Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Democratic deficits

Gordon Brown is urging a debate on Britishness. But Britain is an essentially imperial project sustained today by subservience to the US, argues David Beetham, and judging by the new green paper on governance a democratic Britain is not about to be born

December 17, 2007
4 min read


David Beetham is associate director, Democratic Audit


  share     tweet  

The events of early autumn demonstrate why New Labour has never been and will never be a party of the left. Allowing speculation about an early election to run unchecked, and then visiting Iraq in an abortive attempt to draw attention away from the Tory conference, showed that Gordon Brown had inherited all the worst features of opportunism and spin that characterised the Blair era. Then stealing the Tories’ clothes over taxation only confirmed that we have two virtually indistinguishable right-of-centre main parties, appealing to a narrow segment of ‘swing’ voters in marginal constituencies.

These events also reminded us of the serious flaws at the heart of British democracy. The first-past-the-post electoral system deprives the voters of effective choice and discourages them from turning out to vote. Enforced internal party uniformity discourages active membership and diminishes political diversity in parliament. Single party rule in a highly centralised system of government gives the premier unique personal control over executive, cabinet, parliament and country. And the anachronistic power to call an election at will fuels indefinite election speculation as well as giving the governing party a wholly arbitrary advantage over its opponents.

Is there any realistic prospect that any of this will change? Among the first acts of the Brown administration was the publication of a green paper, The Governance of Britain, which acknowledged the serious decline of public confidence in our democratic institutions, and set out proposals to ‘forge a new relationship between government and citizen’.

Unfortunately, the green paper’s diagnosis of the malaise in British democracy is limited, and its proposals for change correspondingly feeble. Certainly, removing some of the executive’s prerogative powers (to deploy troops abroad, to ratify international treaties, to recall and dissolve parliament and so on) and handing them over to parliament is a step in the right direction. But while the governing party leader enjoys such power of patronage and sanction over MPs, the distinction between executive and parliament is more formal than substantial. Moreover, the section on local communities envisages no serious rebalancing of power between central and local government.

It is when it comes to the role of the citizen – supposedly at the heart of the democratic deficit – that the weakness of the green paper is most apparent. What is offered, on the one hand, is more focus groups, consultations, citizen juries and so on, whose agendas will be carefully controlled from above. On the other hand, we are promised a great national debate on Britishness and British values, involving ‘local regional and national level events and opportunities for deliberation and debate’.

But what actually is Britain? It was constructed by the Act of Union at the start of the 18th century as an essentially imperial project, which is sustained today in surrogate form through subservience to the USA. And any ‘British values’ worth celebrating are mostly ones we share with the rest of Europe, though their European character cannot be openly acknowledged. Flying the Union Jack on all public buildings hardly makes up for this hole at the heart of the concept of ‘Britishness’.

Most problematic of all is the green paper’s analysis of the huge drop in voting by young people (18-24) over the past two general elections. The cause is identified as their ‘lack of appreciation of the importance of the democratic process and of the need for active citizenship’. And the solution? A new Youth Citizenship Commission ‘which will examine ways to invigorate young people’s understanding of the historical narrative of our country and of what it means to be a British citizen, and to increase their participation in the political sphere.’

No mention here of the mass participation of young people, including large numbers of Muslims, in the demonstrations and school walkouts against the Iraq war, or the failure of the government to listen to them. No mention either of the fact that this generation is the one that had already been exposed in school to Blunkett’s civics curriculum.

This curriculum may have introduced them to the importance of the United Nations, to the need to resolve disputes by peaceful means and to the values of representative democracy. What they learnt in practice from their political participation, however, was that parliament and government can defy the UN and invade another country when they choose, and that they give more weight to the views of a foreign president than they do to the voices of their own people.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.

David Beetham is associate director, Democratic Audit


Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power

What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains

The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme

Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it

The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going

A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism

Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase

Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields

Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton

Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi

A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain

Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank

Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded

West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens

Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age

Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today

The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics

Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.

Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making

Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show

The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services

With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali

To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi

Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun