Democracy Café – April

The chosen topic this month was ‘have we become inured to corruption in the UK?’ The question was posed following a fairly long stream of events over the past year or so but with little in the way of reaction and no resignations in prospect. The planning row with Robert Jenrick; the same minister awarding funds from the Towns Fund to his fairly prosperous constituency in a secret process; contracts awarded to a range of individuals without due process, some of whom are Conservative party funders; Boris Johnson and the Jennifer Arcuri influence case, and most recently, the Greensill saga and David Cameron’s attempts at influencing the Chancellor and other Treasury ministers to award it funds before the firm’s collapse. A lengthy but incomplete list. The question though, was why no fuss? Why no resignations, nor indeed any shame? Has sleaze actually become the new norm?

It was suggested that it probably started back in the days of the Blair government when the practice of employing large numbers of outside consultants got under way. They were brought in to advise on some quite ludicrous tasks such how to communicate with other departments.

Was it the system itself which engendered corruption? The example of affordable housing allocations was given in which council planning officers meet developers to agree on what percentage of a development should be for affordable housing. This was done in private meetings. There was also an imbalance of power since the developers could afford a range of high quality advice whereas LPAs, following cuts, could not. The issue here was not corruption but a lack of democratic accountability. ‘Democracy dies in darkness’ someone noted.

Expectations of our politicians is lower now. There was a general discussion around whether there has always been a degree of corruption but the media in previous times had not published it for a variety of reasons. The argument went both ways on this. The example of Peter Oborne at the Daily Telegraph was quoted who exposed HSBC’s bank for the wealthy in Geneva to enable them to hide funds from the taxman. This was spiked because HSBC was a major advertiser and Oborne resigned. Not many other journalists could afford to do this however. There have been a series of articles in the media about the ‘chumocracy’ the word itself having entered the language. It had been quite widely reported including in the Sunday Times. The extent of it was much greater now however. The sums involved ran into millions.

Was it because it didn’t affect the local population much? A worry was that a common response was ‘they [politicians] are all the same’. This meant people did not feel a change would not have any effect – just a different set of politicians with their noses in the trough. Another problem was that some of it involved esoteric financial matters. Whereas people understood someone in their community who was a scrounger, the complex financial shenanigans of an organisation like Greensill Capital was less well understood.

On the positive side, it was noted that young people did seem to be more interested these days.

Was it because that politicians were drawn from a narrow pool? This was a reference to the public school sense of entitlement and simply not recognising that there was anything wrong with the behaviour. Once upon a time, it would lead to resignation – now it didn’t. Profumo was mentioned and in particular, that he did not expect to be ‘outed’ in the media because of the old boy network and was genuinely surprised when it went public and became a major scandal.

The media came up again and someone said they found watching or listening to the interviews quite difficult these days because obvious questions were not asked. Andrew Marr was mentioned as someone who was too soft on interviewees.

The theme of the effect of corruption on our democracy surfaced several times. There was real sense of crisis and how impossible it was to achieve change. Were we indeed heading for a fascist state? The opposition parties were weak and spent too much time in internal arguments it was said. There was some sign of life however, with Labour pressing for answers with the Greensill saga but there was a need for a progressive alliance to be formed to challenge the status quo. This was the theme of a Compass paper. The loss of so many One Nation Tories from the party was lamented. Too many sensible voices had been lost and recent events in Northern Ireland were almost certainly a direct result.

The environment and the role of the public and democracy was discussed with the example of the proposed coal mine in Cumbria. This arose from a comment about the government’s desire to build its way out of our economic troubles. There were two sides to this argument it was noted: on the one hand, people didn’t really have much power since the planning system meant decisions were made on planning grounds only and relating to the various planning acts. Appeals went to the Secretary of State. On the other, local people wanted the mine because of the promise of economic prosperity – jobs etc. They seemed little concerned with the environment.

The increase in populist governing was discussed. It was the case that MPs voted according to their consciences and their own judgement in the Burkean sense. Now they tended to see themselves as delegates and followed what they thought to be the popular will. Brexit was a case in point. The death penalty was an example where, left to MPs, it would never be re-introduced but if they followed the popular will, it could be voted back in. It was pointed out however that there was a narrow overall majority against its re-introduction.

We then went on to discuss the second topic – do we have a free press? One answer straight away was that we had a reasonably free press but not an unbiased one. Another question was what facts? It was as much about the selection of which facts or stories to report as much as the facts or reporting itself. There was concern at great swathes of the media were owned by a handful of oligarchs who were free to push their agendas. It was noted however that newspapers were commercial enterprises and needed to sell their papers to be viable. If their views did not match those of their readers, then they would not sell. The views expressed in the tabloids especially, represented what many people thought and believed therefore.

Examples included a front page story of someone given a £2m house in Kensington which was, it was claimed, biased. Another example was a photograph of an apparent nose to nose confrontation between a policeman and a protester. It was later revealed that the space between them had been cropped. The Battle for Orgreave was shown as the miners charging the police. It was later revealed that the footage had been reversed and the police had charged first. To this day however, the story of aggressive miners lives on. This reversal of footage was likely to have been a simple mistake however. These came up in the context of a biased media.

The print media is in steady decline and it was social media in its various forms where many, especially younger – people obtained their news nowadays.

A major point was the importance of distinguishing between opinion and facts ‘comment is free, facts are sacred’ as the Guardian puts it. Several newspapers make this clear distinction but others mix the two.

‘Balance’ was mentioned and in connection with the BBC in particular. The problem had been for a long time, climate scientists were put against climate denialists in debates who, although were for the most part not from the scientific community, made the discussion seem much more balanced than it actually was. The BBC no longer invites denialists onto these discussions following many protests.

The two discussions were closely linked since what we believe and what we know is heavily influenced by the media. Bias or simply not reporting inconvenient news will distort our view of the world. However, the media is a collection of mostly commercial enterprises who have to sell their product to a sceptical public. To an extent therefore they are a window into what the majority believe and think. If that public is relaxed about corrupt goings on in Westminster, then that will be reflected in the coverage. Despite considerable media and political interest in the level of immigration, very little has been said about the potential for large numbers of Hong Kong Chinese to settle here.

An interesting debate around two topics which were in the event closely related.

We were delighted to welcome two new members to today’s discussion both of whom are hoping to set up democracy café events in their home area.

Book mentioned: How Democracies Die, 2018, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, Viking

Peter Curbishley