Sunday, 6 January 2019

Make democracy great again


I've been away to Bradford. It's always a mixed bag for me. There are people I am always delighted to see but I have limited tolerance for being there. In many ways it doesn't change at all. The nightlife is dead and I end up it some dilapidated shithole of a pub where I get to see unvarnished Bradford in all its glory. It's a reminder to me that I don't belong there.

Naturally, though, I end up talking to people about Brexit. It's not unfair to say that some conform to the thick and bigoted stereotype. I get the sense, though, that the old working class and its pub culture in Bradford is dying. It's probably no bad thing. Kids have higher expectations.

What hasn't changed is the dour, austere Bradford mentality. It seems to be Bradford's destiny to be the armpit of the United Kingdom. It isn't really surprising that Bradford voted leave and even less surprising that leavers don't seem to care about the economic consequences of Brexit. Bradford has known recession but in the town you'd be hard pressed to notice the difference. Whatever's coming their way, they will take it on the chin and get on with it. Meanwhile, back home in Bristol, living in the shadow of Airbus HQ, there really is a sense here that we have something to lose.

In a way, the somewhat callous calculous arithmetic of remainers; that Brexiters will eventually die off in sufficient numbers to tilt the balance back in their favour, feels about right. Or at least it would were there any sign that places like Bradford were climbing out of their permanent state of depression. There isn't though. The shop fronts may have been modernised and there are clear signs of regeneration investment but it's still basically the same shithole it's always been. All the bright sparks I once knew are long gone.

In respect of that, there is no nostalgia to be had, save to lament the closure of some favorite old pubs. Nobody remembers a golden era of Bradford. I remember being part of a large town centre community of hard drinking rockers and fun times were had but the ambition was always to get as far away as possible. Sometimes I think two hundred miles isn't far enough.

In some respects, though, Bradford, and indeed the UK has never had it so good. These days when I see a line of lorries on the motorway, many of them carrying on board refrigeration units, I don't just see lorries. I see a round the clock pan-European logistics system. And it works. Goods from all over pour into well stocked supermarkets where we have more choice than ever.

Much of this would not be possible without the single market. Many do not understand this and have no idea how it functions. This is a system that never sleeps to ensure come daylight, the shelves are stacked with fresh produce and consignments delivered. As a piece of legal technology, the single market is a modern marvel. So why aren't the plebs more grateful? Are they just completely ignorant?

Well, to a point, yes, yes they are. But they are not alone in that. Tory investment brokers have no more idea of how the system works than a Bradford street sweeper. But there's something else to it. We seem to have all the trappings of a better life - and materially we are better off, but there is still a sense that something vital is missing that was there before.

The current thinking seems to bring in themes about identity and culture and social commentary (including this blog) talks of a sense of lost national purpose. It is perhaps why the war features so heavily in the British sense of identity. It's the last time the nation was united in achieving something. The generation before had something to be proud of.

We are told that Brits mourn the loss of empire - which is a smear since hardly anyone alive now even remembers it. But the last three decades have seen Britain robbed of its emblems. Jaguar, Land Rover and Mini are now just corporate badges owned by multinationals and Britain's aerospace sector is reduced to Airbus, which is pretty much a French enterprise. British prestige doesn't mean anything anymore and it's part of the reason Brexiters don't care if JLR makes good on its promise to sod off. Successive prime ministers bandy around JLR band prestige in association with Britain, but we all know it isn't British.

In many ways globalisation, and in particular, Britain's openness to it, has made Britain a free for all of economic dynamism but in so doing we have erased many of the binding threads and institutions that gave the country a narrative. It's not clear how any of this can be repaired. A blue passport isn't going to cut it.

Some would have it that Britain purpose is to be at the heart of Europe, shaping the destiny of the continent but this was always a minority ambition among self-styled progressives and one that has never really captured the imagination. Over the course of our EU membership the gulf between governors and the governed has widened to become an unbridgeable chasm. Our political class is now widely despised - and deservedly so.

James O'Brien of LBC likes to taunt Brexiter callers asking them which EU regulations they would get rid of. This is cheap trick that anyone can play. Leavers will moan about being told what to do by Brussels and having to put up with "all these rules and regulations" - largely ignorant of their function, but it's related to having no sense of control. Change happens without us having any meaningful say in it. The change is also radical and constant. Economic liberalism can fill the shelves with luxuries but it can't replace the connection people felt with the places they live. This is exacerbated by freedom of movement.

