Yes, of course our democracy is in mortal danger. But not from the likes of Thomas Mair. Nor even from Brussels; or from the far Right or Left in politics; or from one of the foreign threats to it that are often trotted out as reasons why we should modify our liberal principles to cope with them. Today it’s Islamicism; yesterday it was Soviet communism. Before that it was French Jacobinism, and Spanish Catholicism. That’s not to say that these dangers have not been significant in their (and our) times. I fear radical terrorism also. But the main weakness of our democracy is self-created. It is our diminishing trust in it. That has been going on for some time.
It has come up for discussion in the last couple of days, with reference to poor Jo Cox (I can hardly think of her death without getting tearful), and the way she has been widely and genuinely mourned, in a way that is unusual for politicians. Airy Neave MP – murdered by the IRA in 1979 – didn’t receive this degree of sympathy. But Neave wasn’t a man of the people. He was a patrician: Eton, Oxford, British Intelligence. Dead patricians aren’t genuinely mourned by the people unless – like Churchill – they are perceived to have done something remarkable for them. Thatcher was only mourned by the bankers; the rest of us stood around singing ‘The witch is dead!’ Jo Cox was a woman of the people: a ‘Yorkshire lass’, born in the town she later came to represent in the Commons, lower-middle class, honest, and dedicated to her constituents and the good of the oppressed of the wider world, rather than to her own career and advantage. I realized how much she was temperamentally outside the political elite, or the ‘Westminster bubble’, when I read an account of the social discomfort she experienced in going ‘up’ to Cambridge, which was reminiscent of my own. She was one of us.
Unfortunately, in order to do the best she could for them, as she believed, she fell amongst politicians; and politicians are almost the most demonized group – apart from the plebs – in society just now. Jonathan Freedland writes about this in today’s Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jun/17/political-contempt-politicians-eu-referendum. It’s all there. Politicians are all out for themselves: unprincipled careerists and office-seekers, prone to corruption, and entirely divorced from ordinary folk. Look at all the scandals that have surrounded them in the recent past: cash for questions, party donations for honours, expenses fiddles, and Tony Blair becoming a millionaire on the back of the connexions he made as a minister. (That’s without the sex scandals, which are unimportant, surely, but in the eyes of the public add to the fetid smell.)
OK, granted, some of them are shockers. But this doesn’t describe the majority of MPs, as Freedland points out in his piece. It certainly didn’t characterize Jo Cox. It didn’t even characterize Margaret Thatcher, if we’re honest, who was not particularly self-serving (she didn’t need to be, with a rich hubby), and also genuinely saw her role as doing ‘good’ for her country and its people, though it was a horrendously mistaken version of the ‘good’. And in my experience of politicians – nearly all Labour ones, as it happens, but stretching way back to the time when I was at Cambridge, and was ‘college rep’ for the Labour Club, mainly because they couldn’t find another socialist at Corpus – they’ve mostly been decent people, as far from today’s negative stereotype as you could imagine. That applies to all of my successive constituency MPs, in Cambridge, Hull and Newcastle, as well as in particular to the two great socialist heroes I had the pleasure of meeting: Barbara Castle (she should have been our first woman prime minister!) and Robin Cook. I’ve not met as fine public servants as those two. At yet they have been as demonized as the rest. I remember reading one Tory referring to Castle as ‘that castellated bitch.’ And of course the provincial Harold Wilson was traduced terribly. (See below: https://bernardjporter.wordpress.com/2016/03/11/harold-wilson/). So this sort of thing goes back. Historians of politics like to point to the cartoons of Gillray and Rowlandson around the turn of the nineteenth century, which were far more scabrous than almost anything today. (I don’t think Martin Rowson or Steve Bell has ever drawn Queen Elizabeth’s farting bum.) But their sort died out during the nineteenth century, as Britain became progressively more genteel and democratic, and so more accountable; until there came a time when politicians, as a class, were treated with some respect.
Too much respect, undoubtedly. In the 1950s and ‘60s people were far more deferential towards public figures than was good for the latter; which is what fired the modern political satire movement (with Beyond the Fringe and Private Eye), through whose lens almost the whole of politics has come to be viewed today. Present-day media stars like Paxman, Humphreys and Hislop – cynical, suspicious, aggressive, often unfair – are its spawn. (Entertaining spawn, of course; which is what gives them their media appeal.) They were joined by the press: tabloid at first, thumbing their noses at their ‘betters’, then catching on with the broadsheets. This may have dissuaded good men and women from entering politics, which of course will have degraded the stock. Still, it didn’t dissuade Jo.
The causes of this growing distrust of the political class, apart from the bad conduct of a section of it, and satire, are many and complicated. Lack of political education in schools, perhaps? The unrepresentative nature of our parliamentary democracy? (See https://bernardjporter.wordpress.com/2016/02/29/first-past-the-post/.) General discontent, due to many things – I would say mainly the failures of unrestrained capitalism – but which can too easily be blamed on our MPs? Anti-intellectualism, illustrated this last week by Michael Gove’s dismissal of all ‘experts’, which encourages emotional reaction rather than rational thought? The coarsening of society generally, reflected in – and perhaps fuelled by – the ‘blogosphere’? (See my earlier post on ‘btl’ trolls: https://bernardjporter.wordpress.com/2016/02/22/btl/.) Misogyny, in the case of women MPs, again nausiatingly expressed ‘btl’? And I’m sure that many of us could suggest other possibilities.
Another way to approach it is to ask the old lawyer’s question, cui bono? Who stands to gain by this devaluing of democracy, parliament and MPs? In the past it has generally been dictators or putative dictators; who could still profit from it today, and may do, if a suitable candidate turns up: as he has already done, it seems, in the United States. But there is one other interest that also stands to gain from the undermining of democracy. That’s capitalism. Capitalism preaches that everything should be decided by the ‘laws’ of the market, and not by the political decisions of men and women. If the decisions of men and women, or the means of expressing them, a.k.a. ‘democracy’, can be undermined, by propaganda or in any other way, it leaves the way clear for predatory profiteers. We know that the popular press by now has become an arm of capitalism, rather than of enlightenment, as it boasted of being in the nineteenth century, with newspapers and other media outlets concerned to maximize profits above everything. It’s this that distorts its coverage, usually by sensationalizing things. It’s also what renders it in the press’s clear interest to undermine the only agencies that could control it. Most of the worst vitriol directed indiscriminately at MPs in recent years has come from newspapers owned by multi-national capitalists. That’s what Rupert Murdoch is basically all about.
I’m sorry if this reads like old-fashioned 1960s Leftism – which is certainly how the Murdoch press would describe it – but I still think that there are some things that the 1960s got right. That’s my theory. Our press might lie behind all this, as the mouthpiece of the triumphant capitalist behemoth.