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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Ruling a Void

OK - the last 2 posts gave the 10 golden rules for corrupting the political class – at least according to Anthony Jay the highly successful scriptwriter of the "Yes Minister" television series of 35 years ago.

The question is whether these in fact give us the basic reasons for the “hollowing out” of British (and European) democracy……during that period. 

Voters and citizens no longer consider that parties and politicians represent their concerns – they vote in decreasing numbers and with increasing cynicism. 
  • Centralise revenue
  • Centralise authority
  • ensure the Prime Minister is captured
  • Insulate the Cabinet
  • Enlarge constituencies
  • Overpay MPs
  • Appoint rather than elect
  • Ensure that civil servants are permanent – but Ministers highly temporary
  • Appoint more staff
  • Keep state affairs secret – whatever the laws about Open Government may say
I’ve read a hell of a lot about democracy during this period. You might indeed say that its been my bread and butter since, between 1970 and 1990, I got my cash variously from state coffers - a combination of Polytechnic and local government sources - operating as a local government politician and writing about the various efforts to improve its practice.
My (much better) fees since then have come overtly from commercial sources – but all of the companies I have worked for since 1991 have been under contract to the European Commission. And the focus of my work in the last 20 years has been the building of the capacity of local and central government systems in central Europe and Central Asia…….Its ironic that the democratic models we held up to those “transitional systems”  for emulation proved to be disintegrating even as we spoke……Talk about hubris!

I find it curious, first, that I seem to have been the first to upload Anthony Jay’s piece – and therefore to subject it to analysis. The academics who write about democracy (and there are thousands!) clearly view the satire as beneath their dignity….
But Jay score 8 out of 10 in my reckoning for his analysis – I would fault only his points about staffing. Civil servant contracts have actually become highly contractual – and also the subject of fairly severe cutbacks. But the fact still remains that it is the senior (rather than junior) staff who have been laughing all the way to the bank…….with inflated salaries and pensions.  

The question remains, however, whether his points (however satirically meant) actually capture the true reasons for the collapse of political legitimacy? 
One point, for example, commonly made in discussions is that the political class has now become younger and very incestuous – moving quickly from academia into think-tanks and positions as aides to politicians before themselves becoming politicians. In short, they accumulate favours and networks which make them highly dependent and malleable….. And they use a managerial language which not only alienates but reflects a consensual ideology about the limits of state action enshrined in “neo-liberalism”.

