I’m not even going to bother putting this in context – because it’s quite obvious what I am talking about. But let me highlight a few things that have occurred in the past few months in the UK – because that’s where I live and as part of the West – which continues to tout the values of a ‘liberal’ and ‘representative’ democracy – it’s actually shocking as to how much of a joke this is in real terms:
- 7-day NHS and the Junior Doctor contract scandal
- Proposal for Tax credit cuts
- UK decision to be involved in military attacks on Syria
For people who supposedly live in a liberal representative democracy, as the UK identifies itself to be, ‘the people’ i.e. us, seem to have remarkably very little power. Apart from deciding who will sit their fat arses on the green seats in the Houses of Parliament once every 5 years, ‘the people’/us, have very little say in what happens in the running of the country in the periods of our lives between elections.
The influential political scientist and one of the greatest theorists of democracy in the twentieth century, Joseph Schumpeter, in his essays in ‘Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy’ hits the nail on the head when he, in a nut shell, says that the people in a representative democracy have the power to do shit all. He believes that ‘the people’ are ultimately deluded by the classical notion of democracy, defined as the “institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions which realises the common good by making the people itself decide issues through elections of individuals who are to assemble in order to carry out its will”. In this definition Schumpeter highlights how democracy in the modern world is really a competitive struggle for political leadership among those who desire it (I add that this has become a certain elite strata of society over time), and that the role of ‘the people’ is in effect to merely produce government, not to participate in it or instruct those who govern.
Let’s take the example of the 7-day NHS palava and proposed changes to the Junior Doctor contract as a stellar example of this in action. We all know that Jeremy Hunt is a career politician and has exercised very little brain power in his plans to roll out a 7-day NHS alongside making changes to Junior Doctor contracts. The backlash to this is evident, not only across the media, but in the the actions taken by Junior Doctors and wider supporters in demonstrations and the threat of strike. So why is it that Jeremy Hunt/the Tory government, who have been elected to serve the ‘will of the people’, feel that they can steamroller people’s liberties and publicly lie about increases in pay and safer working hours, in the face of the workers and EXPERTS i.e. the doctors themselves, who say otherwise? I’ll tell you why, because politicians govern with impunity. They are not reprimanded and are rarely held accountable for their actions in between periods of election. This especially assists career politicians with a platform to push their own agendas and use media spin to serve their own purposes while in government, with very little distraction or thought given to ‘the will’ of the electorate or of those affected by their policies.
This rather baffling lack of accountability in the UK political system is also evident in George Osborne’s recent decision to make cuts to Tax Credits, even when the Tories promised at the time of election earlier this year that they would not do so. There is even video evidence attesting to this – not that video evidence appears to count for much these days:
It’s a joke, really. There is no accountability to a political party’s manifesto whatsoever. We’ve seen this happen time and time again – flashback to Clegg’s best moment a few years ago from “No tuition fees” to “£9,000 pa”:
Politicians LIE and in line with Schumpeter’s theory, use words of flattery and rhetoric to seduce the masses. This video essentially sums up the fact that Clegg is a pleb and literally has no idea about the costs involved in running a country: “I shouldn’t have committed to a policy that was so expensive when there was no money lying around.” WTH was he basing his manifesto on then?! Given, he was in a coalition, and we all know that the UK system is really not made in a way to handle that shit – the fact of the matter remains that he CHOSE to join the Tories (he could have gone with Labour), and at the end of the day, when it came down to it, he could still have voted NO on the rise of tuition fees. At least then his integrity would have remained intact (“We made a promise before the election, that we would vote against any rise in fees under any circumstances”). Now he’s pretty much seen as a muppet who’s aged ten years in the span of two. Again, the backlash and protests and hundreds of petitions by the public did not manage to sway this change in tuition fees, highlighting Schumpeter’s point that once a party is elected, ‘the people’ in effect can do very little – the political agenda is set by those in power and the liberties of ‘the people’ are subject to their whims. ‘The people’ are unable to remove them until the next election, and thus politicians can lie and trample on people’s liberties as they wish. This solidifies Schumpeter’s notion that the nature of elections in representative democracies substitutes the idea of “government by the people” for “government approved by the people”.
