Recent goings on in parliament have put me in mind of this video from Yes Minister. It continues to be remarkably current despite being about 40 years old.
The question in the video is ostensibly about the power balance between elected politicians and unelected civil servants. But, at heart, the comments about genuine democracy were telling.
I am a strong believer in localism. I want to see the abolition of the House of Lords and the decentralisation of power with the creation of regional parliaments and a national parliament in Westminster (or somewhere). The purpose is to rest more power in the hands of the people. As Sir Humphrey lets the cat out the bag, we run a ‘British democracy’ in which we make sure power does not sit in the hands of the ‘wrong people’.
Ours is a system centred on the maintainance of vested interests. It always has been and, whilst there have been powers ceded by those who most fully enjoy them over the centuries, we have by and large maintained the system we have because those in power benefit most from them. Our natural two party political system ensures that there are usually two (now, arguably, three) parties that benefit from things as they are. Whilst the Whigs had different vested interests to the Tories, who in time had different interests to the Liberals, who similarly found they had different interests to Labour, whilst each may have been founded with some higher ideals, each descend into maintenance of their particular vested interests. They almost always conspire against genuine democratic advance and power in the hands of the people.
Former Conservative Party MP for Chester once made it utterly clear:
Now, we have a parliament who are not too keen on what the people decided in a referendum. As this tweet noted on recent parliamentary decisions:
Everybody knows it is electoral suicide to say that the British public, and their decision in an in/out referendum, are not worth the paper on which their ballots were cast. But, at the same time, the overwhelming majority of parliamentarians cannot bring themselves to enact any form of what the British public voted to do, namely leave the European Union. They are now doing everything within their power to impede that from happening.
Of course, lots of them think they’re being very clever in forcing Boris Johnson to seek an extension to the Brexit deadline. But, as this series of tweets suggests, that is a mistake.
Dominic Cummings has clearly made comments since that strongly imply they are seeking to set up an election on a people vs parliament basis. That, coupled to news reports that the French government are inclined to veto any possible extension to the Brexit deadline, feel rather like most parliamentarians are playing their hand very badly indeed.
For those of us on the Left who want to leave the European Union – for all the reasons everyone on the Left always wanted to leave the EU – we are at a loss as to what to do. A general election, at this stage, does nothing to help us. We are faced with Tory and Brexit Party right-wingers offering us the Brexit we crave but a domestic programme we cannot possibly back and do not want to wear for five years. Those on the left who once considered themselves the voice of the people are roundly ignoring the people, especially the predominantly working class people who voted leave. The Lib Dems are refusing to accept anything other than complete remain. Labour cannot even defend their own public position that laughably insists they want to strike a better deal that they would campaign against so as to remain in the EU. What are we to do?
The reality is that this has become much bigger than Brexit now. The issue is fundamentally one of democracy. Does the British parliament believe in democracy or not? All the signs, sadly, point to the answer being no. Ian Dale had this to say on Question Time, and I think he is right:
The reality is, as well as those who cast their vote for the first time becoming disillusioned, there are many people who have diligently voted ever since they were able who are now reaching this same conclusion. If our democratically expressed will can be openly ignored, why should we ever bother voting? Unless we leave the European Union on the 31st October – having already extended that deadline once – I am sure we will suffer the biggest disenfranchisement of the British electorate that we have ever seen.
The consequences of this will be mammoth. Whilst many of us will simply give up on politics altogether – even those politics junkies like me, who have degrees in it and have been proactive party members – will simply abandon the political process. The danger then, of course, is that without a democratic and constitutional voice, people may start to seek less constitutional means of making themselves heard.
The liberal left have two great fears. First, they fear the rise of the the hard right. They fear their great bogeyman – Nigel Farage – getting anywhere near power. Second, they fear the working classes turning upon them because they view themselves as the saviours of the poor and marginalised and cannot understand why they aren’t more grateful for their efforts. The irony is, Nigel Farage and UKIP were finished until parliament mobilised against delivering any form of Brexit. Now, Farage has his best shot of leading a party that will gain more than a few seats at the next election. Likewise, the working classes are turning on the metropolitan liberals because they see clearly enough that those who claim to be their champions are more concerned with paternalism and maintaining their own interests than they are in giving the people a voice and allowing them to assert their own views.
The rise of the Faragists and the (potential) civil unrest of those who want a voice and recognise that they do not have one by any constitutional means – those two great fears of the liberal left – will be realised, ironically, because of their own actions. The very things they claim to hate most they have enabled. And, sadly, they show no sign of abating any time soon.