An Age of Anger: The London Review of Books and the British Crisis of Democracy

The British system of government and politics might be in endemic crisis, but it is not a golden era for radicals. According to 'The London Review of Books' the state of British politics is nothing to get excited about, and all small beer compared to the serious, cosmopolitan and worldly issues it focuses its attention on to.
Gerry Hassan
7 March 2010

The current crisis of the British state, politics and democracy should be a golden moment for radicals, constitutional reformers and campaigners. It should also be an era in which left and liberal publications have the opportunity to engage and involve a wider audience about the state of the nation and democracy.

One of those publications is the London Review of Books, which sees itself as urbane, cosmopolitan, liberal minded, addressing British concerns and global issues in a challenging and open-minded way. In particular, LRB has made a name for itself addressing such issues as the nature of the Israeli state and power of the Israel lobby, which most mainstream media would not touch. It is all the more interesting that the one area in which it has consistently failed to find an authentic radical voice is in its coverage of contemporary British politics.

LRB’s coverage of British politics often entails what are presented as thoughtful essays by Ross McKibbon, but there is always something missing in them, a lack of forensic detail, or more acutely, what case the analysis presented is meant to be building towards. Most pieces on Britain feel like a liberal dinner table conversation of the sort you would find parodied on ‘Bremner, Bird and Fortune’.

Then along comes a piece which excels in going well beyond this bar in missing the main arguments. So it is with Peter Mair’s ‘The Parliamentary Peloton (subscribers only)’, a supposed review of Martin Bell’s ‘A Very British Revolution’. Mair is an Irish-born academic who works in Florence, Italy, who uses some of his European wide experience to tell us that while everything is not all well in the British body politic, it is in reality a comparative fuss over nothing.

We get a mini-Oliver James like short tour of Mair’s globetrotting speaking to students and ear wigging conversations. He draws on the work of Transparency International, putting in its latest rankings New Zealand first in the world, Denmark second and Singapore third. After acknowledging that scandals can be found even in ‘a model of good governance’ such as the Netherlands (no. 6 in the ratings), Mair writes:

By most standards, the levels of corruption exposed by the expenses scandal in the UK (in joint 17th place, with Japan) are relatively modest.

Mair leaves untouched that the UK along with Norway has fallen down its rankings in recent years, and that the Transparency International Index is only one measurement, and a narrow one addressing ‘perceived levels of public sector corruption’. Nor does he acknowledge wider measures such as the Democracy Index, in which the UK and US have fallen due to enacting legislation and regulation associated with ‘the war on terror’.

In the space of two sentences Mair writes of MPs that, ‘Nor is the job very well paid’ and then concedes that with expenses and allowances, ‘MPs fare among the top earners in the country’. Mair’s sentiment is in the first point, as he parades a number of examples to show how relatively ungenerous our parliamentary remuneration is, and then states about MPs:

… since they spend most of their time mixing with the great and the good, and with ministers, financiers, journalists and TV personalities, all of whom earn substantially more than they do, it is easy to understand their sense of relative deprivation.

This is special pleading for an elite by establishing normative values elite by elite, the doggy, disastrous thinking which has got the UK and the world in the economic mess it is in. This thinking is always about the super-remunerated examples in each group as in the telling phrase, ‘all of whom earn substantially more’, thus making a general case out of the examples of a tiny group of journalists, TV personalities, etc.

While we can acknowledge the lack of ‘secure’ employment for some MPs, most British parliamentary seats never change hands, and our politicians have much more security than many of their constituents. Mair never mentions that the mean wage in Britain is a mere £23,000, one-third of MP pay.

He talks with a shade of wistfulness of a ‘distant past’ when ‘the profession of politics and MPs had more status and the salary had more purchasing power’. He quotes from research showing that post-war Conservative MPs accumulated more wealth from outside interests than Labour ones; surely a case of academic research on the ‘bloody obvious’.

This is a build up to Mair’s take on the expenses scandal, which he introduces by acknowledging that some of the financial figures involved are quite large, but then goes on to say about the disgraced politicians of this sorry episode:

… the long term cost of losing office will in most cases outweigh any short-term gains.

He then uses examples from the previous age of Tory sleaze, Neil Hamilton who gained £10,000 from Mobil and a week at the Paris Ritz, and Tim Smith, who received payments of between £18,000 and £23,000 from al-Fayed, and as a result of their short-term greed, lost their parliamentary careers, status and monies. I am not sure what point Mair is trying to make here. Parliamentary corruption clearly isn’t always an objective, dispassionate accounting equation, and if the MPs had got away with it they would have kept all their parliamentary rights and pocketed the extra monies.

Then comes Mair’s clarion call on the above:

In this sense, and for all Bell’s righteous anger, British MPs seem relatively uncorrupt.