Anyway, I digress. Back to my point about the Tax Credits cuts. Although there has been a U-turn on this now, it is unclear if this was down to public criticism. Although there was some backlash when it was first announced, the backlash was comparatively a whisper to the uproar regarding the changes to Junior Doctor contracts or rise in tuition fees. It appears rather, that a lack of support from a parliamentary select committee caused Osborne to change track, although he still remains committed to “making difficult decisions” on welfare budgets to cut the deficit. Don’t forget that cuts to Universal Credit are still going ahead – oh yes, you probably haven’t heard of that one. If the media, arguably, is a voice for public opinion and a platform to counter-balance the power of politicians and government, it is in many ways a weak and biased one. It does not give equal or enough light to all issues at hand and only highlights the ‘juicy’ stories. Universal Credit slashes unfortunately is not sexy enough topic to be covered in any great depth. And don’t forget that Rupert Murdoch pretty much owns half of the media outlets, so really, is it any better than the self-benefiting slimy politicians in government? At the end of the day, if the government decided to go ahead and make all the cuts that they pleased (which of course they are doing already – the continuous mutilation of the public sector being a highlight), what can we, ‘the people’, really do about it? The media is ultimately a spin baby at the service of politicians, something we have seen Blair, Cameron and Hunt (and countless other slimeballs) utilise so effectively in the past and present.
Now moving onto politicians’ favourite topic – war. Most of you will be aware of the UK’s decision to bomb Syria in order to obliterate Daesh/IS, whatever you want to call it. Naturally, people have noted that by doing so, you will also obliterate thousands of innocent civilians not involved in Daesh/IS. I’m not going to go into the lack of logic exercised by those in power: in light of the overwhelming reaction to the Paris attacks, my mind baffles at how France could essentially turn around and do exactly the same thing, if not worse, to another nation, and no one so to speak, bats an eyelid. Somehow, this act of terrorism is justified. I’m also not going to bother going into the fact that nations in the present-age are thoroughly ill-equipped to deal with modern wars encompassing mobile organisations that do not tie themselves to a nation-state. Using the age-old war model of nation vs. nation, we have headed into war with Syria in the most indiscriminate way possible.
Politicians appear to have very little historical memory, as do the electorate it seems. That, or, I reiterate, the electorate simply have very little power. When Blair decided to go to war with Iraq and fight the War on Terror in 2003, the British backlash was immense, akin to, or even more aggressive, than the backlash against Thatcher’s Poll Tax. We still went to war. Public anger did nothing but hurt Blair’s reputation, and at that, only slightly. He went on to have a successful career post-PM and has left a legacy in British political history. Whether Cameron wants a similar sort of fame is something not to be ignored, and the haste at which the bombing of Syria took place (only hours after the MP’s vote) was no doubt one of the most appalling and inconsiderate acts that we have seen in the past few years. Most of the public didn’t have a chance to digest the news before missiles were being dropped in the early hours of Thursday 3 Dec. A skeptic, or simply a smart person, might suggest that the decision was already in hand and the MP’s vote was nothing but a procedural farce.
Schumpeter stipulates that the nature of politics in large territorial states reduces an individual’s hold on rationality and sense of responsibility for the views that they form when they enter the political field: “the typical citizen drops down to a lower level of mental performance as soon as he enters the political field. He argues and he analyses in a way which he would readily recognise as infantile within the sphere of his real interests. He becomes a primitive again. His thinking becomes associative and affective“. There is also literature on group or mob mentality which highlights the diffusion of responsibility that occurs in decision-making in group scenarios. This might provide some explanation as to why politicians make stupid decisions on a daily basis and why they appear to be so far removed from the views of the people on the ground. It might also explain why politicians never appear to feel personal responsibility or overwhelming guilt when marching forth to war. The decision to go to war in Iraq and now Syria (which I admit, has more divided sentiment than that of the former), gives great weight to Schumpeter’s claim that “democracy is the rule of the politician” and the policy program is very much their own agenda and not of ‘the people’. The latter are essentially reduced to pawns after an election. Democracy is an ideal playground for politicians: they play Chess with each other, and we all know which pieces are the first to go in Chess.
