This democracy thing is far more fragile than we realise.
I thought I’d repost this rather than write another blog on the same theme. Don’t forget to check out this article about public spending by the BBC’s Nick Robinson, as I think they dovetail nicely. By the way, make sure to watch the short film, it’s fascinating.
1. A sense of entitlement, spread across nearly every social class, that informs people that they somehow have a right to far more government expenditure being spent on them than they ever contribute in taxes, whilst at the same time believing that they are overtaxed and that others are either paying less or getting more from the state.
2. A professional political class that sees winning elections and remaining in office as a career in itself, that sees defined political values as a means to an end rather than an end goal, and that has developed its own sense of Washington Beltway/Westminster Village/Leinster House Doheny and Nesbitt set of priorities and scorecards that are getting further and further removed from the concerns of their respective publics.
3. An electorate, shaped by a post-1950s consumer culture, that expects its political leaders to deliver an unachievable level of political and indeed emotional gratification, constantly leading to disappointment in the political process. For example, this writer encountered people expressing disappointment in a new Irish government for not implementing election promises before they had actually taken office. In addition, that same electorate subscribes to a right to cheap credit but does not accept the balancing obligation of accepting a lower standard of living in order to meet those debts.
4. A media that, due to commercial realities, does not see informing the public or indeed educating them as being a high priority, but instead sees the destruction of political figures, parties and institutions as a legitimate goal in itself, as is the injecting of extreme emotion into any story where possible.
5. The corrupting effect of fundraising on the political system coupled with (see point four) a media that both decries corruption caused by fundraising but also the use of public funds to eliminate the need for private funding. Likewise, a public that demands high standards of political ethics but is unwilling to resource them, leading to candidates who are either funded by other individuals or else are privately wealthy, both cases to which the public also objects.
6. The pervasive influence of modern marketing techniques within politics, in particular the adjusting of parties to become entities espousing the least offensive lowest common denominator coupled with focusing on emotional but essentially distracting “hot button” issues. These are a direct challenge to the concept of politics being a menu of policy options that a well informed electorate can choose from. In Ireland, for example, there are supermarket chains offering more distinctive options than most of our main political parties.
One of the trickier issues to do with the whole Scottish devolution debate is what to do with England. The kneejerk reaction, to create an English Parliament or just let English MPs alone vote on English laws causes problems because of the sheer size of England. An English First Minister would arguably be more important than the UK PM on domestic issues, especially if the scale of devolution Scotland is expecting is extended throughout the UK.
Some suggest England be carved up into “regions” with old titles (Wessex, anyone?), but that in itself has an air of artificiality about it. There are some logical areas with their own recognised regional identity (London, which has a potential First Minister in its mayor) and the south-west, but it could still be tricky.
I can’t help wondering, as an outsider, whether this is a real problem or just a symbolic problem that needs to be dealt with as part of the Scottish thing. So here’s a mad thought: at the general election, let English constituencies vote, alongside their MPs, for a Lord Protector for England. Yeah, it’s a dramatic but historically remembered title (and not my first choice: I’d have gone originally for WitchFinder General!) for a broadly symbolic role. Give the Lord Protector the power to “hold” bills he/she feels to be unfair to England, and to require them to be voted on by English MPs alone. It’ll allow for English voters to see that the special place of England (as the biggest bit that pays for everything else) is recognised, without having to create a duplicate English assembly. In place, the UK government of the day will almost certainly make sure to work with the Office of the Lord Protector on draft legislation beforehand.
And it’ll be a bloody fun election, for the posters alone. Just a (mad) thought.
2024: As Scottish voters go to the polls in Scotland’s third general election since it voted Yes to independence in 2014, many will be pondering how things turned out in the Scottish republic after its first decade as an independent nation.
The fact that it is a republic will certainly have come as a surprise to those who voted Yes in 2014. The passing of Queen Elizabeth II in 2019 gave the SNP the moment to dust off their plan to complete the project, rushing through a bill in Holyrood creating the office of President, to be filled by parliament itself. After much negotiation, a beloved Scottish actor agreed to take the position, although only as a strictly non-party head of state. The headlines were variations of “President Who?”
