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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


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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.

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David Beetham is associate director, Democratic Audit


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