Democracy in Focus: A post-austerity state

The UK needs a people’s constitution to defend rights and enable us to fulfil our potential, writes Hilary Wainwright

January 8, 2020 · 7 min read
Illustration by Andrzej Krauze

Lowering the voting age. Restoring and entrenching the powers of local government, including the power to build public housing. Ensuring that people are able to fulfil their potential (including outlawing many of the practices of the gig economy that drive its workers to suicide). Establishing a proportional election system, so that voters have a real choice and their votes make a difference.

Making prime ministers accountable for the treaties they sign (including with the EU and the US), wars they declare and businesses that lobby them. Abolishing the City of London Corporation, which gives the City’s financial interests an inside track to the prime minister and cabinet. Letting go of Britain’s overseas territories – from the Cayman Islands to the Channel Islands – which provide financial crooks and tax avoiders protected refuges to stash their cash.

To dismiss these changes and many more – in short, the creation of a democratic constitution – as a matter just for the chattering, cushioned class is deeply anti-democratic, showing a contempt for the people suspiciously like an elite protective of its power. ‘Keep the people out of government, they don’t understand; if they have any power, they’ll only get in the way, and want more.’

Getting away with it

The ruling elite used to get away with it. Thatcher and prime ministers since made the most of the UK’s unwritten and (in the hands of the powerful) flexible rules to disempower the majority of people not only politically but in every sphere of life. They have used the distinctively centralised powers of the British state to deregulate, privatise, cut welfare and thereby destroy the foundations of Labour’s 1945 social state.

In particular, in what has effectively been 40 years of class war to smash trade union and local government power, these prime ministers have used the unwritten powers of the executive – the opaque workings of the royal prerogative – to achieve a radical shift away from the post-war social and economic settlement. This potent residue from the 17thcentury restoration of the monarchy ‘in parliament’ – our unfinished democratic revolution – legitimates the ability of the UK government to centralise power, impose secrecy and ensure that MPs can rarely fully call the executive to account.

After failing to get change through voting for a political party – ‘they are all the same’ – millions used the 2016 referendum to challenge not just one party but the whole political establishment. This referendum was not itself the result of popular pressure, unlike in Scotland, but given the opportunity they upset the whole system, calling into question the principle of ‘parliamentary sovereignty’, the presumed normality of the UK system of government and introducing a partial element of popular sovereignty.

The vote on Brexit has only been one such expression of discontent. Others include the radical democratic movement for Scottish independence, the surge of support for Jeremy Corbyn and, since then, the extraordinary new wave of extra-parliamentary action on climate change, which focuses on radical, participatory democracy as a condition for effective action. These movements all express a deep disaffection with the political system, going beyond the cycle of disillusion with any particular incumbent government.

This has produced an instability in the legitimacy of our minimalist democracy that Boris Johnson has exploited with typical egocentric bravado, insisting on his right to rule. This has been cunningly spun as championing the people against parliament.

With Johnson’s attempt to close down parliament in the name of the crown, to avoid scrutiny of his Brexit deal, the question of where power lay and how ‘we the people’ could get our hands on it became an unusually hot issue. The public, however they voted in the referendum, faced a dysfunctional parliament and an untrustworthy prime minister.

Damagingly slow

Labour has been damagingly slow with its own proposals for democratic reform, a necessary condition for its proposed transformation of the economy and society. But it has opened up possibilities. The 2017 manifesto included a commitment to a constitutional convention to create the rules and institutions necessary to complete Britain’s unfinished democratic revolution. Shadow chancellor John McDonnell opened debate about the transformation of the state by proposing that: ‘A new kind of public ownership would be based on the principle that “Nobody knows better how to run these industries than those who spend their lives with them.”’

The importance of Labour’s recent move away from the presumption that the British state – monarchy, union, overseas territories, imperial legacy, City influence and all – could be deployed to implement a Labour manifesto as effectively as a Tory one, should not be underestimated.

One reason our undemocratic, mongrel state – constitutional monarchy cross-bred with parliamentary democracy – has managed to survive is because the Labour Party has uncritically trusted it to be the instrument for a Labour government. It has accepted that to suggest authority lies anywhere else would be a challenge to the authority of the state and the long tradition of British rule from above.

We now face the limits of past Labour governments whose achievements were constructed by an imperial and highly paternalist state: public ownership without democratic participation; the Treasury/City nexus unchallenged; British overseas territories left intact; imperial commitments and unequal trade agreements sealed under the hallowed secrecy allowed by the royal prerogative.

Neal Ascherson summed up the problem memorably: ‘It is not possible to build democratic socialism by using the institutions of the Ancient British state … in the way that it is not possible to induce a vulture to give milk.’

Radical constitutional change has come only with a shift in the balance of power against the dominant order – look at South Africa’s post-apartheid constitution. Imagine if the social reforms of the 1945 government had been reinforced by a popularly-written constitution that entrenched the state’s obligations to provide the health, housing and employment conditions for a dignified life. How much more difficult it would have been for market-led politics to sweep away the institutions of the welfare state. South African lawyer and ANC freedom fighter says of the post-apartheid constitution: ‘The constitutional regime is there not simply as a defence against the encroaching state as in the liberal tradition; it is there to enable people to fulfil their potential in terms of the promise made by the constitution.’

We face the challenge of making a post-neoliberal, post-austerity state. In doing so, we must prepare for long-term, lasting change that means transforming the state.

Hilary Wainwright is a co-founder and editor of Red Pepper.

This article first appeared in Issue 226: Get Socialism Done, as part of a series on Democracy. Get your copy of the print magazine from as little as £2 per month.


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