Moreover, the lack of the public’s input or even consideration in a political decision such as this, which carries immense consequences for everyone involved, underlines Schumpeter’s theory of democracy at its best: “Democracy does not mean and cannot mean that the people actually rule in any obvious sense of the term ‘people’ and ‘rule’.” Democracy in its modern form means only that ‘the people’ have the opportunity of accepting or refusing the men who are to rule them at the time of election. The true function of the electorate’s vote is the acceptance of leadership and to resign trust and duty to those selected to govern. Thus, people do not even govern indirectly; the nonexistence of imperative mandates means that representatives are not legally required to implement the popular will concerning policies expressed during elections. This highlights that except in the case of direct democracy, ‘the people’ as such, can never truly rule or govern. Very few mechanisms exist in a representative democracy to bridge this gap, and as is evident, they are wholly ineffective.
It’s clear that representative institutions and mechanisms in place do not really establish any real link between the decisions of those who govern and the electorate’s expressed preferences. Democracy is an illusion. It’s total bullshit. Democracy in its pure Athens form doesn’t exist, and to be honest no one expects it to either in modern complex societies. The point is that democracy in its representative form doesn’t exist either (one look at the makeup of Parliament will tell you pretty much all you need to know.) However, due to technological progress, I believe it is possible to imitate aspects of direct democracy that made its early form in Athens so great. My suggestion is that any motion or decision which involves major changes or compromises human life, both soldiers and civilians, should be open to public vote. Decisions such as these should be similar to holding a referendum and should be constitutionalised; they should not be as crude as they are currently – a vote by MP’s as if they were simply voting on any other matter or bill. Instead of having a physical gathering of ‘the people’ in the town square, a virtual gathering could take place where votes are made. This is just one idea of using modern technologies available to us to strengthen representative democracy. The other imperative action that I believe needs to be taken is that political parties need to be held accountable to their manifestos and that a re-election needs to be in order the moment they fall short of their promises. This would over time deter political parties from making bombastic claims for the purposes of being elected and hopefully discourage them from lying throughout their tenure in office. Overall, a good hard look is required at the representative institutions and mechanisms we have in place today and evaluate whether they are fit for purpose, whether they stand up to the principles and values which we profess that we live by and whether they satisfy the modern electorate.
To conclude, the recent events in the UK, from the proposed changes to the NHS and Junior Doctor contracts to welfare cuts and military action, show that the public have an opinion and they remain outspoken, but any resounding impact on the decisions of the government remains nil. Political leaders in the supposedly representative democracy of the UK are cut off from the masses and people’s liberties are toyed with. We live in a very twisted, warped and mangled form of what politicians like to call a ‘representative democracy’. This illusion naturally favours politicians and helps to subdue ‘the people’. We live in something more akin to a diluted dictatorship. We just have yet to acknowledge it.
Note: This is a reflection on the state of UK politics in light of Joseph Schumpeter’s theory of democracy. All views are my own. Whether they are right or wrong is a matter of discussion that I may or may not be interested in.
P.S. I hope people appreciate this post because writing in bed gives you major back pains.
Bernard Manin, The Principles of Representative Government, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1997
George Osborne sees fresh blow over planned tax credit cut changes: http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/nov/11/fresh-blow-george-osborne-planned-tax-credit-cuts-reforms
Joseph Schumpeter on Democracy: http://internationalpoliticaltheory.blogspot.co.uk/2011/11/joseph-schumpeter-on-democracy.html
John Dunn, Western Political Theory in the Face of the Future, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1993
Osborne: I will continue to make ‘difficult decisions’ after tax credits U-turn: http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/nov/25/george-osborne-taps-27bn-windfall-for-tax-credits-u-turn
Syria air strikes: what you need to know: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-34931421
What it looks like when men are photoshopped out of politics: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-politics/11926344/more-women-elle-feminism-politics.html
Wikipedia – Joseph Schumpeter: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Schumpeter
Wikipedia – Diffusion of responsibility: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diffusion_of_responsibility