Criticism of the SNP administration is rampant, although, for certain reasons, not as boisterous as one would expect. The decision of the government to create and generously fund a Scottish Broadcasting Service dedicated to “the promotion of Scottish culture and values” tends to ensure that the government point of view is always put across. That’s not to say that the opposition parties are denied access. They’re not. But casual remarks about them as “the English parties” by the odd presenter is not unusual. The fact that the majority of the board of governors of the SBS have SNP connections isn’t remarked upon too much.
Likewise, the decision of the Minister for the Protection of Scottish Culture and Heritage to generously subsidise private media organisations which promoted the culture also had an effect on how the media covers stories. Indeed, cultural subsidy of Scottish produced media, very much based on the French model, with requirements that a certain percentage of material broadcast be created in Scotland, is the norm, and is much welcomed by the Scottish arts community. The joke is that former “Taggart” cast members are getting very rich on the royalties. Once again, there are murmurings about journalists not being censored or directed as to what to write, but aware of what side their bread is buttered.
Then there is the Scottish Security Agency. Stating that the first priority of a state must be to protect its people, the post-vote government immediately moved to create an internal security agency, staffed initially by former Scottish MI5 and British Army intelligence operatives. The agency was given the mandate to fight crime, espionage and terrorism, but also to prevent threats to Scottish values. It’s this part of its charter which has been most controversial, especially when it emerged that the SSA had been keeping opposition MSPs under surveillance. The Director of the SSA, meeting with a parliamentary committee, caused both outrage and applause when he defended the practice, pointing out that the former unionist parties had actively fought the existence of the country, and so their loyalty to the country must surely be in doubt.
That attitude is more prevalent than many admit. Many former Labour, Lib Dem and Tory politicians in Scotland chose to move to England after the Holyrood Parliament made it illegal for Scottish office holders to hold UK passports. Likewise, only those holding Scottish citizenship alone can now vote in parliamentary elections. Indeed, to qualify for social welfare payments, a Scottish citizen is required to prove that they had voted.
The period between the Yes vote and Scottish entry into the EU and other international organisations allowed the SNP, almost uniquely without international restraint, to shape the state in their own image, pushing through constitutional changes with a slim parliamentary majority. As the president comes to the end of his term, Scots vote knowing that the next president will, under SNP legislation, have the power to assume executive power, an idea the SNP borrowed from the “staunchly democratic” Erdogan administration in Turkey.
Polls show that the outcome is balanced between the SNP on one side, and the Alliance for Change on the other, but questions must surely be asked as to the ability of the SNP to move the state apparatus in its own benefit, especially with the use of oil revenues to subsidise “strategic” industries, again with the proviso that the SNP government have a direct say in the hiring policy of those firms subsidised. In the universities, membership of the SNP is taken as a wise move, career-wise.
Writers note: this is a pisstake, not a prediction!
So, there’s a provocative headline, and deliberately so, but not for the reasons you’d think. There are some on the right who believe that Powell was right about immigration. I, for one, don’t, for the simple reason that immigration has made Britain a richer country. How that increased wealth has been shared out, or perhaps hasn’t, is another issue admittedly, but that’s not why I’m writing about Powell.
There’s an ugly fact about Enoch Powell that people don’t like admitting, and it is that he was genuinely popular at his height in the late 1960 and 1970s. Had he founded his own party, the cruel First Past The Post system would probably have strangled it at birth, but not before making both Labour and Tory leaders sweat. Ordinary people marched and wrote to Powell in their thousands after the “Rivers of Blood” speech. Many were undoubtedly what today we would call racist, but even more importantly, here was a politician whom many people, of many class and many tribal party loyalties, felt spoke for them and their values. Let’s not forget, either, that this was a time when the self-censorship of Political Correctness had not yet taken root, and where, for example, in 1964, a Conservative candidate had been elected in Smethwick on the slogan “If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour”.
