Sunday, 19 August 2018

Britain has forgotten what democracy looks like

The single market is a relatively new invention and though we'd been in the EEC for many years, the single market as we know it didn't really come into being until the nineties. This is when we began installing the many regulatory building blocks which in some instances required the hiring of thousands of officials and setting up self financing regulatory authorities. All of this was done without Parliament ever being consulted on the matter. We'd installed a new technocracy with more than three thousand new regulations arriving every year.

This in part explains the Tory phobia of regulation in that much of it was inferior to that which we already had and change was largely for the sake of European harmonisation rather than our of any particular merit. The costs of re-equipping and re-skilling for the new regime were devastating to many businesses, notably UK electronics and meat producers. Enforcement was unfair and particularly ruthless.

By the 1990's it became apparent that UK politicians had lost control of Britain's system of government where repeal of such regulation proved impossible and reform implausible. even minor changes to fisheries rules take anywhere up to a decade and more than ever before ministers and politicians were controlled by their civil servants.

This was not only obvious at the national level. It was just as evident in local government where councillors were more than ever run by their officials. There were several reasons for this shift of power, not least the hugely increased complexity of modern government, which favoured complicated bureaucratic responses to almost any problem, even if the problem was imaginary.

This in itself ensured the proliferation of an ever more bureaucratic system of government, encouraging ever more use of technical jargon, paperwork, committee meetings, fancy titles and acronyms, arcane management structures, all of which in turn gave greater power and control to those most naturally at home in such a milieu - the officials themselves.

But nowhere in this evolution in the nature of Britain's government show more clearly than in the spell cast by Europe. If the power of politicians was already diminished by the new bureaucratic ethos of domestic politics, this was nothing compared to the state subservience to which they were reduced by the all pervasive influence of Brussels. Across vast areas of government they were no longer able to act independently because they constantly had to account of the demands of Brussels.

For many ministers and councillors much of their working lives were dominated by the need to consider what that system compelled them to do. This placed much of the  power in the hands of officials and legal experts who instructed ministers not just what was required of them but also how their own room for independent action was now circumscribed. Politicians became a class of elected apologists.

The new function of politicians was to act as front men for the system to represent it to the outside world; to be interviewed on television and radio explaining and defending its actions; to appear in parliament giving answers to questions or reading out statements which had been drafted for them by officials; to put their signatures to the endless mass of letters the officials placed in front of them; in short, to give the system the appearance of democratic legitimacy.

By the late nineties this system was so entrenched it gave rise to a wholly new form of government. One of the chief functions of politicians was to pretend that none of this was happening and to carry on outwardly as if nothing had changed largely to prevent the public from knowing how deep and how far this revolution had progressed.

Fast forward to today and we now find that nobody is quite sure of the full extent of EU governance and who is accountable for what. Councils have become little more than regional development agencies and grant chasers who spend much of their time devising managerial systems to meet energy saving targets, habitats quotas, recycling targets and reporting systems to meet statutory statistical requirements all of which involved hugely expensive IT to produce dubious data and policy outcomes desired by nobody.

What we now find is that capable people do not bother entering local politics simply because the system is designed to prevent them influencing policy or innovating. It is a locked in managerial system where it doesn't matter who is elected. The system runs for its own convenience and does not welcome democratic intrusion.

Councils, therefore, are little more than agents of the Brussels machine with an ever more voracious appetite for taxpayer's money while gradually winding down the services that do actually matter to people. We pay ever more for increasingly less while social enterprise is gradually bureaucratised, regulated and snuffed out. Local democracy is all but dead and along with it any notion of community.

More disturbingly we have lived with this system for so long that we have forgotten what it was like to have any form of democratic control. Remainers will tell us that the EU is democratic because its functionaries are elected as though the presence of voting rituals in some way is empowerment. However, even if that could be described as democratic, if the system actively prevents the public from organising and implementing policy of their own design in their own towns and cities, then by definition we do not have democracy.

Over the years we have become accustomed to managerialism defined by Brussels, interpreted by Whitehall and dictated to local authorities. We therefore have a facade of democracy while the decisions are made by grossly overpaid council CEOs and quango bosses, whose loyalty is always to Brussels since EU funding buys the white elephants and regeneration schemes that keep the noses in the trough.

The consequences of this are remote and disconnected local authorities where residents have no control over their communities and no say in how things are run. That which isn't farmed out to Capita is working in the service of an EU directive.

This is where we encounter a number of intractable Brexit dilemmas. Our choices are few but the essential ultimatum of the system is that you can have trade with the EU, but not democracy and not control over who comes into the country. Being that for the comfortable middle classes the system works quite well, being so self-absorbed that they do not wish to participate in governance they prefer managerialism. The lack of democracy, though, is more acute for those whop bear the brunt of post-democracy government.

But then to an extent the remainers are right in that being answerable to unelected officials in Whitehall is no better than being told what to do by Brussels. If we really do want to take back control then we have to take back control from the council CEOs and Whitehall mandarins. Cutting Brussels out of the loop is not going to be enough.

What was done to the UK was done silently and slowly and now it's impossible to tell where the Brussels machine ends and the Whitehall machine begins - largely because they are one and the same. They have shaped each other in their own image and now we are naturalised to it. It is, therefore, difficult to make the case for democracy to people who don't even realise we've lost it, and in all likelihood, never had it at all. 

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