William Flew On The Future of Democracy

December 27, 2011 § Leave a comment

If we have been granted a brief lull during this economic storm, perhaps it may seem curious timing to write about further depression. But we’re blessed with a pause: we can think more coolly.

And it’s the longer term to which I want to give some cool attention. Our world is not about to end. On this page in September I threw out the thought that in the West we will get 25 per cent poorer. I plucked that figure from the air; hopefully it’s overly pessimistic; but even a 25 per cent real-terms decline in average disposable income need not be free fall, but equilibrium at a lower level. A whole generation in Britain and Europe may look back to their youth as a more prosperous time.

What does this mean for democracy? Can it survive the orderly impoverishment of the people? Will people vote for a party that promises them no significant growth for the forseeable future?

Democracy, I believe, is soon to be stress-tested in peacetime as it has hardly been tested before. Pain today, jam tomorrow — we can all vote for that; democracy has no problem with deferred gratification. But how about cancelled gratification? Between “later” and “never” is a world of psychological distance.

George Osborne’s Autumn Statement this week made clear that his party will lead this Government towards an election that the Tories will enter without having wiped out (as they promised) Britain’s structural deficit, and without having done more than take our national debt down just a smidgin past its peak — and only with a fair wind even then.

If things go ill across the Channel even these depressing figures could be optimistic, as the Governor of the Bank of England said with emphasis this week. So far, every prediction of growth has had to be downgraded, and one feels no reason for confidence that these latest will prove exceptions. Although a solid supporter of this Conservative leadership, I don’t believe that when in three years we enter the winter of 2014 the Tories will plausibly be able to promise that good times are around the corner, let alone already here.

Read this: “We have been living as a very rich country. People are used to a very high level of public services and it takes time to them for to acknowledge the realisation that we now are a poor country . . .”

Thus spoke Miguel Arias, of the (now) governing right-wing Popular Party in Spain last month. But it was said after an election victory, not before; by a campaign co-ordinator, not an incoming minister; to a foreign interviewer, not a domestic audience; and by a party that had just ousted a deeply unpopular government rather than an incumbent government running for re-election. I’d add that Spain only recently — and quite suddenly — got rich and that the idea that it was all too good to be true and couldn’t last has lurked in many Spanish minds for some time. The same may be said of the Republic of Ireland. Neither are plagued by the infuriating British (or French) sense of entitlement.

Other indicators tell conflicting stories. The Greek electorate still seems to be in denial. German voters appear to want the advantages of the euro while refusing to fund the means to save it.

Argentina’s rather older story is more hopeful: since its collapse, democracy has not been overthrown and the country got to grips with its reduced circumstances; but only after free fall and humiliation, and only in the (plausible) belief that life is going to get better.

A tougher test may await us in Britain. The lesson from Argentina, Ireland and our own postwar austerity governments is that people will vote for impoverishment only after something like trauma: and even then the promise of “broad sunlit uplands” (the now clichéd phrase was Churchill’s) is needed.

But we Northern European nations may not be brought to our knees or have to contemplate chaos — but may face something subtly much bleaker: an economic winter that looks as if it will go on for ever; an English type of winter, survivable, drizzly, chilly and grey, rather than magnificently Arctic. Selling drizzle is almost the hardest thing a democratic politician can be asked to do. The rhetoric of blood, toil, tears and sweat is unavailable.

If in three years David Cameron and his colleagues cannot reasonably and persuasively claim that if only we hold on a bit longer, something big and good is in prospect, and if Ed Miliband cannot believably counterclaim that if only we borrowed a little more we’d soon be on the up again, I begin to wonder how solid and unshaken our trust in democracy — surely one of the most firmly based democracies in Europe or the world — will then feel.

We British don’t care for military coups but there are two other bad ways we could lurch. One is towards ideologues and extremists: the populist snake-oil salesmen peddling xenophobia, immigrant-bashing, protectionism.

The other is towards technocrats: the belief that the vote-seeking political class are incapable of rising to the moment or sticking to their guns. Many signs that we’re moving that way are already observable: this and the previous governments’ moves to write desiderata into statute — as if reducing child poverty or fuel poverty, or increasing overseas aid, needs to be kept safe from elected politicians, and must be made (impossibly) somehow automatic, like parts of the constitution. Or the setting-up of bodies before whose titles the word “independent” is placed: the “independent” Office for Budgetary Responsibility; the “independent” Office for National Statistics. Or the establishment of “agencies,” “commissions”, inquiries by judges, judicial review, European conventions, czars or ombudsmen: individuals or bodies whose worth is counted by their very lack of accountability.

All these are chippings away at confidence in democracy: signs, at worst, of an eroding belief in government by the people, and at best of a growing sense of the limitations of elected administration.

Populists or technocrats? It’s the equivalent of lurching between the unruly mess of populist government and military dictatorships, the attractions of the one always most apparent from the vantage point of the other: a malign oscillation that bedevilled Latin America for more than a century and may threaten now (in what we call the “Arab Spring”) the Middle East and North Africa.

In Britain we’ve had government on the basis of a full, equal, universal franchise only for about 80 years, a period that coincided with an already established, powerful, underlying (if fluctuating) upward trend in the enrichment of all classes. Democracy was lucky. Even in the 1930s it was the belief that good times would return — and then an impending war — that kept totalitarianism at bay.

But today we approach something new in my lifetime: a state of settled disbelief that the fat years will, or could, return under any of our political parties, and perhaps never will. Will we vote for this orderly impoverishment? It would be rash to assume that here and across the Channel democratic politics will survive in its current shape. It is too early to say.

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