Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Democracy, revolution and British values

The Brown government wants to "reinvigorate our democracy" through a series of changes to the constitution. But proposals in The Governance of Britain published by New Labour last week are superficial and essentially aimed at trying to restore public support for a failing process by "renewing our trust in our democratic institutions". Lurching towards populism/nationalism, they are also intended to "achieve a stronger sense of what it means to be British". The overall concept of a corporate-driven, security-obsessed, state shines through the whole document, which is how it should be for something published by a government like Brown’s, where business is directly involved as ministers and top advisers.

The executive summary openly states: "Only a confident UK will be able to adapt to the economic challenges of globalisation." [emphasis added] It adds: "Only a country sure of its identity will be able to come together to ensure our mutual security: common, inclusive values can help us overcome the threat from extremism of all kinds." [emphasis added] The Governance of Britain’s central assumption is that the real issue concerns the relationship between the executive, or government, and parliament. To that end, there are a proposals to transfer from the executive to MPs the power to declare war or ratify international treaties. All the emphasis is on giving parliament "more ability to hold the government to account" . [emphasis added] In the end, however, these are entirely cosmetic proposals not least because the governing party literally has the whip hand when it comes to driving their MPs through the division lobbies when votes take place. After all, MPs did get a vote on the invasion of Iraq – and voted in favour, despite the pressure of 2 million people on the streets.

Transferring a few powers, or bringing into the open the mysteries of the appointment of judges and bishops, will not suffice because the causes of the deep political malaise in Britain go much deeper than The Governance of Britain cares to acknowledge. Democratic rights to representation were won only as a result of mass struggle – something the document glosses over – and most people lent the political system conditional support so long as it appeared flexible, open to pressure and delivered reforms. This support has fallen away precisely because social and economic conditions have altered in a substantive way, with consequences for the political process. At the heart of these changes lies the corporate-driven globalisation process, which began in earnest almost 30 years ago. At one level, the national state has ceded powers to international and regional bodies like the World Trade Organisation, the International Monetary Fund and the European Union. At another, the transnational corporations have set the agenda for national governments to follow if they want to stay competitive in the global market economy. While the Tories floundered under the weight of these historic challenges, New Labour embraced them to the extent that Brown cannot speak too highly of the alleged virtues of the City of London and corporations like Microsoft.

The decline of the welfare state and the transition to a market state, with its emphasis on self-help and commercially-driven public policies, has witnessed a parallel decline in voter support for a state political system that is openly partisan, having abandoned its post-war role of mediating between different class interests. So when the government launches its debate about the future of the constitution, there is no point in our trying to breathe new life into something past its use-by date. In truth, parliament has never held any significant power since the emergence of capitalist rule, while the state as a whole has always sided with the status quo of private ownership of land and property.

The Governance of Britain refers in the introduction to political reform through revolution, before hastily adding "although not for centuries", in an oblique reference to the overthrow of monarchy by Cromwell in the 17th century. Reinvigorating democracy can only come through a modern revolutionary process. This would extend democracy into areas like the workplace, handing power to producers and consumers, ending corporate and financial rule, and creating new democratic institutions that directly represent ordinary people’s diverse interests. Now, that would be a much more progressive way to affirm historic British values!

Paul Feldman, communications editor

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