Is Britain A Democracy?

The accepted wisdom seems to tell us that it is, but is it?  The British system when examined closely is a strange one; firstly, we have a monarch and we are reminded of this constantly along with the counterpoint, ‘but she doesn’t have any power really’.  This isn’t actually true.

The British system is unusual because it is steeped in vested interests of medieval origin.   In many ways this is the result of not being invaded since 1066.  Since that time, the rest of Europe was often in turmoil, needing standing armies to police their borders, whereas Britain concentrated on becoming a naval power.  As the great historian A.J.P. Taylor said, “The great armies, accumulated to provide security and preserve the peace, carried the nations to war by their own weight.”  Times of upheaval lead to sweeping changes in the way countries are governed, and there was never a comparable crisis in Britain, hence little political change.  Frighteningly little, in fact.  The upside of this is that we have didn’t fall prey to the extreme politics of the first half of the 20th century, but the flipside has been inertia and stultifying inequality.

Here’s what the Oxford English Dictionary says about democracy:

  • a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives: a system of parliamentary democracy
  • [count noun] a state governed under a system of democracy: a multiparty democracy
  • control of an organization or group by the majority of its members: the intended extension of industrial democracy
  • the practice or principles of social equality: demands for greater democracy

So, let us examine this definition.  At first glance Britain seems to be a democracy, because all of us who over-18 have the right to vote (my personal view is that the age should be lowered to 16, by the way).  However, if that is the case why do so few bother to exercise it (only 65.1% in 2010).  Ask people why they don’t vote and the answer is usually “They’re all the same…”  It’s all too easy to dismiss such a comment as apathy or political illiteracy, but the issue is more complicated and in many ways it is elitist to disregard such an opinion – it is better to learn from it.   Are the people in Parliament truly representative of the populace?  Only 7% of children in the UK are privately educated, whereas 35% of British MPs are from private education (20% of whom are ex-Etonians).  Does this qualify them to be our ‘representatives’.  If they aren’t, how easy would it be to find more suitable candidates?  The answer is that it should be more easy than it currently is.

I have a real problem with privately funded education and don’t believe any good can come from it.  It creates inequality and ensures that our society remains divided by class; no child is deserving of a better education than another’s child.  This is an example of the class-system at its lowest common dominator and I will listen to no attempt to defend it.

I have always voted, but can understand the concerns of those who don’t.  They echo some of my own concerns.  What I see in parliament are a political class with even fewer exceptions than ever before.  This is demonstrated by the increasing tendency for politicians to overlook the simple fact that the vast majority of people simply want to earn a decent standard of living and bring their children up in a safe and secure environment.  This may not be an ambitious aim by a politicians standards but it is certainly a valid one, and the fact that MPs seem to hold it in such little regard demonstrates how out of touch they are.

How many of you are tired of hearing politicians talking about the electorate in such a disparaging way; the undeserving poor, the underclass, scroungers, under-skilled, uneducated, etc?  It is disgraceful and indicative of the way our democracy is utterly backwards.  If YOU can’t find employment than THEY are to blame, NOT YOU, and THEY should be held to account.  If Britain is supposed to be a democracy, that’s the way it should work.

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Some issues are beyond debate

Although on the whole I try be polite, there are some issues that I now refuse to debate with people.  In the 21st century some of these should be a matter of simple morality:

1)    A person who uses the term ‘benefit cheat’ is either a bigot or a scoundrel; it’s as simple as that.  And of course they always have some anecdotal piece of ‘evidence’ to support their view.  Of course people should – if able – work for a living and I doubt anybody is arguing otherwise, but there is a trade-off here; is there any employment available and, if there is, is it suitable?  The people who shout the loudest about ‘benefit cheats’ would never dream of taking the kind of work they expect the unemployed to take, with little or absolutely no reward.  All jobs should pay a living-wage, because – after all – they are expected to live on it.  Business people who say they can’t afford to pay a living wage have no right to call themselves business people.  Until you agree that everybody deserves a living-wage don’t criticise the unemployed.  Furthermore, those who claim that the disabled are ‘benefit cheats’ don’t even deserve to call themselves human-beings.

2)    Profit-making has no place in education.  I would add to this that I don’t believe in private or public school education.  I have yet to hear a counter-argument that isn’t elitist or self-serving.  Ban private/public school education tomorrow and state schools would improve dramatically.  Our current system breeds inequality and should have no place in our society.

3)    Profit-making has no place in health.  Why should one person have better healthcare than another and why should a third person make a profit from it?  Why do I have to hear justifications for this?  There is no justification; there is just greed, pure and simple.  This is another example of the festering inequality in our society and the selfishness that drives it.

