Democracy Café – September

We held a Democracy Café via Zoom on Saturday 12 September 2020 which was quite well attended. The topic which won the vote was, unsurprisingly, the decision by the government to table an Internal Market Bill 2019 – 2021 to enable the government to override the withdrawal bill agreed with the EU under the Northern Ireland Protocol. This had caused a major outcry across party lines as it would mean the government would be able to breach an international treaty. This all took place in the week previous to the meeting.

Members were united in feeling helpless in the face of this action. We wondered in fact, if it was put to some kind of vote, whether it would get much support in the nation as a whole. We discussed whether it was in fact a ‘wheeze’ to force the EU onto the backfoot. By doing this, it might force the EU to stop negotiations and hence enable the government to blame them for being intransigent. Evidence of this can be seen in papers like the Telegraph which was blaming the EU for the problems, not the UK government for introducing the bill.

Could it be part of a plan to destabilise all our institutions? One by one, organisations and individuals are blamed, sacked or side-lined. Senior civil servants, ministers who did not support the prime minister, judges and the BBC have come in for attack and threats.

The idea of seeing the government as facilitators rather than actual government was a way of looking at this. Perhaps we might debate this idea in the future more.

Corruption

Still on this topic, the debate moved onto the ‘revolving door’ the process by which ministers, military leaders and senior civil servants, leave government in their hundreds to go and work for various companies that lobby them or receive funding from the government. It is supposed to be controlled but effectively isn’t. This clearly leaves the door open for influence peddling on a massive scale. The full extent of this was set out in a Transparency International report in 2011* and has featured in several Private Eye articles and a full length feature.

Another factor has been a steady trail of contracts placed without notice or tender with firms and organisations which were either incompetent or inept (track and trace) and many of which were friends, relatives or cronies of members of the government. It seems as though all rules of good governance have been jettisoned.

There seemed no way to control this. Power lay with the executive and there was no way to scrutinise them. The only way it seemed was to take to the streets. Even here, the government has introduced restrictions and fines of £10,000 to try and stop these, purportedly as part of Covid-19 restrictions. This prompted the question, was the government using the pandemic to try and stifle protest?

Do people care in fact? Since the majority of our media was owned by individuals who have access to some extremely creative accountancy to enable them (perfectly legally) to avoid paying tax, it was not in their interest to promote stories of corruption since the light might shine on them. Hence there was little disquiet among the public at large. Another factor was the role of social media which served to distract from the real problem. It was ‘encouraging wilful ignorance’ someone said.

This led to a discussion about 2008 and the fact that none of the bankers involved had been called to account for their part in the crash. The Coalition government of Cameron and Osborne had been able successfully to blame the Labour government for the crisis and to introduce austerity. The rest is, as they say, history.

City of London

We discussed the role of the City of London and its part in siphoning huge sums of money off to various tax havens. George Monbiot had written an article about it in this week’s Guardian. It was noted that the City is not fully part of the United Kingdom and protects its independence jealously. They employ a man called the Remembrancer who is the only unelected person in the House of Commons part of whose job is to frustrate any moves to inhibit the power of the City. Attempts to remove him have always been unsuccessful.

It was suggested that one of the reasons for Brexit was the fear the City had that the EU was seeking to contain their power and were considering the introduction of legislation. In the end, money was more powerful than democracy it was said. When John Glen MP was appointed Minister for the City about 2 years ago, it was suggested to him in a letter to the Salisbury Journal that he would do his constituents and the country an enormous service if he got rid of this anomalous post. He did not reply. The post is still there. The City is still at the centre of an enormous web of corruption.

Philanthropy

We discussed philanthropy briefly following a ‘long read‘ in the Guardian recently. This was linked to the topic because some firms had made vast fortunes and sought to whitewash their reputations by giving money to certain causes. Some felt that they had made the money so should be free to spend it how they wish. Much wealth was inherited however but even if a fortune was made, it relied upon employees, social support, education and society generally to achieve. No man was an island.

Conclusion

There was a feeling of helplessness at the activities of the government who seemed beyond control. What can one do? However, one member said s/he had written to John Glen several times and received the normal party line responses but that s/he had written about the Cummings scandal and his response was not party line. We agreed to write to him to ensure that he was aware that there are people who think the proposed legislation is outrageous.

We will – as the Salisbury Democracy Alliance – campaign in next year’s local elections, not for election, but to promote the idea of citizen’s juries.

Peter Curbishley


Books mentioned:

Treasure Islands, Tax havens and the men who stole the world, Nicholas Shaxson, 2011, Bodley Head

Money Land, Why thieves and crooks now rule the world and how to take it back, Oliver Bullough, 2018, Profile Books

*no longer available on line