Gerry Hassan: Nation in crisis of democratic faith

MARGARET Thatcher’s death has seen many in Britain look deeper into the past to determine their present, but what kind of country are we celebrating, asks Gerry Hassan

THE past week has effectively been an elegy on Britain’s recent past and present rolled into one. This is not just about Thatcher, but the numerous references to the Churchill and Attlee funerals and how we marked these titans. Are we still that same people who dreamed dreams, stood alone against the Nazis and built a welfare state, we ask, with a hint of anxiety?

Britain seems increasingly a place shaped by the allure of living in the past, by the power of previous generations and the combined cacophonous voices of the dead.

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This is not just about the Thatcher moment. In recent years, the British state has increasingly marked its numerous military and imperial triumphs and engagements. We have honoured Admiral Nelson’s victory in the Battle of Trafalgar, and the Battle of Britain; next year there is the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of western Europe and the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the onset of the First World War.

It is about more than that. Britain is an old country, not so much in terms of years but attitude, embracing the argument put forward by the writer Patrick Wright in the 1980s that Britain developed a culture drawn to a romanticised, recreated, problematic vision of the past.

This increasingly, Wright argued, came to be true post-1979, as a crisis arose in modernity, progress and a shared national sense of belonging. From this emerged the burgeoning heritage industry, conservation movement and the rise of Prince Charles as a bulwark against modern architecture and planners.

Simultaneously, Britain is showing its crumbling attachment to democracy. This can be witnessed in the potent connection to the Queen as a person and an institution. She embodies in her 61-year “selfless” reign the last connection to the Britain of our wartime spirit and to the collective endeavour that followed. This can be seen in the appeal of Peter Morgan’s The Audience, with Helen Mirren playing her constitutional role of Her Majesty, which highlights eight of “the Dirty Dozen” prime ministers’ weekly meetings with her. It is as if we are desperate to find in our divided, diminished society threads that link us together.

Something is going on deep in the British national psyche. Britain seems to be shifting into an age of post-democracy, where the democratic impulse is weakening by the day. The phrase comes from the academic Colin Crouch, who has identified a new alignment of political and business elites who have supplanted the older democratic institutions.

But if this is true, we also have to understand that Britain has entered this phase having never been a fully-fledged political democracy. The House of Commons is the only elected part of the British political system at the centre. For centuries, the House of Lords was filled with feudal relics and the remnants of monarchial preferment. Now it has become an emblem of prime ministerial patronage – so, not much of an advance there; while our head of state is clearly unelected and derives legitimacy from criteria other than the popular will.

More than that, the UK never really – even in the post-war years – fully embraced modernity, modernisation and being a people’s state. Instead, the Attlees and Wilsons of Labour’s high tide tried to build a social democratic country on top of an unreformed Empire state.

The House of Lords is a good analogy for the whole country; from feudalism to the new class of insider traders in the political system – from pre to post-democracy with no pause in between. That’s the story of modern Britain.

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Within the British political elites there has always been a fear and foreboding at the threat of democracy might pose to their way of life. Yet, those anxieties about the popular will are also mirrored in the people themselves.

This is evident in the Scottish debate and how it situates itself in Britain. Once upon a time, the Scots were seen and even in part saw themselves as too poor, pathetic and divided to be left running their own affairs. A memory of this lingers in part of our collective memory, but it has subsided massively, aided by the achievements of the Scottish Parliament and revulsion at some of the actions of Westminster.

That anxiety about the people can also be seen in current English concerns about what happens next year with Scotland’s big vote if England is left by itself. “Don’t leave us with a permanent Tory England”, the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee implored an Edinburgh Book Festival audience last year. Now Scottish restraint is seen as essential in preventing the triumph of an over-zealous, populist, right-wing Thatcherite English politics.

The fragility of the democratic impulse, whether it is measured by political participation, engagement and activism, can also be seen in the narrow bandwidth of subjects debated, or that on the big substantive issues – the power and irresponsibility of bankers, inequality, aiding and supporting people out of poverty – the public increasingly doubts that politicians can deliver.

The crises of public values have grown more significant and deep. We now live in a country which looks to the past for its explanations and vision of the future, which is obsessed by previous generations and finding its heroes and heroines in the pantheon of the dead, and which seems – when it is not fighting wars – to be constantly marking old imperial adventures. This might seem harmless and benign to some, but reveals something about our loss of faith in ourselves and our collective will. Think of that as Cameron, Miliband and Clegg struggle to explain the challenges of overcoming the deficit and national debt, and connect with voters.

Reflect on that as the country pauses next week for the pomp and grandeur of the Thatcher funeral. What kind of country are we celebrating or mourning? What kind of atrophied, disconnected people does that imply? Are we content to play such a restricted role in the body politic of the good ship Britannia?