Democracy Café, April

April 2023

Despite it being Easter weekend, we had a good attendance at this meeting in the Library and we were pleased to welcome two new participants. We had two interesting debates and we could well have gone beyond our allotted time.

The first was Is representative government truly democratic? We started with the famous President Lincoln quote of 1863 after the battle of Gettysburg: ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth’. The problem is the combination of representation and democracy, two concepts which do not necessarily fit together. Apparently, it was Robespierre, who met an untimely end, who combined these two ideas. We were also reminded that Plato’s idea of representation was to limit it to those who were capable of reason.

Brexit was an example of representative democracy it was pointed out and the result was it did tie the hands of the government to this decision (for good or ill). This immediately brought up the point that in our electoral system: MPs are representatives of their constituencies, not delegates. But who, it was asked, is being represented? The assumption that it was the ordinary elector is unrealistic. It was the wealthy and corporate interests who really held sway [the debate took place in the week when a Conservative MP was caught in a sting by Times’ reporters offering to sell his services to a fictitious gambling company for a fee of £10,000. This came a fortnight after two ex-ministers were caught in a similar sting].

It was further suggested that the premise was wrong: MPs are selected not elected. The ‘elective dictatorship’ of Lord Hailsham was mentioned. Some have been groomed for some years for senior positions in their parties. This linked to the comment that historically, MPs were older whereas nowadays they had little of no real work experience outside the political milieu. They left university and spent their years in the Westminster environment before becoming an MP.

The general tone of the discussion was a sense of dissatisfaction with our politicians but it was pointed out that a lot of good work was done in parliament – evident if you read Hansard – but this was almost never reported. We only read of the conflicts and scandals.

We moved on to voting and the Australian rule that everyone had to vote. The counter view was that if people don’t want to vote why should they be forced? It was a dilemma. Belgium was mentioned in connection with MPs becoming part of the executive so who then do they represent, their constituents or the government? In that country, if the equivalent of an MP becomes a minister, they resign their seat and and there is a by-election. If they are sacked one assumes they leave the government altogether … [now there’s an idea]. Later, the question of voter apathy was mentioned.

Do people vote for the individual or their policies? Some said the former; some the latter. It was suggested that parliament is a reflection of our views, the collective zeitgeist so to speak. We had a diversion into what Andrew Bridgen MP said in parliament and this link gives the background to that. It concerned claims – since retracted – about the risks and effectiveness of Covid vaccines. The attempt to introduce equal pay for women by Barbara Castle was mentioned where attempts to introduce it were frustrated by what was thought to be the will of the (male?) public. It was suggested that women do now have equal pay. Legislation introduced by Theresa May requiring companies with over 200 employees shows however, that women definitely do not receive equal pay for equal work.

What we know is mediated by the media – a familiar point in these meetings. The necessity for good information was stressed and the need to hold the media to account: the issue of social media was mentioned which is largely unregulated. Inevitably, all information was filtered and imperfect it was noted. Information was about power and the process of infantilization, i.e. keeping us (the public) away from the real decisions by deflecting us towards things that don’t matter was suggested. Different countries had differing approaches and the current unrest in France demonstrated that country’s approach to political change which was often violent. The ‘British don’t go on marches, instead we go on shuffles’.

At several times there was the suggestion that decisions should be made at the lowest level in the political process and in that connection, Flatpack Democracy in Frome was mentioned. A post from 2017 reports on the talk given to the Compass group gives more details.

But back to the question and that the melding of democracy and representation was imperfect and sometimes muddled. It was sort of assumed that they were much the same and as we have debated, who represents us, how they are selected (or elected) and who they actually represent is by no means clear and whether it gives us ‘democracy’ is perhaps to be doubted. The need for a constitution was suggested but this point was not developed.

The fact that Switzerland holds regular referenda was mentioned.

Finally, a Channel 4 programme about a hotel in a village being occupied by asylum seekers was mentioned as a kind of example which reflected some of the points we discussed. A hotel had been block-booked by the Home Office to house a significant number of refugees and asylum seekers. There had been no prior consultation. The village was split: some were hostile some were sympathetic. It shows the problem of democracy in that how do you represent such profoundly different views? Whether it’s representation, a referendum or any other form, there are those who are fierce in their antipathy and those who are not. It wasn’t about what system therefore, it was about people and their attitudes.

Which segues nicely into our second debate which was What are the benefits of Brexit? Well, it has to be said that there were few put forward. The news this week was of long queues at Dover because, it was thought, to be the result of the need to stamp all passports now we have left the EU although this was denied by the government.

One argument was the failure of some banks in Europe in particular Credit Suisse although it was pointed out that Switzerland was not in the EU and some American banks had failed as well. The Swiss bank failed because of mismanagement and it had little to do with the EU. The nonsense of Greece being treated the same fiscally as Germany was mentioned which led to a crisis in that country.

“Now we left the EU we can no longer go on blaming them for everything, now it’s us”.

One profound point was made and that was we can no longer blame the EU for our troubles. We had got into the habit of blaming the EU so now we have left, that excuse is no longer available. Perhaps it was an opportunity for the country to grow up. Governments have always tried to deflect bad news elsewhere to detract from their own failings.

A big benefit for Brexit was said to be sovereignty and the slogan ‘take back control’ was a key rallying cry during the run up to the Referendum. The argument was that we were in hock to ‘unelected European judges’ rather ignoring the fact that European judges are elected and UK ones aren’t. It was quickly pointed out that our decision to leave demonstrated we did have sovereignty. The judicial system is not part of the EU.

Walter Lipman’s quote about the bewildered herd was mentioned again – see the January Café. In that connection the speaker went on to refer to the purchase by JP Morgan of 25 of the most influential newspapers in the US in 1917 in order to influence the decision to get the country to enter the European war then raging. The point being how the media, or more particularly the owners of media, can influence debate, attitudes and decisions in a country.

A lot of subsequent comments focused on the benefits of EU membership and the EU generally. For example, Europe has been riven by wars, certainly since the fifteenth century, including two major world wars and one lasting for almost a hundred years. Yet since the last war, Europe has seen the longest period of peace in a millennia. [Ukraine was not mentioned but that is not a war between two or more European states].

Historically, France had a system of internal tariffs introduced by the ‘July Monarchy’ in 1830 as people moved from region to region. When these were abolished, everyone prospered. Several noted the ability to move around the continent once free movement was introduced (back to the queues at Dover). Free movement and free trade benefited the ordinary people it was suggested.

It seems that some people are beginning to change their minds. The government (even if they wanted to) would find changing theirs extremely difficult. Will we ever be able to have an honest discussion someone asked and perhaps be able to admit we were wrong?

A possible benefit, following the shortages of salads imported from Europe, was an increased interest in self-sufficiency.

And whatever happened to the £350m that we will save by no longer being members of the EU? This had to remain an open question.

There was a brief discussion about the role of the City of London.

Two interesting debates and actually linked in many ways. The need for informed decisions was crucial for good government. When a poorly informed populace elected MPs, some of whom had been selected for them, a media which was partisan, an unregulated social media and a government which was heavily influenced by commercial and corporate interests, it was perhaps a wonder we weren’t in a bigger pickle than we are.

Peter Curbishley

An interesting take on democracy and the Brexit debate is Peter Geoghan’s book Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics, 2020, Head of Zeus Ltd , which is well worth reading.