10. REBUILDING DEMOCRACY POST-BREXIT: #BETTER TOGETHER AND/OR #TAKE BACK CONTROL
July 4th 2016… Caislean Ghriare, Chiarrai, Eire…where there is some excitement about a closer relationship between Eire, Northern Ireland and Scotland, as a Celtic Alliance to form a sustainable economic union to remain in the EU, on an ‘independence day’ worthy of celebration for the birth of a new democracy, rather than the expiry of one now well past its sell-by date. [July 20th…Not having had a preview of the fairy story we are currently living through, I have now had to make some ‘corrections’ to my original post...in square brackets.]
This essay was prompted by the Brexit Referendum and following events, and their resonance with the theme of my Churchill Fellowship report “Property, Justice and Reason” which focussed on the unhealthy state of our democracy and the decline of civil society institutions in the post-WW2 era. (Report published here, by the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, and a version for academics at Academia.eduSee also previous blogs below.)
For me, the last few days have been a painful reminder of a personal failure, as a non-governmental member of the Ministerial Sounding Board on Local Government Reform from 2000 to 2005, to make a sufficiently strong case for ‘Double Devolution’ through which New Labour’s planned local government reforms would have brought about greater power sharing between local government and their communities: a particularly necessary change for reviving many areas that were disadvantaged then, that are even more disadvantaged today, and have almost universally voted to leave the EU.
May 14th 2002 is the date that I cannot forget, and it is intimately connected to the outcome of the Referendum on June 23rd 2016: a day many more will have reasons to remember.
[The themes of this essay…the need for a democratic renaissance and greater local autonomy…will be incorporated into a chapter “Taking self-build out of the small and special box - Putting ‘the political’ back into ‘the social’ of self-build” in M. Benson and I. Hamiduddin Ed, Self-Build Homes: Social Discourse, Experiences and Directions (UCL Press) Forthcoming February 2017]
Game show politics
“Sure, t’was obvious the man never meant to win. He never wanted to be Prime Minister just yet.” The old farmer selling us newly dug spuds and carrots, at the Dingle market, and indeed most Irish people we have spoken to in recent days, all seemed to know something that we Brits failed to spot, until it actually happened: ‘the man’ being Boris Johnson.
In the turmoil following Johnson’s ignominious departure, almost certainly permanently, from our public life, […perhaps not just yet, at least until he can no longer busk or bluster his way through the unexpected responsibility of Foreign Secretary and having to deliver what he promised in the referendum campaign] Irish political commentators are enjoying the opportunity to turn the tables for once and poke justifiable fun at the state of our political establishment. “The British government currently resembles the management team of a poorly-run bank at the height of the financial crisis,” suggests Chris Johns in the Irish Times, “during which it was said of many a bank executive that they had risen without trace…without ever having to make a tough decision”. According to political columnist, Fintan O'Toole, also in the Times, “What’s different about the new reactionaries (viz. Trump and Johnson) is that they are not at all serious (about what they say). The farce of Johnson’s abortive leadership bid is just a token of the deeper truth: this is a game of thrones that is all game and no throne”: a verdict that seems now more apposite, a few days later, to describe Farage’s third resignation, so that he can get his life back. Not even the script writers for ‘The Thick of It’ could have imagined this.
‘Establishment’, though, seems too grand a word for something in such evident disrepair and needing a substantial programme of maintenance and modernisation, much like the Houses of Parliament themselves, and doubtfully ever likely to be fit for purpose again without huge investment and rebuilding. [Well, the new Prime Minister seems to have a better idea of the scale of the challenge, and understands that you sometimes need to rebuild the foundations during the storm that is washing them away, rather than just repair the roof when the weather wasn’t too bad, as her predecessor seemed to think.]
Ahoy there, Voters!
So what was that vote all about, really? VoteyMcVoteFace? If you believe Private Eye. Or even BoatyMcBoatFace? Judging by the post-ballot reactions, everything was clearly being framed in the comforting glow of our proud seafaring past, when we were all gallant, honourable, ruled the Seven Seas, and knew how to steer a firm course (without satnav): ‘we’ meaning, of course, the officer class who knew what they were doing and what was best for everyone else as well as themselves.
