Democracy Café

The November 2021 meeting of the Café took place during a tumultuous ten days in British political life with scarcely a day passing without some revelation about the goings on in Westminster. The resignation of Owen Paterson MP following a report into his breaking of lobbying rules on behalf of commercial firms, was quickly followed by revelations about Geoffrey Cox MP, the former attorney general, with the use of his office for private purposes and for spending considerable time working for the British Virgin Islands tax haven for which he received £900,000 in fees. Many other MPs were caught up in the second jobs scandal and collectively 90 of them earn around £4m in addition to their MP salaries. This was against a background of stories focusing on sleaze.

It was scarcely surprising therefore that the question which jointly won the vote was ‘Is Britain ceasing to be a democracy?’ The first point to be made was the mismatch between what people want in connection with climate change for example and how this is not reflected in government policy. It was linked to the belief that in a safe seat like Salisbury, one’s vote does not count. It was suggested that the only way to get heard, regrettably, was through direct action: Insulate Britain was instanced and historically, the suffragists who argued peacefully for six decades and only achieved success when they took violent action and were renamed ‘suffragettes’, a disparaging term coined by the Daily Mail.

We were quickly brought up short by the question: ‘have we ever had democracy?’ There is somehow the belief – inherent in the question being debated – that we once had a functioning democracy and now we are somehow losing it. The point was amplified by asking were we being too narrow in our outlook by simply looking at laws and administrative aspects? What about financial matters (highlighted this very week with the revelations about MP’s lobbying and their second jobs) and ownership of the media. If democracy was to mean anything then the lack of democratic control of our print media has also to be addressed. The name ‘Murdoch’ quickly surfaced. Also the presence of so many old Etonians in the current scandals in Westminster. We were also reminded of social media also without any democratic control. The media was in prime position to influence opinion according to the views or prejudices of its – mostly overseas – owners.

Our attention was then drawn to a range of bills currently before parliament which both individually and collectively will have a deleterious effect on democracy. These were the Electoral bill with its plans for photo IDs, the Police and Crime bill, changing the voting system for mayors to FPTP, and the Judicial bill. It was pointed out that the Police and Crime bill would prevent any lawyer from attending a demonstration of any kind. If such a demonstration was declared illegal by the police or Home Office then anyone arrested would be barred from future practice in the law.

The politicisation of appointment boards was also mentioned in particular the Electoral Commission. Someone who recently met John Glen (MP for Salisbury) said he dismissed organisations like the Good Law Project as merely ‘lobbying groups’.

This nibbling away at laws and democratic processes had some parallels with what happened in Germany in the ’30s it was claimed. The Turkish writer Ece Temekuran, the author of How to Lose a Country* was mentioned who discussed the seven steps needed to move from democracy to a dictatorship.

How can we have a democracy when we still have a Royal Family? Also the House of Lords. It was pointed out that many aristocratic families thought highly of Hitler before the war.

The concept of ‘techo-feudalism‘ was mentioned, a concept put forward by Yanis Varoufakis. Essentially, that corporations exert power through oligopolistic behaviours which mimic the feudal power structures in the Middle Ages.

The session ended with a reminder from the chair of the Salisbury Democracy Alliance that we were still trying to secure a Citizens’ Jury in Salisbury. All the political parties with the exception of the Conservatives were in support of the concept.

The second half of the Café discussed the question: ‘is Britain a corrupt country?’ As in the first debate, this was topical not least because it had arisen at Cop 26 in Glasgow this week with the prime minister Boris Johnson saying that ‘the UK is not remotely a corrupt country’ in response to a spate of recent events which suggested that things might be otherwise.

There was no shortage of views on this subject. Some who worked in the NHS said that procurement rules were strict yet the government had largely ignored them during the pandemic. The scandal of Track and Trace was mentioned. We had already discussed lobbying and conflicts of interest. Tax havens were inevitably mentioned with Britain’s leading role in facilitating this activity. ‘Buying’ a seat in the House of Lords – another story to surface this week – the going rate being £3m apparently.

Water Companies and the recent scandal of the pollution of our rivers on a massive scale was brought up. Although they were required to invest in the necessary infrastructure, they preferred to pay the fines and continue to pay dividends rather than meet these obligations. The government seemed reluctant to act – was this a form of corruption?

This week it had emerged that the fossil fuel companies were present in force in Glasgow at the climate conference.

Was ‘corruption’ the right word someone asked? Was it not more about entitlement and ‘these rules don’t apply to me?’ Perhaps, but these beliefs are likely to lead to corruption in any event.

Ministers, senior civil servants and senior military personnel, often retired to take up directorships and consultancies with the very organisations they were dealing with while in office. Transparency International has published a report on what is termed the ‘revolving door’ and articles have appeared in Private Eye from time to time. The scale of this activity is very large and controls almost non-existent. [Two days after this post, an article discussing the scale of the revolving door was published in the Guardian].

It was suggested that more time should be devoted in schools to engage young people in these issues. More time should be spent on obligations in addition to time spent on what their rights were. School assemblies were an opportunity although they were often concerned with school matters and not so much about the wider world. There were classes on citizenship and there are also lessons on PHSE.

Finally, the idea of a return to religious values was put forward. The problem here was which religion and that within some religions there were some fairly extreme beliefs: the denial of Darwin’s evolution theory in some American states because of pressure from evangelicals was an example quoted. Some religion’s active involvement and support for slavery in the nineteenth century was also noted.

Two debates which ranged far and wide. That they were able to do so with so many examples is itself quite shocking. Someone asked ‘are we too tolerant as a nation?’ and it is a legitimate question. Have we become so inured to the failings in our democratic process that we have little faith that things will ever change? Would Owen Paterson and will Geoffrey Cox be turfed out of their safe seats despite their egregious carryings on? Perhaps a religious person at this point might say ‘we can but pray’.

Peter Curbishley

[Updated: 15th November]

*How to Lose a Country: the seven steps from democracy to dictatorship, Ece Temekuran, 2019, Harper Collins.

Next meeting at 10am on 11 December in Brown Street