Democracy Cafe – October

The cafe resumes after a hiatus following the Queen’s death. Two topics were discussed

Following the death of the Queen last month, Prince Charles became King Charles III and this resulted in the first topic: Do we need a king? Closely related, was the news that the King would not be going to Egypt for the next COP conference, because it was claimed, 10 Downing Street did not want him to.

So, do we need a king? The case against centred on a number of objections. Firstly, that someone should not be appointed solely on the basis of inheritance, and not by a form of selection. Secondly, it is often claimed by those in favour of a monarchy, that one of the benefits is that it brings in lots of revenue, especially from tourists, however, as far as anyone was aware, no proper cost benefit analysis has been done to demonstrate this point. The point was made that the argument was back to front in any event: we do not create an institution of this nature for the benefit of tourism. The House of Lords should also be based on some kind of appointment system not on inheritance (it is partly that now).

The Queen, and now King Charles, enjoy considerable influence often exercised behind closed doors. The issue of Prince Charles’s ‘spider memos’ to Ministers has been mentioned in previous meetings and it took a huge and prolonged struggle for some of these to be made available and published. Recent revelations have shown the royal family’s interference in parliamentary bills to protect their financial and other interests. The prince’s alleged role in ending in the tenure of Prof. Edzard Ernst’s role at Exeter University because he criticised the prince’s championing homeopathy was also quoted. It was also noted that the Queen failed to act when Boris Johnson when prime minister, wanted – illegally as it turned out – to prorogue parliament. The BBC came in for criticism for not investigating these and other matters: it was suggested that they were too frightened to. In addition to the monarchy itself, there was a huge retinue of people and sycophants whose future depended on them.

In addition to being our royal family, the King was now head of the Commonwealth although it is not a hereditary position. The Queen ‘championed’ Prince Charles’s (as he then was) appointment to overcome alternative suggestions for an alternative head.

These remarks prompted the question ‘do we need a head of state and what is the role for?’ I am not sure we progressed this fundamental question much further. We are hard-wired to need leaders it was suggested – an interesting point.

Another point was that the monarchy was the tip of an iceberg under which was a pyramid of privilege. Aside from the Lords, there was Eton and other ‘posh’ schools, grammar schools all of which played a part in cementing privilege and advantage in our society. But how to replace them? A meritocracy? This led to a mention of democracy and was it that perfect? We had to reckon with the fact that a series of unsatisfactory individuals have been voted into parliament. We might rail at the incompetence or manifest inadequacy of several ministers, but they were there because we put them there.

Back to King Charles and the Cop27 in Egypt to which the government is reluctant to allow him to go. The problem is that his views on the environment are well known and his presence there will have political significance and the King is now said to be keen to be seen to be neutral. The other point is that we may well support his presence in Egypt because we applaud and support his views on the question of the environment. But if we support him in that, how can we object to some of his other views such as his somewhat doubtful opinions on education and as we have mentioned, his dotty views on homeopathy.

Perhaps it was a pity that there were no monarchists present in the debate to promote their cause and the continuation of the status quo.

Part two was on the question ‘is neoliberalism dead?’ inspired by the recent non-budget by the Chancellor and the speech by Liz Truss at the Conservative party conference in Birmingham. This belief, basically around the idea of a small state, low taxes and reduced regimes of regulation saw the light of day in the Thatcher/Reagan years but it was assumed it had largely died at the time of the financial crash. Yet here it was, live and well, at the party conference.

Some thought it was dead. They felt that although there were some ideologues around, the general public has moved on. More were in favour today of government intervention. Some were even happy with higher taxes and were keen to see some of the poorly performing utilities renationalised – the water companies most obviously. The negative reaction to the budget was also heartening some thought. It would seem the government was out of touch with what people were thinking.

The debate moved on to more economic considerations and one of the long-identified problems of the British economy – short-termism and the unavailability of long-term risk capital – a problem identified by Macmillan when Chancellor before the war. Could the ‘green new deal’ replace neoliberalism and see greater investment in the economy by the state? Perhaps this could be linked to more localism. Green ideas were popular with the young it was noted.

One of the ideas to re-emerge recently was that of trickle down. This was behind the proposals to reduce taxes on the rich (subsequently abandoned) and the ending of controls over bankers’ bonuses. The idea was that the more wealth created, the more it ‘trickled down’ through the economy for the benefit of all. The problem is it didn’t work. It merely increases income inequality. The wealthy don’t spend all their wealth and are able to afford sophisticated tax advice to enable them to protect it, to avoid taxation and for it to be moved offshore. A more useful concept was trickle up since the middle classes and below spend a higher proportion of their income thus benefiting the economy. We briefly touched on the circulation of money at this point.

We touched on issues such as the creation of money, the Thatcher era ideas from Milton Friedman of the Chicago school which argued all you needed to do was control the money supply an idea which so divided the party at the time. It was clear there was a lot of ignorance around and pointed to the need for better education of the public. Politicians were able to come up with hare brained ideas and get elected largely because so many did not understand how the economy worked.

Peter Curbishley