“Democracy imperilled,” the Brexiteers cry. I actually agree, but for different reasons. They’re blaming it on John Bercow for refusing to allow yet another vote on Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement, which neither Parliament nor the country wants. Good on him I say.
For the abuse of the democratic process has not been caused by the Speaker using a convention from 1604; wider circumstances have led to this absurd situation. Democracy, after all, didn’t exist back then. The Scottish electorate was still only 4,500 nearly two centuries later, and half of them were fraudulent. The modern franchise only started to be introduced in 1918, with many fighting in the First World War war denied the vote.
But democracy’s still fragile. I recall a learned acquaintance remarking that democracy in historical terms was maybe passing – with turnouts and participation declining and membership of political parties dropping. It’s not just a British problem but a wider malaise across the Western world.
I’m not suggesting that a coup is about to take place. Far from it. But, as with Brexit itself, a soft coup and an almost silent strangulation of participatory democracy is taking place. And the real threat isn’t from outside forces but corrosion from within.
Politics has long been derided but now it’s facing open contempt. The Prime Minister may be in the sights of some and the Speaker to blame for others but it goes much wider, hitting and hurting all factions and parties. Some of that’s always been the case, as Government decisions have been blamed on all parliamentarians. I recall getting abuse over the Holyrood building, yet I consistently voted against it.
But it’s much worse now and with good reason. It’s not simply the inadequacy of May or the incompetency of the Government, for disdain equally lies with the leader of the opposition and other parties. The inability of Parliament to resolve an imminent crisis and the reckless behaviour of many elected politicians are rocket-fuelling it.
Anachronistic procedures and antediluvian voting systems breed contempt. Compounding that has been the flagrant self-enrichment by many, the shameless relationship with vested interests of others and the craven misbehaviour of quite a few.
There are good and able people in all parties but they’re being drowned in the general fiasco that’s engulfing British politics. That means fewer people will participate in the democratic process and even fewer be willing to seek election. Why bother when the whole charade seems contemptuous? Just leave it to the careerists and charlatans.
Our democracy is under attack but the real threat – other than the danger posed to individuals as with the Jo Cox tragedy – isn’t from the neo-fascist fringe. The authorities can deal with them. The real threat lies with a coterie of the rich and powerful seeking to promote their own interests. It’s almost medieval but with a veneer of legitimacy.
A few years back a friend gave me a DVD about right-wing US organisations’ actions as the Soviet Union collapsed. Even before the communist state was finally dissolved, representatives were there, briefing and training. Many Russians attending turned into the oligarchs who plundered the land. The advice on democracy was frankly about how to subvert it. Reduce turnout, as it empowered those you could motivate, and pick on minorities to win support. Much of that has come to pass in Russia.
Participation is important but so is understanding what your voting for – and that was absent in the Brexit referendum. That’ll be resolved if there’s another vote but the damage to democracy has been done. Politicians are held in contempt, the parliamentary process derided and all levels of government denounced. Trust, faith, belief are all being lost.
A few with power and influence are distorting democracy. If good folk neither vote nor participate, what if the next crop of politicians is even more shameless? Churchill said “democracy is the worst form of Government, except for all the others”. The danger isn’t that it’s overturned but it dies from neglect and contempt.