nor does he refer to the notorious revolving door between Westminster and Whitehall on the one hand, and big business on the other. As the exemplary cases of Alan Milburn and Dave Hartnett illustrate, ex-ministers and senior civil servants are allowed to move across to lucrative jobs with companies they had close relationships with while in post. Questions consequently arise (though none are raised by Jellinek) about the corruption of democratic government by the conceding of commercial favours on the one side and the offering of inducements on the other.
He also avoids a raft of important issues when he discusses the media and the law. He takes BBC impartiality for granted, without even raising the questions of what a thoroughly impartial BBC would look like, what impartiality consists of, and whether it is even conceivable. Citizen access to the national airwaves is not even considered, any more than is a BBC under the control of the licence payers rather than safe pairs of hands parachuted in by the political establishment.
Aspects of democratic empowerment not even considered by Jellinek include:
* the absence of meaningful workplace democracy, with the anomalous consequence that businesses are run as oligarchies within what is nominally a democratic society. Jellinek nowhere considers the fact that democratic empowerment is a diminishing island in an encroaching sea of oligarchical power.
* political donations by business are not currently subject to approval by the workforce;
* the lack of empowerment of newspaper readers and BBC licence-payers in the appointment of editors and the BBC Trust members;
When so much is omitted, it is not difficult to suggest to less politically informed readers that all is nevertheless for the best in the best of all possible democracies. To conclude, although this book offers some guidance on the workings at a superficial level of some of the nuts and bolts of the political system, it is vitiated by what can only be a willed blindness to its most glaring shortcomings. Above all, Jellinek refuses to recognise that the terrain of democratic politics is where the interests of opposed social forces collide, and that since large accumulations of wealth equate to large concentrations of political power, an unequal society cannot be a properly democratic one. The wealthy will always seek to control the political process and set the rules to suit themselves. As the US billionaire Warren Buffet put it, "Of course there is a class war, and the rich are winning it." As far as possible, the fact that a class war is waged within this very imperfectly democratic society is kept under wraps or systematically falsified in mainstream political discourse and in the official media. To that toxic process of disinformation which only serves the rich and disproportionately influential this woefully inadequate book makes its own ignominious contribution.