Mind the Public

I was engaged in a brief discussion on tax revenues and who pays what in terms of taxes earlier today. During some background browsing, I discovered the website Where Does My Money Go. It’s a website which shows Britons how our taxes are divided between the different parts of government and also includes regional breakdowns.

This site itself exists due to the failure of our politicians to be arsed to turn up to vote in favour of the Government Spending (Website) Bill, so we have to rely on non-governmental agencies to analyse the official figures, which then in turn help some of us at least to hold them to account in our own minds on how they spend our money. The bill went before the House of Commons in June 2007, but did not meet the required number of 40 sitting MPs (the quorum) to receive a vote, which is odd, considering other bills met the quorum requirements on the same day, so it would seem that having public scrutiny of government spending was deemed to be not in the best interests of our politicians.

The more I have learnt about politics over many years, the more I see how the political classes in general (with some notable, fine, backbench exceptions on both sides of the house) attempt to dupe the public and keep people in their place. This extends from local to European government (the latter being of particular concern, when those appointed are not directly elected, but chosen by those involved in these practices).

Another fine example of politicians riding roughshod over public scrutiny or decision-making was the cynical filibustering by Labour Party life peer George Foulkes carried out yesterday. Yes, that’s right non-UKers… Whilst some may, with justification, question the suitability of a hereditary monarchy (which has no real political power in practice) in a modern nation in the 21st century, we still have an upper house which comprises a number of unelected politicians of all parties, offered titles for their loyalties – all of whom do have real power… and for life. Still, the hereditary peerages have gone now, so I suppose that’s some progress.

Many well-educated people are content with these arrangements, because the last thing they want to see are the caricature scenes of the howling, pitchforked mob – the ‘tyranny of the majority’, as they call it. To many such people, the idea that people who are supposedly less well-informed than they are getting their grubby mitts on any kind of power is the last thing they want to happen. Ultimately, they know what is best for the poor little people, and if the poor little people would just realise they had their best interests at heart, everything would be just fine. It’s precisely the same mentality which propped up many a dictatorship behind the Berlin Wall, where the people needed to be guided in the great Socialist revolutions, and all actions were carried out for the greater good of the people. The fact that the ‘little people’ have just as much right to control of their lives, probably more experience of real life rather than those who have only enjoyed the comforts of middle-class existence, and live at the ‘sharp end’ seems to be an aspect of this debate which is ignored.

These ‘know-it-alls’ call public control over politicians the ‘tyranny of the majority’; I prefer to call it democracy. Rather than engage in sensible discussion, they will attempt to turn their opponents into political personae non gratae, or resort to ad hominem attacks rather than debate the issues. I now consider sneering and faux righteous indignation a tell-tale sign of someone who ostentatiously wishes to be seen to have the correct opinions for peer approval or to advance in society rather than to have thought a little more objectively about things – in other words, a class of people which has been subjected to what one might call middle-class groupthink. But of course, that may be personal bias on my part – it’s just a personal observation and one borne out in discussions when I debate with such people, who, on the face of it are very self-righteous, but on further analysis appear to have little or no knowledge of political processes, facts, and figures to support their positions.

I recognise these behaviours, however, because I fitted into this category of people at one point. As a student and graduate of a politics/history-based Modern Languages degree (and a one-time member of the Liberal Democrats in the early ’90s), I was a fully-fledged member of the pro EU federalist brigade, in favour of British adoption of the euro, and even a cultural relativist. In my defence on the EU issue, I am talking about 1992, an EU with 12 economically similar states, and at a time when talk of widespread democratic reforms of the EU, a stronger emphasis on subsidiarity, and reform of the CAP and fishing policies, was commonplace. It was not the EU of 28 states with massive imbalances in citizen income and economies, nor was it an EU which had shown blatant disregard for national referenda in those countries which held them. My perception of anyone who opposed the EU was that they must be little Englanders, xenophobes, or outright racists. When I now see those labels thrown carelessly around in debates, I can’t help but smile to myself. As a former EU federalist, but someone who now supports Brexit, I know the tricks and the groupthink involved.

I still love Europe, its landscapes and citizens and enjoy travelling around our neighbours’ beautiful countries and talking to fellow Europeans. But, whilst I oppose the concept of multiculturalism – the imposition of foreign practices and values within a nation which has core values developed over decades and centuries, I support the idea of nations maintaining their distinctive cultures. I have no desire to see cultural harmonisation across the continent of Europe. I value differences between countries and regions – differences which enable us to learn from one another. The idea of increasing homogeneity across this continent is sad and fails to treasure the very things which make travelling, studying, and working abroad exciting. It’s bad enough that our British towns and cities have become largely indistinct without the same happening across the whole continent. “Vive la différence!”, as the Walloons would say.

But back to the issue of the ‘tyranny of the majority’… What evidence is there that the British public would behave in anything other than a compassionate way?

The conventional, often heard, disparaging view of the public at large is that they’re all Sun or Daily Mail readers and that they are incapable of individual thought; that the public will want to hang anyone for anything beyond shoplifting (for which they’d probably settle for amputation). They will state such of course whilst proudly referencing the Guardian, with no sense of irony or awareness of their own groupthink at all.

It is widely acknowledged that the repeal of the death sentence in the UK in the 1960s came about not chiefly at the instigation of politicians, but in a movement of public opinion which had turned against it. It is also often touted that the majority of the country’s population was against intervention in Iraq too. Naturally, you will need to make your own mind up on who called that one correctly – the supposed rump of the general public or the UK parliament, as you will need to over the issue of the euro, accession to which, on principle, all three main political parties subscribed. Fortunately, in the case of the latter, the Labour government, to its credit, took its decision ultimately on hard economic realities rather than ideological concerns.

Switzerland, where people do have ultimate power over politicians, does not have the death sentence. Contrary to the idea that the Swiss vote solely on populist lines, the public has often supported policies which, on the face of it, are not populist policies (notably, tax rises) and opposed others, which might traditionally be expected to be popular (e.g. additional public holidays) at all three of its political levels in which the public has power – at the communal, cantonal, and federal levels. That’s because an engaged public with real power in its hands does take matters seriously.

And even when the Swiss public makes mistakes (as do politicians), it is equally able to rectify them, and this has been the experience; where legislation has been passed with public support, shown to be wanting, and subsequently repealed. But ultimately, if you don’t trust the ordinary citizen with decision-making, why do you allow them to vote in the first place – especially those vote for the party they’re not supposed to vote for?

We’re in desperate need of widespread reform.

The answer isn’t the solution of disengagement offered by everyone’s favourite comedy (and recently political) Jesus, Russell Brand, but is to demand more open government, more direct control of power by citizens, more direct democracy. This is not a party political issue – it transcends party politics and is a direction in which at least some existing politicians have already moved.

Politicians will only start to change when they are reminded that they work for us and we have the power to remove them if they don’t put our interests above those of their parties.

Before we resort to Russell Brand’s solution of disengaging from politics and having no influence whatsoever, do you think it might be worth trying to reform it seriously by supporting those who speak up for such reforms? And there are those who do, on both sides of the House.