The Leave campaign was accused by the Labour Party of "losing its moral compass". (Does the Labour Party even know what a compass is?) The Chancellor avowed “It will not be plain sailing in the days ahead.” Headlines shouted ‘waves of shame’…‘Our greatest victory since the Cod War…Iceland erupts at another European exit’…oh no, that’s the Euros (the footy ones), though maybe the Icelanders were just getting their retaliation in first, as apparently ‘Brexit will not ensure bigger fishing catches’….or maybe they were considering receiving Boris Johnson Stanleysson into the exile that he certainly deserves, [or perhaps stoking Mount Eyjafjallajökull into action to ensure he can never fly in to negotiate a bilateral trade deal with them]. Chris Johns, again, joining in the nautical theme, “For much of the time, senior managers and politicians with these (unremarkable) qualities don’t do too bad a job: sailing in calm waters isn’t that difficult even if you are not a skilled yachtsman. It’s when the storms roll in that the weak get found out.”
And, of course, in the case of the avoidable course chosen by Captain ‘Schettino’ Cameron, “I will do everything I can…to steady the ship over the coming weeks and months, but I do not think it would be right for me to try to be the captain that steers our country to its next destination.’
However, none of us saw the similarity between our ship of state and the fate of the Costa Concordia, and the idea that we were being taken on a dangerous detour into the shallows, with out of date charts, by a captain who was just showing off and alleged to have been entertaining a night club dancer at the time…sorry, that was Communications Officer Whittingdale, but you get the idea; they were all in it together, after all.
Equally, no public figure had the presence of mind or even the appetite to be our ‘voice of duty’ Coastguard Gregorio de Falco, and order Cameron to do the really decent thing “Vada a bordo, cazzo!” (“Get back on board, for fuck’s sake!”). Schettino was labelled ‘Captain Coward’ by the international media, and prosecutors at his trial described him as “a reckless idiot”. Cameron’s final reputation has yet to be decided, though President Obama’s verdict on meeting the Conservative Party leaders in 2009 seems near enough the mark: Captain Cameron was “lightweight”, and Purser Osborne “lacked depth”…or now, more accurately, 'flotsam' and 'jetsam'? 
[Well, I was completely wrong about the casting for this bit of the Costa Concordia saga…Captain Schettino was played by Johnson, and Coastguard de Falco was obviously the new Prime Minister, Theresa May, who has cleverly managed to retrofit the referendum campaign with a modest portion of accountability, by giving the Leave campaign the responsibility for delivering on the promises they made. Passed over Chief Engineer Davis has been brought out of retirement to rebuild the Whitehall engine room.]
A great day for Democracy?
Meanwhile, other public figures were exulting in the referendum result: “the People have spoken” boomed ex-Daily Telegraph writer, Peter Oborne on BBC R4. Yes, we certainly have, but what were we all saying?
Lots of different things to be sure, though it is doubtful that many of us were answering the actual question on the ballot paper. How could we have done? What is now plain to see is that neither campaign expected the result, had no Plan B, and not a clue about what would happen in the eventuality of actually having to negotiate to leave. So if they don’t know now, how could we have possibly made an informed choice on June 23rd? The campaigns were essentially fact free, at least of reliable facts, independently verified by, say, the Electoral Commission or the Office of Budgetary Responsibility. Indeed, the ‘Leave’ campaign adviser’s direction was to avoid facts…the electorate does not want to hear them…this was to be a vote about emotions.
The voting patterns have now been minutely analysed, and it is clear that there are many messages from different parts of the country, from different age groups, and different income levels. Emotions strongly felt do lie behind these differences, which would suggest that with a country so unhappy with its present state of mind, and unclear about what country (or countries) it wants to be, then we have no business going into negotiations over leaving the EU that could affect our ability to be that new country, whatever it is.
As one wise politician wrote, not so long ago, “We can no longer blame Brussels. This is perhaps the most important point of all. If we left the EU, we would end this sterile debate, and we would have to recognise that most of our problems are not caused by “Bwussels”, but by chronic British short-termism, inadequate management, sloth, low skills, a culture of easy gratification and under-investment in both human and physical capital and infrastructure.” Yes, it’s that ‘man’ again. Johnson might also have elaborated ‘and 30 years of tinkering with our health service, our biggest national business and employer, by people with little if any managerial experience… and 30 years, too, of ignoring the task of designing a new post-industrial world of work, following financial deregulation in the mid-1980s, with a new vision of the education system needed to support it.’
My own emotion is one of fury…fury that the arrogance of the English has brought us to this:
- The arrogance of the English Tory Party, which had to sort out its own internal power struggle, after a generation of trying and failing, by passing the buck to us and asking us a question that was self-evidently not fit for the purpose that it pretended to be addressing…and failing again despite getting a ‘result’.
- The arrogance of the English voters that they imagine their preoccupations should trump the futures of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland…and Ireland, as well.
