The Cause of Liberty and the Left
Chartist Journal, April 14th 2009
The health of democracy and liberty in Britain has become a growing concern in the last three decades due to the bitter experience of Thatcherism and then New Labour alongside the extension of the state, the rise of a risk-averse, safety-first culture, and anxieties and fears over terrorism and crime.
Large parts of the left have always thought historically that they owned the term ‘democracy’ and either could afford to ignore it or do what they want with it. In the late 1980s this meant that the left could have a schizophrenic attitude towards groups like Charter 88, thinking it part of the left, but not fully embracing its ideas of overhauling our flailing democracy.
Today after twelve years of New Labour ‘s ceaseless and remorseless centralisation and authoritarianism, the limitations of British democracy are now visible to many, but sadly not everyone. There is the absence of a vibrant, potent counter-critique within our political classes – the best intentions of the Lib Dems not withstanding.
The Convention on Modern Liberty took place in London and in seven simultaneous venues across the UK at the end of February this year. It was an impressive feat bringing together such a broad based initiative. It reached out and found an audience beyond the chattering classes: bringing together concerned citizens, silver surfers alongside techno surfers, and people who are generally interested in politics and democracy, rather than obsessed with it.
It attracted a good many Lib Dems, no surprise there, but what was telling was the lack of Labour and Conservative members. Labour members a decade or so ago would have been swarming around an event such as this, but now they were conspicuous by their absence. The Labour Party for large parts of its history has just never got or understood issues of democracy and civil liberties, and now there is a mixture of general dislocation from politics, mixed with a sense that this is just another issue being used to ‘bash’ the government.
What did this gathering, energy and interest represent? There are still some who are dismissive and who see the organisers as engaged in a colossal ‘ego trip’, or ‘being naïve about the Tories and giving them a platform’, the old left view that democracy is still owned by the left no matter the reality. Another view was that people associated with the Convention ‘were going overboard raising fears about the dangers of the database state’.
Something profound has happened in the last decade about British democracy and liberty. This cannot be laid at the door of the events of 9/11and the war on terror aiding the march to centralisation and intolerance. Instead, a potent brew of forces has in the long-term and more immediate being pushing British politics and government in this direction.
Was There Ever a ‘Golden Age’ of British Democracy?
The Thatcher-Blair consensus built and brutally enforced the parameters of its orthodoxies around the ideas of ‘the free economy and the strong state’ – a mixture of a narrow idea of economic freedom, authoritarianism and increasingly knee-jerk punitive populism.
British democracy was never that vibrant and strong and certainly never had a ‘golden age’. It was once what has been called by Anthony Barnett, co-organiser of the Convention, an ‘Empire State’. This was an imperial project on which Labour made the made the mistake of unthinkingly assuming it could build a social democratic settlement out of, and which not surprisingly proved unfertile, ultimately hostile terrain.
The British state under Thatcher and Blair and continued by Brown has morphed from this ‘Empire State’ into a neo-liberal state. At home and abroad this has become an unapologetic advocate for the Anglo-American model of capitalism, and of marketisation, competition, the pursuit of super-remuneration to ‘talent’ and shameless inequality. Thus the rise of neo-liberalism and its advocacy by first, the Thatcherites, and then Blairite New Labour, has had as a direct consequence, a deleterious effect on the state of British democracy.
The UK Government – even more so under New Labour – became a place where consultants and business support agencies ran large parts of the public realm from prisons to nuclear weapons. Its emissaries travelled the globe – like latter day modern missionaries selling the gospel of the new age: privatisation, deregulation and the wisdom of corporate power. Clare Short, at International Development until 2003, financed the right-wing markteteering Adam Smith International to sell the benefits of water privatisation across Africa.
One day the narrow, dogmatic, intolerant views of this generation and class of people, of thinking by PowerPoint, cliché and an in-language of jargon and fixed attitudes, will be caricatured in the way the era of ‘Mad Men’ early 1960s advertising is now seen as shockingly sexist and unethical. The sad thing is that we have not progressed, bur relapsed since that era, with token nods towards diversity and anti-sexist behaviour.