Ecclestone and cash for honours are recognised as serious and then comes the qualification:

But these cases are few and far between, and it is easy to find more serious instances of corruption and electoral manipulation in Europe.

Mair brings out the example of Italy and the ad personam laws used to protect Berlusconi from prosecution, and the rise of a partisan, rotten political system and a populist, manipulated democracy. This is a strange kind of analysis, which excuses the inadequacies and fraudulent character of the British system by citing the most flawed state and politics in Western Europe. And of course, there are similarities between Berlusconi’s ‘vision’ and that of the Blairites.

It was no accident that Tony and Silvio were best buddies, and they both saw their political parties and systems as vehicles for their advancement and placing their nations at the forefront of a new age of accumulation, inequality and pro-Americanism. Paradoxically, while Berlusconi seems the more objectionable, reactionary figure, he has had only limited impact in much of Italian domestic politics, whereas Blair and Brown, comprehensively recast British politics and in particular, the Labour Party (and through its success the Cameroon Conservatives).

There is another interesting passage in this piece when Mair writes:

The UK has generously provisioned local parliaments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Apart from the terminology of ‘local parliaments’ when we have one Parliament and two Assemblies, there is the phrase ‘generously provisioned’ which shows little understanding of devolution. Little powers have been transferred from Westminster to the devolved bodies – the ending of direct rule apart. Scottish and Welsh devolution gave a democratic scrutiny to powers that were already devolved.

What is missing in Mair’s extended essay is any recognition or understanding of the transformation Britain has underwent in the last thirty years. Nowhere in this essay of several thousand words, does Mair pause and address how and what the British state has become and how a political order which was known for its gentlemanly clubland rules with all the pros and cons that implies, has become a vanguard of the new establishment and class.

Mair does note the hollowing out of our political parties, and the professionalisation and privatisation of many of their activities. Yet, this is never put in the wider context, of what our politics has become about, what the realm of the possible has evolved into, and how the values, codes and behaviour of politicians, civil service and Westminster have become corrupted.

The expenses crisis in the UK, which Mair so belittles and diminishes, has to be placed in the context of the economic transformation of Britain, with rights, benefits and supports to millions of people withdrawn, made conditional, or cut, while parliamentarians created a self-protection system for themselves. While they diminished and made more punitive the welfare state, in secret, they built and allocated the funds for their own private parallel system of support; this isn’t that far from the actions of a nomenclature in a dictatorship or authoritarian regime.

The role of politicians, civil servants and the Westminster village has been changed by the Thatcher and Blair eras. Once upon a time politicians took great pride from the fact that they never stole from the state and had an air of being above being bought. Civil servants had a code of behaviour which while stuffy, ossifying and resistant to new ideas or groups, did give Britain a culture of statecraft.

The new political environment has changed all of this for good. Politicians are commodities just like everything else in life. The civil service is now filled with new entrants from the corporate world at a senior level and the last decade has seen the heart of government including No. 10 filled with people from Accenture and McKinsey. There is now a lack of continuity in senior posts with only 23% of senior civil servants having been in their posts for four years or more, with an average time in post of only 2.9 years, resulting in a ‘limited remembrance’ of the past and ‘hazy organisational memory’.

This leads to a situation Steve Robson, then a Treasury official, who had guided through British Rail and London Underground privatisation, in evidence to the House of Commons Public Administration Committee commented:

… the public sector ethos is a bit of a fantasy, it is rather like middle-aged men, who fantasise that beautiful, young women find them very attractive. (Anthony Sampson, Who Runs this Place? An Anatomy of Britain in the 21st Century, John Murray 2004, p. 120)

Surprisingly when he left government, Robson like many of the new mandarins found himself a pile of lucrative corporate directorships including Royal Bank of Scotland and JP Morgan; Andrew Turnbull, Head of the Civil Service before Gus O’Donnell took up directorships with the Arup Group and Prudential along with paid advice work with Booz and Co.

This new culture is shaped by money, deals, status and not surprisingly corruption and manipulation of the democratic process. From cash for honours, to Lord Ashcroft’s role in the Conservatives while his tax status is unclear, BAE Systems and the Saudi connections, the disastrous story of PFI/PPP and the debts it will inflict on us for decades to come, the British state and polity now operates in the interests of the globalising class, its networks and apologists. No political force in the British Parliament sits and speaks outside this consensus, and gives voice to a different set of values.

It is a shame that Peter Mair didn’t get any of this, instead spending three pages of the ‘London Review of Books’ to tell us that the UK isn’t as bad as Italy, and that Martin Bell and others worried and anxious about the state of democracy, need not get so animated. That’s hardly a message worthy of a journal that sees its mission as enlightenment, education and aiding an informed, active citizenry. There surely never has been a better time to get angry, whether you are in Britain, Italy or elsewhere.

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