Sunday, 16 May 2010

A Very British Democracy.

Last year the electoral crisis in Iran was widely criticised in the West. Though something was lacking from much of the critique of the events in Iran. The implicit message of the critique was that this crisis was simply a product of "guided democracy" and the Iranian people need democracy in the Western liberal conception. What is missing from this critique is the admission that liberal democracy in the West shares some similarities with the "guided democracy" of Iran. Before the individuals could enter as candidates for the Presidency they had to be approved by the clerical establishment in Iran. In the West candidates for high office often have to pander to the economic establishment for sufficient campaign funding. This functions to diminish political pluralism, reducing the candidates to representatives of varying degrees of evil. The choice we typically face is the greater evil and the lesser evil. The candidate who receives the most support from the establishment and the electorate wins the election. There are occasional blips of course, these would include the electoral triumphs of George W Bush and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

With the victory of the Conservative Party, with a little help from the Liberal Democrats, we have seen the continuing triumph of a polyarchical establishment in Britain. Polyarchy being a system in which a small number of political parties take turns governing the state. But nothing much changes as all of these parties are representative of powerful groups - namely the wealthy - as opposed to the majority of the population. Unlike a totally dictatorial and hegemonistic society in a polyarchy there is room for participation and contestation. Thus, we have participation in the political process through elections and occasionally referenda. While the mass-media, the recent televised debates and programmes like Question Time functions to present the political class as more "diverse" than it actually is. Through debate and media coverage, the small differences of the parties are exaggerated and the greater similarities ignored. But the average voter is perceptive enough to see the similarities. The "guided democracy" of Iran differs in that it partly lacks this contestation and the media remains largely servile to a quasi-hegemonistic state.

The democratic deficit in London is one such sign of a polyarchical system. The candidates were almost the same and only differed on pedantic technical details like immediate spending cuts as opposed to spending cuts after a year. Sadly, it could be argued that the current state of democracy is quite appropriate to contemporary Britain. For instance, the United Kingdom is one of the few states in the world that does not have a written constitution.  Instead of a written constitution we have an unwritten constitution. Meaning that we rely on a substance of tradition to guide our political system. But the way the media has covered the hung Parliament, with constant references to a British Constitution, one would think that we have a constitution. So in a sense we have a constitution without a constitution. Similarly, we have democracy without democracy. Except this time, we as a nation lack the substance of democracy as opposed to the mere formality of voting once every 4 or 5 years to "justify" the status quo on the grounds that something worse than it might replace it if we do not vote for it.

Just like in Iran, where candidates have to appeal to the religious establishment, here in contemporary Britain candidates seek support from the economic institutions. It is public knowledge that the Conservative Party received over £5 million in funding from Michael Ashcroft, a non-dom billionaire and a member of the House of Lords. Lord Paul being the Lord Ashcroft of the Labour Party. But what is less widely known is that the Conservatives have received £16 million in funding from Canary Wharf since 2006. Though it could be argued that this isn't much different from the fact that Labour has received over £10 million from the Unite Union since 2007. Everyone knows that The Sun backed David Cameron in the campaign, adding another name to the list of Prime Minister it helped elect. Others include: Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Tony Blair. Not everyone knows that David Cameron met with Rupert Murdoch, agreeing to remove constraints which prevent Murdoch from competing with the BBC. In reaction to this, Murdoch has thrown 40% of the British media behind the Conservative Party.

During the campaign David Cameron made a point of bragging about the support from the business community that he is receiving. We see that the Labour Party as having won elections on the back of this support from businesses. The fact that these grotesque features of our "democracy" are held up with pride is indicative of the cynicism of the political class. In the run-up to the election many politicians claimed that the government would either be Conservative or Labour, this further conveys the cynicism. Over 1,000 businesses support the Conservatives, the stated reason is that they oppose the "jobs tax" of  Labour and have the interest of their employees at heart. It was pointed out by the media that 'New Labour' received the same support in the run-up to the victory of 1997. No mention of the fact that in many cases, the cost of an increase in national insurance is equal to, or less than, the cut management take from company revenue. No mention of the "incentives" these businesses are seeking from the Conservative Party. No mention of the fact that this is a case of rich white men supporting rich white men.

There is a lack of political pluralism in Britain today. The Conservatives have remained firmly on the Right, sticking to the kind of positions that demonise single-parents while pushing for further deregulation. On the other hand, Labour has shifted dramatically from the Left to the Right becoming a neoconservative party. This is reflected by Brown's love of Gertrude Himmelfarb's work and the common description of Blair as a "neoconservative" by the likes of Richard Perle. Distinctions between the parties are drawn along policies on immigration, the EU, multiculturalism, political correctness etc. by the right-wing press. The aim of this is to further diminish what little pluralism there is left. Thanks to the media, there are a large amount of bigots who vote on single issues like immigration. This is how UKIP have become increasingly sought after by the working-class. Whilst issues relating to the economy, deregulation and tax-cuts are of central importance to the wealthy. In appealing to this dual constituency, of the interests of the wealthy and the interests of the working-class, the likes of David Cameron end up swinging the "big stick".

All of the candidates agree that severe cuts in public spending are necessary, as do the mainstream media, on the grounds of "common sense". The way in which this hard-nosed pragmatism requires no justification, in the minds of public servants and journalists, is indicative of the way ideology functions in the West. The Right has no need nor time for real justifications and intellectual argument, all they need are "common sense" arguments to accomplish their goals. These arguments typically play to the primal desires and fears of individuals. The dominant ideology does the rest for them, all they have to do is shoot down any dissenting views as "unrealistic". Thus the candidates only have to argue about where and when cuts are to be made, because "common sense" writes off any alternatives to making savage cuts as "unrealistic". Any deviations from the party-line of "necessary cuts" are knocked down by the media or by civilians riled up by the right-wing press, whenever the common man gets a chance to question the politicians. So the working-class have voted against their own interests for the sake of "common sense" spending cuts.

Significant Links:
Polyarchy by Robert Dahl
The Truth behind the General Election

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