- The arrogance of the English who claim that there is no racism behind the concerns about migration. Well, just take a look at the density of Leave voting in the West Midlands, as an example of an area of well documented electoral malfeasance on racist issues over a generation: the rivers of racial prejudice and abuse have been running deep and dark for a long time.
- Above all, the arrogance of English politicians who can shamelessly get up in Parliament and claim that June 23rd was “a great day for our great democracy” (Sir Bill Cash…so at least protected by Parliamentary privilege for such disregard for the truth).
A great day it certainly wasn’t. Witness the insouciance of the campaigners denying their promises within 24 hours, the immediately obvious absence of any accountability of the campaigners to the electorate, the view of Farage that if it had been 52% v 48% against Leave, he would have considered it “unfinished business”, the news that Johnson had been talking to the Editor of the Sunday Times about a second referendum after further negotiations with Brussels…and so on.
This was ‘the voice of the People’, but it was screaming into the vacuum. Many people had rationally decided that this referendum was a rare, possibly unique, opportunity to tell our politicians what really concerns us, unconstrained and unmediated by the limitations of our normal party allegiances and first-past-the-post voting. The truth is we were a sideshow to the political ambitions of a very few arrogant English political minds, who it now turns out were simply not up to any kind of job […but have now been put on the spot to shape up or shut up].
Whatever is going in the Tory, Labour or UKIP parties in Westminster today…and it’s hard to keep up…it isn’t changing anything in the constituencies. Neither Conservative nor Labour parties know how to respond to the fact that their traditional allegiances are fractured and fading, and that the divisions amongst their traditional supporters, and between those supporters and their elected representatives now overwrite the business as usual Westminster script, and the values they have traditionally represented in the British political economy. [Three years of ‘steady as she goes…right hand down a bit’ under Captain May are unlikely to change that reality.]
Rebuilding trust, confidence and universal participation in political life
The tragedy of the referendum is the tragedy of the state of our democracy. No one has heard our scream, or the cry of the murdered Jo Cox, “We are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us”. Who now stands for that?
John Stuart Mill’s advice that having “a party of order or stability and a party of progress or reform are both necessary elements for a healthy state of political life” describes a desirable state of being that now looks a very remote prospect indeed. The idea that we are a ‘mature democracy’, able to rely on the ‘Mother of all Parliaments’ has been exploded. In Shakespeare’s quatercentenary year, ‘Mother’ has definitively reached the ‘sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything’ stage, and we are desperately in need of a political renaissance.
The Costa Concordia experience has other parallels for us in the remedy. When everything else has disintegrated around you, there is little to be gained from just focussing on appointing a new captain and recruiting a new crew. You really need to start again and rebuild your ship or building from first principles. Find an engineer, someone who can fix the foundations, repair them, do the underpinning or even build new ones. The salvage engineers performed an almost miraculous recovery of the sunken Costa Concordia, with skill and precision, and careful forward planning: the nautical equivalent of new foundations. Unfashionably for our political culture, this was a necessary occasion for calling in ‘the experts’: people otherwise now to be universally sneered at and dismissed as out of touch.
But who are the experts in democratic renewal? Who are the ‘demos’? We don’t need Johnson to tell us that ‘we’ are the people, so the answer is obviously ‘us’. But where and how can we relearn how to live more democratically and generously together? Governments of all colours have variously undermined or ignored civil society institutions, sometimes casting them as irritating and even undemocratic critics of the state that knows best, and expressly excluding them from the political life of the country; also to the considerable satisfaction of the corporate commercial sector which has colonised public life in our place, and downgraded us to the role of passive consumers.
We have not done all that we could have done to sustain our role in public life. The progressive historian and political philosopher R. H Tawney, is famously remembered for saying that Britain had accepted democracy “as a convenience, like an improved system of telephones: she did not dedicate herself to it as the expression of a moral ideal… She changed her political garments, but not her heart… She went to the ballot box touching her hat”.
Modern versions of telephone systems can easily be set to ‘Send only’ mode, and, as is the case with Labour Party communications, with quite explicit and unconcealed directions for ‘no-reply’. For this ballot, however, no one was touching their hat. Something had changed, and the immediate aftermath of the result was ugly and frightening, with levels of violence, hatred and abuse of ‘the other’ that have already been accommodated in a way that even the petty misdemeanours of the Tottenham rioters, for instance, were not. These actions have been legitimised by the words, actions and demeanour of, amongst others, an unelected (to Westminster) public figure, for whom serious political work is clearly too troublesome, and with no political accountability to anyone.