Many Labour Party members and supporters will still wince and pull back in denial from the account above. They will cite Labour’s measures on constitutional reform and devolution, ignoring that Labour never fully embraced or understood these measures, and as quickly as it implemented them began undermining them, derogating from the Human Rights Act, and recently calling it ‘a cheat’s charter’.
The twelve years of New Labour have seen the party transform into an entity which has openly trashed, humiliated and humbled mainstream centre-left progressive values. It has failed to have any real understanding of the need to nurture democracy, protect liberty, stand up for minorities, and oppose the increasing concentration of power which has taken place in the corporate world.
At the same time, the Conservatives – despite their new, friendly image and post-Thatcherite politics – have yet to offer any convincing alternative which meets the challenges of our time.
There is now a powerful argument that our political system is broken, our political classes with honourable exceptions inept, out of touch and corrupted, and the political centre of the whole edifice deformed and beyond incremental reform. The scandals of our political classes: from Speaker Michael Martin’s grotesque reign of feathering his own bed and not standing up for Parliament’s historic rights (the Damian Green case being one example), Jacqui Smith, Home Secretary, her second home arrangements and ‘porngate’, and ‘the cash for questions’ scandal in the House of Lords show a Westminster system and class which is beyond reform and reasoning.
It is now too late to hope that radical reform of Westminster and the British political system can come from within that system and mainstream politics. Twelve years of Labour rule have broken the back of it as a coherent, viable centre-left party, and not produced a convincing party political alternative.
This is both a time of opportunity and danger. The failures of New Labour and New Conservatives, left and right, leave a political vacuum. If they cannot offer a convincing narrative for the intertwined crisis of globalisation and democracy, then others will. Sitting not at the margins, are groups like the BNP and other xenophobes and racists who have an account of globalisation’s failures which simply puts the blame on immigrants and marginalised groups.
There is also the very plausible possibility that anger about our political classes will boil over and be exploited by a nasty populism which uses the opportunity to create an even more anti-democratic politics.
Looking Beyond the Narrow Westminster World
Where the reformers are going to come from is from outside the narrow bandwidth of the Westminster world. Firstly, from the emergent alternative power centres which have arisen in the UK in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, alongside the simmering English dimension. New Labour never loved for nor understood devolution, but it implemented what previous Labour Governments failed to do, and after trying to control the Scots and Welsh Labour Parties, has tended to ignore what is going on.
While the Scots and Welsh experiments are not without their faults, what has taken root in recent years has been a more social democratic politics and policy, less enthral to the neo-liberal beast. This has been shaped by the Scottish and Welsh political dimensions, and the success of their respective nationalist parties, and in particular the SNP.
Secondly, initiatives such as the Convention on Modern Liberty show that there is a potential and constituency for bringing together a broad based group of people concerned about democracy and liberty. It is crucial that this is not owned by left or right, because these traditions are going to have to be challenged and remade after the calamitous crash and crisis and their complicity in them.
The current version of Britain is broken and it is impossible as well as undesirable to – Humpty Dumpty like attempt to put all the pieces back together again. And yet, that is the sum total of the imagination of our political classes – from Brown to Cameron to Clegg. Their clarion call is ‘restoration’ to the order that has just collapsed over our heads.
Instead, reformers and radicals are going to have develop, nurture and nourish new ideas of democracy, new ways of doing politics, and new kinds of movements and networks.
That does not mean bypassing Westminster and the political elite who inhabit it. What it does entail is taking them on and challenging a system which has become as venal, self-serving and corrupt as the Victorian ‘rotten boroughs’ which defined the pre-democratic age of the 19th century. Westminster and the Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem parties have become embodiments of the post-democratic order which has seen its mission as acting as apologists for those in power, with privilege and wealth.
The alternative of allowing the existing, ghastly order to remain in place and get worse does not bare thinking about, and would have huge implications for our democracy and society: as those who identify with that system thought even more that the old checks, balances and restraints had been abolished. The current crises of the British state and neo-liberalism provide an historic moment for democrats, rethinking what the left is, what it is about, and whom it will work with.