Do we need to give up on democracy? There’s no doubt that democracy as we have it in Britain and America these days is looking pretty threadbare. But then these might not be the ideal conditions for it.
In order to work well democracy requires two things: first an educated and knowledgeable electorate, and second elected rulers who are decent and honest with the people. Binding these desiderata together are two more: a reliable machinery for translating the wishes of that electorate into power; and secondly respect, each side for the other. Today none of these conditions exists in either of our two countries. It’s partly the fault of the mechanisms, chiefly ‘first past the post’. But much more serious are the ignorance of our respective electorates, too easily manipulated by propaganda; and the bad faith of our rulers, too willing to use those powers of manipulation – in Britain the press, in America attacks on the press – to mislead their electorates. Trump, Johnson and the far cleverer men behind them are adept at ‘gaming’ what passes as ‘democracy’ in their respective countries in this way; to what end can be debated, but probably involving capitalism in some way.
This is relatively new, at least to this degree, and certainly in Britain’s case; and is the reason why Britain is falling apart just now. From the point of view of the manipulators the ‘game’ seems to be working famously; but at the expense of a display of governmental incompetence, lying and even blatant corruption which at any other period in our history, surely, would have sunk this government, and delegitimised British ‘democracy’. From which the only recourse would be either a new authoritarian dispensation (’fascism’), or revolution, or – of course – both together. It’s difficult to see liberal or social democracy, even in the very imperfect form it takes in both our countries now, remaining unscathed through this crisis.
It might be able to if an effective broad-based opposition could be marshalled against the present (British) government. It’s astonishing that the grotesque mistakes that Johnson and his inadequate ministers are presently making all along the line, in respect of both the Coronavirus and Brexit, are not arousing more anger – or more public manifestations of anger – among the general public; none of whom can be impressed with the government’s response to the virus, and very few of whom want the kind of Brexit settlement that the dominant Right-wing clique in the governing party looks like foisting on them. There must be a majority in the country against all this – indeed, undoubtedly was at the last election, judging by the ‘popular vote’ (as in the USA) – and yet this more reliably ‘democratic’ opinion has no purchase at all. Boris doesn’t need to take any notice of it. That may be the crucial lesson that Dominic Cummings has taught him, exemplified by Trump and Putin: that you can get away with almost anything, whatever past historical experience and maybe your conscience tell you. You don’t need to be honest and decent in order to win. And if ‘winning’ is your only purpose in life, lying and corruption are what you have to do.
How to counter this? Political education for a start – but not in the sense in which it’s taken in totalitarian regimes. The liberation of the media – especially the British newspapers – from their thraldom to tax-dodging right-wing capitalists would be an immense help. Voting reform would be another. That will be for a start. But it’s difficult to see it all coming. People aren’t interested. For the moment we may have to depend on a significant number of Conservative MPs’ being revealed as rapists or paedophiles to turn the tide. That’s something the great British public does care about.
(Purely incidentally, where is Mark Francois?)