In this excerpt from his contribution to the newly published OpenDemocracy collection New Thinking for the British Economy, political journalist Adam Ramsay explores the limitations of pursuing left-wing economic reform within the British state
“IT IS NOT POSSIBLE to build democratic socialism by using the ancient institutions of the British state. Under that, include the present doctrine of sovereignty, Parliament, the electoral system, the civil service, the whole gaudy heritage. It is not possible in the way that it is not possible to induce a vulture to give milk.”
As the forces of entropy have continued to pull at the threadbare remnants of Britain’s empire state, Neal Ascherson’s claim in 1985 has become more potent than ever.
This “gaudy heritage” includes the House of Lords where a combination of the only hereditary legislators in the world, the only automatic seats for clerics outside Iran, and hundreds of appointed cronies get a say on all the UK’s laws. This valve in the British state allows the interests of the powerful to flow freely, while holding back progressive change.
When the Conservative party pushed through the Health and Social Care Act in 2012, which undermined the foundations of the NHS, a quarter of its peers had shares in private health companies. To begin the building of the welfare state in 1910 the Commons first had to limit its influence, but it still has the power and desire to delay and disrupt much of what is proposed in this volume.
There’s the Royal family, and the empire-kitsch nationalism it encourages, allowing tabloids to imply that anyone who isn’t loyal to Britain’s iniquitous institutions is a traitor to their country.
There’s the fact that 86% of the land, 90% of the biodiversity and an unknown but large proportion of the wealth for which the British state is responsible lies outside our North Atlantic Archipelago. Stretching from the Cayman Islands to Gibraltar, from the UK’s military bases in Cyprus to the US military bases on the British Indian Ocean territory, the Overseas Territories spin a dark web around the world, allowing the mega-rich to launder their spoils in the shadow of vestigial empire and prompting the leading expert on the mafia to call the UK “the most corrupt country on earth”.
There’s the constitutional oddity of the City of London, which sits at the centre of this web, which has managed its own affairs since before the Norman Conquest with a corporate-elected council, has its own police force (dating back to Roman times) and enjoys the only constitutionally mandated permanent lobbyist in parliament, known as the “Remembrancer”.
There’s the absurd concentration of power which ensures that decisions of the state are held out of reach of ordinary citizens. Local government in Britain is both less local, and has less power to govern, than almost anywhere else in the western world, helping produce a country with the most extreme regional inequality in Western Europe.
There’s the mess of asymmetric devolution, the now multidimensional West Lothian Questions it delivers, and demands for more autonomy from Cornwall to Shetland. There’s the collapsed institutions of Northern Ireland; the immunity of the Bank of England from democratic influence; and the towering power of the Treasury, whose wonky models often seem to shape government policy more than the manifestos of the parties we elect.
There’s an electoral system which encourages millions to believe that voting can never make a difference, that democracy is defunct. There’s a civil service whose culture and revolving doors with the institutions of British capital ensure that it would likely be as much of a barrier to change today as when it was founded as a check against the growing enfranchisement of working class men in the 19th century, on the back of the Northcote-Trevelyan report, whose co-author, Sir Charles Trevelyan, is most famous for his genocidal approach to the Irish famine, and who based its structure on the lessons of the colonial administrators of the East India company.
There’s the lack of constitutional protections for human rights or civil liberties. One of the central exhibits in the Stasi museum in East Berlin is a bug inserted inside a kitchen door, which had recorded family conversations for years. But the Edward Snowden revelations showed that the UK spy agency GCHQ’s Optic Nerve programme collected images of millions of people through their laptop cameras and smartphones: a level of surveillance that the government of the German Democratic Republic could only dream of, and which poses a drastic threat to the activism and journalism needed to hold power to account. As the Guardian revealed at the time: GCHQ had a “sustained struggle to keep the large store of sexually explicit imagery collected by Optic Nerve away from the eyes of its staff”.
While the US has constitutional protection to stop the government spying on civilians without a warrant, the UK doesn’t, and the ability of structurally racist security services to collect both data and meta-data, tracking our networks and movements, gives it capacity for unprecedented social control, including new tools for undermining social movements and trade unions during protests and strikes.
The UK sits at 40th in the latest rankings for press freedom, behind almost every other Western country. After Beijing, London is the most watched city in the world, while the shifting terms of citizenship as Britain has made its way from an empire to an EU member to neither – is the beaker holding the poisonous conversation about immigration.
Underlying all of this is the ultimate principle of the British constitution, that sovereignty lies not with the people, but with the crown in parliament: the compromise of failed democratic revolutions, which stumbled as the bourgeoisies of previous centuries were bought off with the plunder of empire and slavery.
But these questions are as relevant today as ever. Neoliberalism is the process of shifting decisions from one person one vote to one pound – or dollar or Euro or Yen – one vote. It’s no surprise that it has thrived most in those countries in which the democratic revolutions were least complete, in which people are most easily convinced that markets are a better way to make decisions than politics.
Most of the policy proposals in this volume demand a different approach: that democratic institutions of various flavours take some kind of control over major areas of decision-making. And if they are to do so, it’s vital that they are genuinely democratic, that they are responsive to the needs of the population, and that they act in the interests of those they are supposed to serve.
And if these proposals are to survive beyond the lifetime of more than one government, then their implementation must come alongside a process of empowering citizens to defend those policies and institutions which work. One of the many lessons from the Blair/Brown era is that much of the good they did do – Sure Start Centres and rising public sector pay – was swept away within the term of one austerity happy government.
The eBook version of New Thinking for the British Economy can be downloaded for free here. Printed versions of each chapter are also available for £1 via Commonwealth Publishing and the Democracy Collaborative. If you would like to order physical copies, and inquire about organising author events, please contact Dan Hind or visit the Commonwealth Publishing website – www.commonwealth-publishing.com
Picture courtesy of Andrew
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