We need to relearn how to live democratically and peaceably together…fast…and that should mean both ‘taking back control’ and living ‘better together’. There are serious and thoughtful politicians who are only too aware of the fragility of our democracy. From a left’ish progressive centre, Lisa Nandy MP, until recently a Shadow Minister, advocates, “putting people back in control…(this) means there is not just one ‘right way’ of doing things, and no universal delivery mechanism, except to start with the energy, passion, creativity and strength in communities and build from there.”
From a right’ish progressive centre, junior minister Rory Stewart MP observes that everyone thinks that everyone else is more powerful than them, but that they are all mistaken: "What is our democracy? Who do we want to be? I like the idea of organic history and tradition. But I think Britain is such a different place now, and changing so quickly, that I'm coming slowly, painfully, to accept that we need to start again…in our situation, we're all powerless. I mean, we pretend we're run by people. We're not run by anybody. The secret of modern Britain is there is no power anywhere. Some commentators think we're run by an oligarchy. But we're not…The politicians think journalists have power. The journalists know they don't have any. Then they think the bankers have power. The bankers know they don't have any. None of them have any power." He contends that it is very hard to see where power lies, unless it can be amongst ourselves and in our own sense of autonomy.
Effective devolution and power sharing ‘where you are’
Stewart is convinced we need to rethink our democratic institutions from first principles. With the collapse of trust in many of our democratic and civic institutions, we need to invent new ones that are fit for political purpose. He believes that citizens must be re-empowered and that government must learn to ‘let go’ and devolve more power to localities and communities. Labour failed to do this with ‘Double Devolution’ in the reform of local government in the mid-2000s, contemptuous of the need to involve and be respectful of local people and their priorities.
My own advocacy of devolution and power sharing with communities, on Nick Raynsford’s Ministerial Sounding Board, was met with “Our job is difficult enough already. For God’s sake don’t make us work with communities as well” from the voice of Labour local government. (That was on the dreaded May 14th 2002.) Taking that abandonment of a key aspect of David Miliband’s proposed reforms together with the neutering, by Chancellor Brown, of the Lyons Inquiry into Local Government Finance, that might have given local authorities genuine financial autonomy, we can see now two extraordinary missed opportunities to rebuild local democracy, and enable communities to take back the control which they are now claiming.
As it is, not working with their communities has made the work of local government a much harder task over the following 14 years. Labour councils, in particular, have been left to be the fall-guys for implementing ‘austerity’ that has been disproportionately weighted on them by their political opponents: a rich reward for their unwillingness to share power with their own citizens. Although local government now receives much less from central government, its autonomy is still perilously dependent on Whitehall patronage for the few extras that now pass for devolution.
Stewart has been a strong supporter of community housing projects in his constituency and across the country, and it’s obvious why. They provide the foundations for locally accountable democratic action where it really affects everyone, and where everyone who wants to can have a voice. My Churchill Fellowship research into citizen inspired housing was also a step on the journey from that rebuff on ‘Double Devolution’, looking for accessible and lasting forms of localised democratic practice. Cooperatives, cohousing and Community Land Trusts are locally accountable democratic institutions, open to all who want to make them work. The people who have done the hard work of setting up these institutions have done so with a passion because they represent important political ideas about the way they want to live, that belong to neither right nor left, and which have not been catered for by either public policy or the market. They have had to create their own solutions. Yet even after all that hard work, it is still mainly the state determinist wing of the Labour Party that is unable to accept participatory democracy as having equal legitimacy with representative democracy: too many Labour politicians act as if they have a monopoly on democracy…and it is actually that control that the voters have now said they want to take back.
Organising and learning how to live together more democratically, in the streets and neighbourhoods where we do in fact live, is an obvious task that anyone can take up. We could all start tomorrow, if we really cared enough about our democracy. Some are already doing it in rural areas and cities across the country, with astonishing results. Democracy is hard work, and we can’t blame politicians, or get angry with the system, if we can’t actually be bothered. We haven’t been bothered for quite a while, and the corporate political and commercial elites has been happy enough to acquiesce to our inaction, or perhaps ‘sloth’ as Johnson, or, better, Beveridge might have put it: one of his five great evils. If we really want to ‘take back control’, we will have to do it ourselves…that’s one thing we can’t expect politicians to do for us.
 These have distinct legal meanings in maritime law. Flotsam is floating wreckage of a ship or its cargo. Jetsam is part of a ship, its equipment, or its cargo that is purposely cast overboard or jettisoned to lighten the load in time of distress and is washed ashore