4)    Wealthy people should pay their taxes.  People who live in, work in, make money out of the UK should pay their fair share of taxes, unless they don’t earn enough.  Don’t tell me that ‘I had to leave the UK because Labour brought in 50% taxes’, because I won’t sympathise with you.  If you are in that tax-bracket, pay your way, because people who earn much less than you have to (if I had my way you’d being paying more).  Also, being a tight-fisted megalomaniac doesn’t qualify you to describe yourself as a Libertarian.

5)    Our system is outmoded, archaic and serves only a minority of people.  This is not a Democracy.

If you find my views here offensive, feel free to unfollow me.

Political Police

I remember buying a book from an excellent book shop called News From Nowhere in Bold Street, Liverpool in the 1980s (the shop still exists and it is still highly recommended).  The book was called ‘The Political Police of Great Britain’ and the contents of it were disturbing but not shocking, particularly in light of the police’s behaviour during the Miners’ Strike, by which time we had grown used to the sight of police in full riot-gear, pummelling ordinary members of the public to the ground.

G20 Protests, during which Ian Tomlinson was killed.

Riot-gear had been used by the police before; the first time it had been seen was during a march by the National Front in April 1979 in Southall, West London.  If the date sounds familiar it is because it was during this march that New Zealander, Blair Peach was killed when the police attacked Anti-Nazi League demonstrators.  The police’s political sympathies of the time were decidedly to the far-right, one officer’s locker was crammed with Nazi regalia and he and many of his colleague were found in possession of illegal weapons.  Of course, these events happened many years ago, but The Guardian have recently drawn ‘parallels’ between them and the death of Ian Tomlinson at the G20 demonstrations in 2009, and the recent report is widely perceived as flawed.  The truth about Tomlinson’s death is unlikely to be revealed for many years – certainly the truth about Peach’s death was only made public in April of this year.  This is a disgrace in a so-called modern democracy and an insult to Blair Peach’s family.

In many ways the belief that the police have ever been apolitical is naïve but owing to the existence of the mass-media during the Miners’ Strike, it was the first time that it became so obvious to the electorate.  And the strike has been prepared for.  One of the first actions of the Thatcher government was to increase police pay by a wide margin – previously they had been under-paid, but the wage-hike was almost certainly a bribe when examined in hindsight.  The police were used against rioters, peaceful demonstrators, Trades Unions, the women in Greenham Common, and many more ordinary people throughout Tory rule.

Some of you may be wondering why I’m dwelling on the past, but as the cliché goes we’re supposed to learn from it.  There are already rumblings from this government about introducing democracy into the police.  The word ‘democracy’ is much abused and misunderstood.  Universal suffrage does not guarantee a democracy since those who run the media control the interpretation of information, exerting pressure on who is elected into government and what the agenda will be.

This is now a paranoid society; fundamentally the consequence of 24-hour rolling news about paedophiles, serial-killers, ‘illegals’, national debt, drug-dealers, ‘benefit cheats’, ‘anti-social behaviour’,  ‘hoodies’ and so on.  As pernicious as all of this is, the focus on celebrity culture is just as destructive since it is a distraction from what really matters in people’s lives and creates an environment of vicarious living.  The electorate can bring about change and the conservatives understand this, which is why they are happy with Murdoch, the Daily Mail, the Daily Express and Sky News setting the agenda.  

Democratising the police does not work – this is demonstrably clear when one looks at system in the USA, where short-term planning between elections has led to shocking ingrained drug problems, gun-crime, violence, racism and so on.  Ministers often spend very few years (often only two) in one department and it is civil servants who enact long-term policy – turning the police into politicians would change their priorities in a destructive manner.  Their agenda would be set by irrational hysteria whipped up by the media and political short-term planning to gain headlines to get re-elected.  The Raoul Moat case is an example of such media-led hysteria – hours of pointless media attention on one case, and scores of police in full riot-gear concentrating all their attentions on one disturbed individual.  Do we really need that to turn into a trend?  Thousands of women suffer domestic violence every day – don’t they deserve as much attention?  Their cases aren’t heard because the media aren’t interested.

I was disturbed by the Moat case, because yet again the police were shown in full riot-gear, but this time armed to the teeth with guns on streets in the UK while ordinary families walked by with prams – not unlike the footage we saw of occupied Northern Ireland.  Is this part of the new agenda?  I don’t want become used to seeing this and government policy appears to be moving in that direction. 

This Tory government is making cuts in our public services and dismantling the welfare state – once again they will use the police to silence the opposition.  Let’s make sure they don’t get away with it.