Peter Oborne is a British journalist who wrote a critical book on this subject in 2008 called The Triumph of the Political ClassA month ago he enthused about a new academic book about the “hollowing of democracy” and it is to his views I want to devote the rest of this post. The basic question about the reasons for the degeneration of politics will be continued in future posts.
Every so often one comes across a book, a poem or a work of art that is so original, perfectly crafted, accurate and true that you can’t get it out of your head. You have to read or look at it many times to place it in context and understand what it means.In the course of two decades as a political reporter my most powerful experience of this kind came when a friend drew my attention to a 20-page article in an obscure academic journal.Written by the political scientists Richard Katz and Peter Mair, and called “The Emergence of a Cartel Party”, it immediately explained almost everything that had perplexed me as a lobby correspondent: the unhealthy similarity between supposedly rival parties; the corruption and graft that has become endemic in modern politics; the emergence of a political elite filled with scorn and hostility towards ordinary voters. My book, The Triumph of the Political Class was in certain respects an attempt to popularise that Katz and Mair essay.
Several months ago I was shocked and saddened to learn that Peter Mair (whom I never met) had died suddenly, while on holiday with his family in his native Ireland, aged just 60. However, his friend Francis Mulhern has skilfully piloted into print the book he was working on at the time of his death. It is called Ruling the Void: The Hollowing of Western Democracy, and published by Verso. In my view it is every bit as brilliant as the earlier essay.The opening paragraph is bold, powerful, and sets out the thesis beautifully: “The age of party democracy has passed. Although the parties themselves remain, they have become so disconnected from the wider society, and pursue a form of competition that is so lacking in meaning, that they no longer seem capable of sustaining democracy in its present form.” 
The first half of Mair’s new book concentrates on this crisis in party democracy. He tracks the sharp fall in turn-out at elections, the collapse of party membership (the Tories down from three million in the Fifties to scarcely 100,000 today, a drop of 97 per cent) and the decay of civic participation. Mair shows that this is a European trend. All over the continent parties have turned against their members. Political leaders no longer represent ordinary people, but are becoming, in effect, emissaries from central government. All of this is of exceptional importance, and central to the urgent contemporary debate about voter disenchantment.
However, I want to concentrate on the second half of Mair’s book, because here the professor turns to the role played by the European Union in undermining and bypassing national democracy.He starts with a historical paradox. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990 was in theory the finest moment for Western democracy. But it was also the moment when it started to fail. Mair argues that political elites have turned Europe into “a protected sphere, safe from the demands of voters and their representatives”.This European political directorate has taken decision-making away from national parliaments. On virtually everything that matters, from the economy to immigration, decisions are made elsewhere. Professor Mair argues that many politicians encouraged this tendency because they wanted to “divest themselves of responsibility for potentially unpopular policy decisions and so cushion themselves against possible voter discontent”. This means that decisions which viscerally affect the lives of voters are now taken by anonymous, unaccountable bureaucrats rather than politicians responsible to their voters.
Though the motive has been understandable, the effect has been malign, making politicians look impotent or cowardly, and bringing politics itself into contempt. The prime ministers of Greece, Portugal and Spain are now effectively branch managers for the European Central Bank and Goldman Sachs. By a hideous paradox the European Union, set up as a way of avoiding a return to fascism in the post-war epoch, has since mutated into a way of avoiding democracy itself.In a devastating analogy, Mair conjures up Alexis de Tocqueville, the 19th-century French thinker who is often regarded as the greatest modern theorist about democracy. Tocqueville noted that the pre-revolutionary French aristocracy fell into contempt because they claimed privileges on the basis of functions that they could no longer fulfil. The 21st-century European political class, says Mair, is in the identical position. To sum up, the European elites have come very close to the abolition of what we have been brought up to regard as politics, and have replaced it with rule by bureaucrats, bankers, and various kinds of unelected expert. So far they have got away with this. This May’s elections for the European Parliament will provide a fascinating test of whether they can continue to do so. 
The European Union claims to be untroubled by these elections. A report last month from two members of the Jacques Delors Institute concluded that “the numerical increase of populist forces will not notably affect the functioning of the [European Parliament], which will remain largely based on the compromises built between the dominant political groups. This reflects the position of the overwhelming majority of EU citizens”. I wonder. In France, polls suggest that the anti-semitic Front National, which equates illegal immigrants with “organised gangs of criminals”, will gain more votes than the mainstream parties.
The Front National has joined forces with the virulently anti-Islamic Geert Wilders in Holland, who promises to claim back “how we control our borders, our money, our economy, our currency”. Anti-European parties are on the rise in Denmark, Austria, Greece and Poland. These anti-EU parties tend to be on the Right, and often the far-Right. For reasons that are hard to understand, the Left continues enthusiastically to back the EU, even though it is pursuing policies that drive down living standards and destroy employment, businesses and indeed (in the case of Greece and Spain) entire economies. In Britain, for example, Ed Miliband is an ardent supporter of the European project and refuses even to countenance the idea of a referendum.
Like Miliband, Peter Mair comes from the Left. He was an Irishman who spent the majority of his professional life working in European universities in Italy, the Netherlands or Ireland. And yet he has written what is by far and away the most powerful, learned and persuasive anti-EU treatise I have come across. It proves that it is impossible to be a democrat and support the continued existence of the European Union.
His posthumous masterpiece deserves to become a foundation text for Eurosceptics not just in Britain, but right across the continent. It is important that it should do so. The battle to reclaim parliamentary democracy should not just belong to the Right-wing (and sometimes fascist) political parties. The Left and Right can disagree – honourably so – on many great issues. But surely both sides of the ideological divide can accept that democracy is still worth fighting for, and that the common enemy has become the European Union.
The painting is Daumier's "Belly of the Beast"

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