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

×

Now to complete the democratic revolution

Hilary Wainwright's editorial in our upcoming June/July issue argues that the issue of public control over public money could be the basis of a movement to complete the unfinished struggle for popular sovereignty

May 24, 2009
5 min read


Hilary WainwrightHilary Wainwright is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective and a fellow of the Transnational Institute. @hilarypepper


  share     tweet  

No taxation without representation. This demand for democratic control over public money was the rallying cry of Britain’s 17th century revolution against monarchical rule. But the settlement of 1688 was a compromise: establishing the sovereignty of parliament rather than the sovereignty of the people.

The relationship founded by this compromise with the emasculated monarchy is symbolised by the fact that MPs swear to be servants of the Crown (de facto the executive) rather than servants of the people. The notion is an anachronism, but it is one that MPs over the centuries have clung on to and indeed hidden behind. It has imbued in all too many of them a sense of being above the people.

It is appropriate that the issue of public control over public money should now be driving the anger that could surely be the basis of a movement to complete the unfinished struggle for popular sovereignty. For the explosion of anger against those MPs who have abused their personal stewardship of the money meant to enable them to carry out their public duties is the product of a pent-up fury.

It is a fury that has mounted with growing evidence of financial waste and unaccountability, against the background of levels of inequality unprecedented in post-war years. It began with numerous parliamentary committees pronouncing on the poor value of the Private Finance Initiative, on the millions of public money spent on exorbitant consultancies, and on the failure of mega projects from the Dome onwards – but with no effect.

Along the way has been the vast expenditure on the unpopular and calamitous occupation of Iraq. Then came the billions handed over to the private banks without any of the scrutiny imposed on the public sector for much smaller sums. Finally came the sight of a sizeable minority of MPs showing such contempt for the people whose interests they supposedly represent that without a second thought they could pocket capital gains from a house bought at public expense for public purpose.

The most symbolic example of the deeper problem we face has been the behaviour of communities minister Hazel Blears, treating a £45,000 capital gain as hers to pocket privately with parliamentary permission. That’s around the sum that, with such fanfare, she deigned to grant to neighbourhoods to allocate collectively, under intense public scrutiny, in the form of ‘community kitties’.

Her patronising and hypocritical approach towards the idea of greater popular control of public money is also symbolic of the way that parliamentary sovereignty has embedded in mainstream English political culture a false choice: between parliament as wise, independent-minded decision making; and any idea of popular power as not to be trusted, the ‘rule of the mob’, emotion as distinct from reason, and riddled with sectional interests (trade unions, ‘activists’ etc) – so therefore to be fenced in. Richard Crossman for example, reflected with satisfaction on how parliament acted as a ‘rock against the waves of popular emotion’.

What has been entirely marginalised is the tradition of Tom Paine (see page 58, June/July issue), William Morris and (less radically) John Stuart Mill, whose concern was to adapt the principle of popular sovereignty to whole societies. Forms of representation are necessary, but the institutions through which it should occur have to be designed to retain as far as possible the substance of popular power. Hence we need proportional representation, with no representative serving more than two terms, and more mechanisms of accountability and recallabilty between frequent elections.

Popular sovereignty is now an urgent issue. We need initiatives that give new life to these traditions of radical constitutional reform, with a focus now on proportional representation to achieve a genuinely accountable parliament.

At the same time it is necessary to connect constitutional reform with extra-parliamentary struggles for democratic control, such as the trade union led campaigns for democratic alternatives to privatisation discussed in the April/May Red Pepper, and the democratic potential of the new means of communication being used to impose accountability on the police (cover story, page 18 June/July issue). Action at all these levels is necessary for the present public fury to become a force to complete the democratic revolution. And this includes carrying the logic of popular control through, to address the problem of private economic power.

The left has a responsibility to build the connections between these different fronts of struggle for democratic control, and in doing so stimulate open and widespread political and cultural debate. A mere ‘cleansing’ of parliament and continuation of the depoliticised political culture will not counter the appeal of the far right. That requires a political movement able to connect the transformation of our political institutions with egalitarian solutions to the growing problems of daily life – and to do so in a way that enables people to gain control and bring about change and self-realisation in the process.

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.

Hilary WainwrightHilary Wainwright is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective and a fellow of the Transnational Institute. @hilarypepper


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