The present Parliamentary system is fast digging its own grave if yesterday’s events are anything to go by and the danger is that without the creation of a democratic alternative, populist forces could try and replace it with something even worse and less representative.
Westminster is plagued by the abuse of state funds for personal gain (the expenses scandal), the arbitrary use of state power against MPs (the case of Damian Green) and the continuing ignoring of Parliament when it comes to government announcements (the fire sale of state assets planned by Gordon Brown, leaked to the press over the weekend).
The expenses furore lurched towards the ridiculous yesterday when a former senior civil servant appointed by Brown instructed some MPs to repay money while others, notably former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, got away with an apology while being allowed to keep dodgy second-home “allowances”.
MPs complained that the rules had been changed retrospectively to catch them out, and they have a point. But if it’s arbitrary power they’re worried about, then they need look no further than the Cabinet Office, the Home Office and the Metropolitan Police – where the real power in the state is located.
Last year, you will recall, Tory MP Damian Green revealed immigration figures leaked to him by a civil servant. Green was arrested in the House of Commons and held under anti-terror laws while his home was searched from top to bottom on the grounds that the information could threaten “national security”
Of course it was nothing of the kind, but that didn’t prevent Brown’s boot-boys from rampaging about. Two reports published yesterday said Green’s arrest was “disproportionate and ill-advised” (no charges were brought) but the MP was less forgiving. He said if it became a criminal offence to embarrass ministers “then you have crossed a great big line away from being a democracy.”
Pointing to a deteriorating state of relations between the police and the policed, Green added: “My arrest is a very small corner of this but the whole surveillance state, database collection, keeping details of people on the DNA database, all that aggregation of data which makes all of us suspects in the long run is going to make more and more people feel the police are not on my side.”
Green’s comments confirm that it is the power of the state that is overwhelmingly apparent in Britain, with Parliament’s role in this set-up reduced to a cipher. The incredibly low esteem in which Parliament is held is an opportunity as well as a danger.
Its decline reflects a profound shift over the last 30 or so years towards a market, or business state. In this way, Britain has become a branch of a global PLC and the state is its executive management team. Parliament is irrelevant in this arrangement, at best to be “consulted” after the event, at worst to be left to its own devices.
So the challenge is to remake the relations of power in Britain in order to enhance and develop democracy in any meaningful way. A transfer of power out of the hands of the capitalist state, as well the key corporate and financial enterprises, would create the conditions for a new type of revolutionary Parliament along the lines advocated in our People’s Charter for Democracy.
The danger in all this is that the present Parliament becomes so discredited that a clamour led by right-wing populists to shut it down gathers momentum. In the midst of the grave economic and financial crisis, we should be on full alert. We may yet be forced to defend Parliament against authoritarian rule in a way that at the same time challenges the power and legitimacy of the ruling elites themselves.