The reality was that Powell forced the main parties to engage on the immigration issue. Some of that engagement was ugly, but it was never to the degree that he wanted. More importantly, it was enough to destroy the rise of the National Front in the 1970s.
Which brings us to UKIP: is Nigel Farage the Powell of the day? Personally, he isn’t a racist, but then neither was Powell. Is he the candidate of choice of racists? Probably. But that raises another uncomfortable point. What’s healthier? Racists feeling that the democratic system at least recognises them and their opinions, if not actually acting on them? Or driving a very substantial section of the electorate out of the democratic system?
There is a body of opinion in Western society that calls for public debate to only be limited to an acceptable and narrow strip of opinions, normally in the centre and centre-left, with some opinions not just being distasteful but actually banned from public discourse. It’s almost impossible to raise the immigration issue without someone playing the racist card. I’m not convinced that is a healthy way for a democracy to evolve. Indeed, it’s possibly a guaranteed way of reducing the legitimacy of that very system. After all, British elections in the 1960s and 70s, where opinions of the hard right and hard left were far more prevalent, had a considerably higher turnout than they do today.
Defence minister Simon Coveney TD has confirmed that Cork harbour will be the new home of Britain’s trident missile fleet if Scotland votes to expel them from Faslane naval base. “There’s nearly three thousand jobs associated with the servicing of the four Vanguard class submarines, and Cork is ideal. It’s a deep water port with straight access to the north Atlantic and did I mention it just happened to be in a certain parliamentary constituency?”
Modger Mole of the We’re-All-Going-To-Die Alliance has attacked the plan as a breach of neutrality. “Will somebody please think of the children!” Mole said in a 72 page press statement.
The minister clarified the neutrality position later in the day: “We’re observing what we call the Shannon protocol, which is where the country’s policy of neutrality is vigorously observed as long as it doesn’t cost us money. As we discovered in Shannon, many US troops liked buying duty free whiskey, Foster and Allen CDs and the odd Aran sweater, which activated the protocol. In this case we’re thinking of designating the new base as one of the old treaty ports, so that the submarines won’t be in Irish territory, but the paypackets will be. An Irish solution to an Irish problem.”
When asked as to whether it could result in Cork being laid waste by nuclear devastation, the minister replied “Yes, but how would you know?”
Announcing The Guardian’s new membership scheme (see here), Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger has revealed that subscribers to the highest “Patron” brand of membership will be entitled, once a year, to a sexual encounter of their choice with him.
Rusbridger promised a “sweet, gentle” form of lovemaking, with the option of a good sob afterwards and a profound apology as standard for being a straight white man. Rusbridger has confirmed that gay sex will also be on offer as required, or for lesbians, the option of him preparing, instead of sexual pleasuring, a post-coitus meal involving pulses, seeds and grains, all organically sourced.
The imaginative initiative from the newspaper has put pressure on other newspapers to follow suit. The Daily Mail’s Paul Dacre has offered to give any of his readers “a damn good thrashing, you know, the sort of spanking they won’t have received since Eton.” When asked whether he felt that offer would match The Guardian’s, he replied: “Offer? What offer? What are you talking about?”
Note: this is a very long bit of fun I wrote in June 2013. It is obscenely long, so you might want a biscuit and a nice cup of tea. Alternatively, you can download it here as a PDF for enjoyment later.
Part One: A woman named Valerie.
The image, of a sad looking Adolf Hitler wearing a blue armband with a European Union flag on it, said as much about The Daily Mail as it did its cover story.
“Freedom at last!” the headline declared, with a smaller picture of young Conservative activists burning an EU flag in Trafalgar Square. Inside, a well-known right-wing historian speculated, perhaps through the use of a medium, as to how disappointed Adolf Hitler would have been at the news of British withdrawal from the European Union.
A free “Dad’s Army” DVD was given away with each copy. Read more…
Let’s start with a few facts about the European elections:
1. It’s hard to claim Jean Claude Juncker won a democratic mandate for anything. That’s just not how most Europeans outside of a section of Brussels actually vote in European Parliament elections.