The problem with the EU is that it is a grand design for Europe. Its policy initiatives are to create a single template for all European commerce and culture. It instructs and members obey. Piece by piece our own governments are using our money to install a design largely for the convenience of commerce. It pays scant regard to local sensibilities and idiosyncrasies. Elections make no difference. the design of our society starts in the bowels of the Commission and our own governments are mere administrators - there to manage the system installation and muck out the lepers. Genuine democratic inputs are removed.

The consequence of this is a public used to not participating in any meaningful way, which is why so many think the fullest extent of democratic participation is voting. What we have instead of manifestos for government is a bidding war between tribes to divide the spoils. And, of course, what London wants, London gets. We don't own our own politics and the people have no authority.

This is in part why Brexit doesn't solve anything directly. Be it an EU grand design for a pan European utopia or one imposed upon us by ideologues operating out of Westminster, we are all still passengers of politics. This is why Brexit should not be a battle for Westminster parliamentary sovereignty. I don't want to be ruled by the corrupt, incompetent authoritarians in Westminster who view the taxpayer as their own private piggy bank to raid at will for their own narcissistic delusions.

It seems to me that if we want to restore a feeling of control and a sense of pride and community accomplishment then the public themselves must be sovereign and take responsibility for their own politics in the places where they live and have the powers to reject the diktats of London. Welfare, health and education ought to be nothing at all to do with central government. There should only be a limited role of national politics which should be primarily tuned to trade, defence and international affairs.

For as long as all of the decision making is done in London, London will be the focus of media and the bubble dynamic is further entrenched. It means that there is no power in local government therefore local government is not attractive to those with political ambition. Consequently what we have in place of local politics is centrally mandated managerialism.

Between Brexit negotiations and no deal preparations it is glaringly apparent that there is no political talent in Westminster. The system is spent, the executive has too much power and is incapable of listening to anyone. Parliament doesn't bother to assert itself except to evade taking responsibility and the rest of the time they're banning or taxing things to control our movements and thoughts.

I'm not "pining for Empire". I don't think Brexit will "make Britain great again". I don't think Brexit will be good for the economy. I don't think we will get better trade deals and it's no miracle cure for anything that ails us. I just don't want a supreme European government. That the Tories steering Brexit spout jingoistic rhetoric is less to do with Brexit and more to do with the fact that Tory MPs, every bit as much a part of a disconnected, hopelessly out of touch bubble, don't understand Brexit any more than remain-o-bores do.

Brexit of itself fixes little but it is a fundamental change of direction in politics. For decades now the flow of power has been away from voters and as London takes powers from us it gives them to Brussels. EU membership is only a symptom of our political malaise which boils down to one simple fact: we are not a democracy. 

Somewhere along the line, even predating Mrs Thatcher, central government appropriated our municipal property and latterly flogged it all off. Mrs T is blamed for privatisation but she was merely selling stolen property. It was not their to sell. This is because the the regions and the cities are not sovereign and power rests with parliament rather than the people. We may have elections but we merely elect our dictators.

I don't think Bradford will ever not be a downtrodden shithole. Between you and me, I think Bradfordians like it that way. But even a shithole can be home if you're master of your own affairs. Many think that the job of politics is to close the gulf between London and the regions. This is not realistic. London is a global mega city with its own culture and values. The problem stems from it imposing its own values on the rest of us. The task, therefore, is to allow the regions to flourish under self-rule so that the gulf ceases to matter. 

If the EU experiment taught us anything it is that one size does not fit all. If that is true for Europe then it is also true of Britain with its richly diverse landscapes and cultures. The sickness in British politics is down to a decaying Westminster establishment that cannot be corrected. It's an obsolete system devoid of knowledge and gravitas and it cannot possibly hope to govern in the interests of the whole country when it can't even bring itself to admit anything outside London exists. 

If Brexit is to mean anything then we must go further than leaving the EU. The "people's revolt" is all for naught if the people remain passengers of politics. They must have a direct and meaningful say in their affairs and power must be wielded with consent. For as long as the public have no real stake in politics they will continue to abnegate their obligation to participate and leave it to the politicians to do politics. That is how we got in this mess to to begin with. 

The moment politics became a profession rather than a civic obligation we killed participatory governance. We trusted politicians with power and they gave that power away. They forgot who they serve and got carried away with their own vanity. The EU is a monument to this pan-european disease. It's not simply a matter of taking back control from Brussels. We must take it back for ourselves and cut Westminster out of our business. 

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