Tuesday, 24 May 2016

There are consequences for squandering democracy

As the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union approaches I find myself feeling ever more resigned. The polls suggest Britain will stay in the EU. It’s depressing on two counts. Firstly I see enormous economic opportunities in being free of the EU and secondly because democracy is not on the cards unless we leave.

There is, however, something a little more depressing than that. Virtually nobody believes the EU is a democracy yet bizarrely they will vote to remain in it. Consequently I have arrived at the conclusion that people have only a thin grasp of what democracy is and those who do don’t actually want it.

As far as most are concerned, democracy is the empty voting ritual every five years whereby we appoint people to make decisions on our behalf. The power that flows from the people is loaned to individuals who only ever have to account for the decisions they make come election time. The rest of the time they do as they please and seem to enjoy the fact there is nothing we can do about it.

In that regard the model of representative democracy we have is more an extrapolation. A sample of the public, who in theory will make decisions roughly representing those the broader public would make. This is a wholly flawed idea.

For starters British political life consists of constant shouting and complaining about our politicians, often for their vanity, corruption and incompetence. Most Brits do not want to participate in politics. They want to be entertained and outraged by it but take none of the responsibilities for it. They are interested in the people and their personal affairs but not the real business of policy.

Because of this, it takes a particularly sterile sort of person with a knack for avoiding controversy to become a Member of Parliament. We have our freaks like George Galloway but these are wholly licenced dissidents who don’t achieve much and never last long. This instantly distorts the representative sample.

Further to these anyone who even seeks this kind of power is of a certain ilk. By the time you put them all in one room, subject to its own groupthink and you have nothing even close to a representative sample. That is why something like EU membership must be put to a broader public vote. There is no way that MPs could produce a result representative of public sentiment.

But the rest of the time the public are happy with the arrangement; to have no actual power themselves and take none of the responsibility. That way, whatever goes wrong in government is someone else’s fault. Just like children. The children are free to play while the parents make the hard calls. Unpopular decisions will result in tantrums but the child is powerless to reverse the decision.

But governing is unlike parenting. A child does not get to select new parents every five years. If they did, we would find parents caving into tantrums. Politics however results in exactly that. Politicians afraid of losing their pampered positions will not take hard or unpopular choices. Consequently we are a nation of infants ruled by infants and the results are there for all to see.

And therein lies the inherent hypocrisy of representative democracy. We complain that we want better choices made on our behalf but are prepared to do none of the necessary things to ensure that happens. We say we want honest politicians but their dishonesty is a reflection of our own. We duck our responsibilities as voters and our obligation to participate. When every decision results in a childish tantrum it's little wonder politicians stop caring what we think.

The natural consequence of this is a system incapable of making adult decisions - where politicians are only too happy to surrender their powers to bureaucrats. It means our politicians can outsource the business of governing and regulating, absolving themselves of blame, while being free to pretend they are the ones in control.

They can enjoy the trappings of office for as long as they can keep making excuses. Consequently at elections we do not vote for a government. We are simply electing a management team whose purpose is to oversee the implementation of foreign rule. In that regard we are an occupied country with a collaborative administration.

The problem for those of us who do want real democracy is that the bureaucrats are not actually doing a bad job as far as the average voter is concerned. They might complain but the roads are maintained, the bins get emptied, and all the layers of invisible government go on without interfering in our lives in any way that we might notice. Why rock the boat?

As a political settlement, everybody gets what they want. The politicians get to pretend they are in control, the public have somebody to scapegoat and the corporates like the fact that nobody is paying attention to what the bureaucrats do. The public are content to be managed like cattle so long as nothing disturbs their self-indulgent lives where their only responsibilities are to themselves. They do not want to take on the responsibility for managing their own political affairs nor do they want the blame for the consequences.

This is why I will be less interested in politics after the referendum. The result will call the bluff of the hypocrite voters. They say they want change, they say they want democracy but when it comes to the crunch, they prefer not to behave like adults. They cannot then complain that their politicians are suboptimal.

If democracy means anything at all it means the power resides with the people at all times. If people relinquish that power to politicians they cannot be surprised if they in turn surrender it to a foreign power.

This is why a vote to remain in the EU is such a landmark. It marks not only the death of adult politics. It kills any hope of democracy stone dead.

This is because the public do not understand democracy, why it’s worth having or the consequences for giving up on it. But there are consequences. The system will eventually run everything for the convenience of the system rather than those who live within it. Government will become the master and not the servant. Little by little we become economic units to be coerced into behaviours that fit a grand design - where the ideas of accountants take precedence over the needs of people. The EU is a manifestation of that exact dynamic.

Meanwhile we have the theatricals of Westminster politics to keep us distracted and outraged. The illusion of democracy. From this we get our daily dose of gratification – to pretend that what happens to us is the fault of the politicians and not a consequence of our own slovenliness. We can pretend that we are the good, decent and honest lead by the corrupt and the self-interested.

But the fault is our own. We could choose to take control and take responsibility. We could demand that the power be returned to the people and we could take an interest in the policy rather than the politics. But we don’t want to. We don’t want to be disturbed. We are happy to walk away from our obligations so that we can disown the choices made in our name. It is the ultimate in hypocrisy and the hypocrisy is all ours.

We are told that soon after the EU referendum we will see the Chilcott report on the Iraq war. Watch it closely. Watch the reaction. Outrage at what our politicians conspired to do. We will wail and complain and make scapegoats of our politicians and then we will go back to our insulated little lives secure in the knowledge that we take no blame.

But let’s be honest just for a moment. We are only interested in politics as far as seeking out somebody to take the rap. We are only interested in participation so far as seeking someone else to blame. We don’t like to be troubled with detail. We don’t want to seek out the facts for ourselves. We want the decisions made for us and we want to be spoon-fed with sanitised information. That is why we maintain a state broadcaster.

That is why I have no hope that we will choose democracy. We have become infantilised and we like it that way. Only when we encounter the very real consequences for surrendering democracy in exchange for certainty will we realise what we have lost. And by then we will have to fight to reclaim what we have so carelessly squandered. Those who hold the power will not surrender it willingly. They never do. And then we will ask why. Who is to blame? The answer is whoever still stands among the ashes and the rubble.

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