2. Having said that, it’s hard for British eurosceptics to claim that the result went their way either. Even in Britain a majority of voters voted for parties that support the European Union. In France, where Marine Le Pen scored a very handsome result, most French voters didn’t vote for her vision of an EU-free Europe.
3. The tendency of British eurosceptics to co-opt results for their own use, either deliberately or through incompetence and genuine ignorance, continues unabated. You would easily think, reading the British media, that Marine Le Pen was some sort of free market fellow traveller. The truth is, JCJ’s vision of Europe, with a European single market at its heart, is far closer to David Cameron’s vision than Marine Le Pen’s.
4. But the biggest fact is that David Cameron has once again, by pandering to the never-to-be-satisfied maw of British eurosceptics, sabotaged a process in which Britain might get some of the things Britain wants. That’s the bizarre thing: watching the British PM get humiliated over JCJ you’d be forgiven for not knowing that Britain is A) the second biggest country in the EU, and B) that British reforms do have some considerable support with other member states. Yet through either incompetence or gutlessness, David Cameron has managed to not get Britain what Britain says it wants.
And for what? To stop a “federalist” becoming European Commission president? THAT’s what he wanted to fight on? Really? I mean, by British standards, isn’t every single European Commission president a federalist?
More to the point, who cares? It’s the same with the new British obsession with the phrase “ever closer union”. To put it in context, getting upset over these essentially symbolic things is sort of like France obsessing over the fact that Britain, like Iran, has a state religion, with religious leaders in political office and the prime minister effectively choosing bishops. Do you know how weird that looks? Yet the reality is that it barely matters in the day to day affairs of the United Kingdom.
And, let us not forget how JCJ was picked in the first place. Because David Cameron insisted upon pulling the Tories out of the European People’s Party. Cameron pulls the Tories out of the largest centre-right force in Europe, and then bitches and complains about that same centre-right force choosing a candidate he doesn’t like? Seriously? Come on, admit it: who really screwed up here? This was all entirely predictable years ago, yet David Cameron’s obsession with genuflecting towards the political fetishes of the Tory right and their media pals results in him getting an outcome directly in contradiction to what he says he wanted. And we’re supposed to feel sorry for him?
The reality is that Europe’s voters neither voted for or against JCJ. But a majority of them probably expected there to be a European Commission president at the end of the process, and JCJ, like Schulz and Verhofstadt, put his name on the table early, where it is no less legitimate than anyone else, and surely an improvement on the “Election By After Eight” process behind closed doors that used to choose the Commission president.
Where was David Cameron’s candidate? More to the point, who is David Cameron’s candidate? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?
One of the key tenets of the last 200 years of British foreign policy has been to prevent the emergence of a single powerful force on the European continent. It’s been a very successful policy. Yet for the last 15 years, the insular nature of British politics has effectively called that policy into question. British withdrawal is now a serious proposition, but what’s more is that other member states are now beginning to wonder as to whether the cost of keeping Britain is actually worth it?
What would be the actual consequences of British withdrawal for the rest of the EU? Trade would continue, after all, it’s in no one’s interest that it doesn’t. Brussels would still set many product rules that UK manufacturers would have to obey anyway, only without a UK voice at the table. Reform of the EU would lose a champion, that’s true, but bear in mind that Downing Street’s obsession with placating the Daily Mail means that Britain has been pretty ineffectual in pushing through reforms at EU level anyway, despite the fact that Britain has allies. British withdrawal would almost certainly trigger withdrawal by one or two other countries, but the reality is that most member states, even with their own gripes about Brussels, see being at the table as the least worst option.
Secondly, whilst the days of the overt federalist United States of Europe are probably over, the gradual subtle process of integration, through technical methods such as the Fiscal Treaty, could probably speed up with British or Danish or even Irish withdrawal. The end outcome would be a European confederation of sorts, orbited by a number of nominally independent states who have to make nominally sovereign decisions whilst paying attention to the vast economic gravity of the politically united Eurozone. And all without worrying what the Daily Mail thinks about British soldiers wearing EU cap badges. I’m not sure this is necessarily a bad thing.