Something's rotten in the United Kingdom – what do we do about our democracy?

Our political system is ailing: the Brexit revolution showed how susceptible it is to elite takeover, how it is designed to ignore the hopes of the young, and how it fails to provide its public with genuine political options. 

Nick Clegg
1 June 2017

Nick Clegg addresses the Convention on Brexit and the Political Crash.

It’s a delight to be here on a Saturday morning in the middle of possibly the most listless, soulless, and dreary general election campaigns I can ever remember. So the title of our session “what do we do about our democracy?” is very, very timely. I will, in the short time available try and explain to you the three principal crises in our democratic system as I see them and then three possible suggestions about how we can remedy those problems.

So first and foremost I think it is important to be very unblinking, and very candid, in quite how stuck and paralysed British democracy has now become. Let me put it this way, any democratic system relies above and beyond anything else on those in power constantly looking over their shoulder worried that someone else is going to take power away from them. Without competition, democracy is nothing. Without the pendulum swing of electoral contests in which one lot win one election and another lot win another election, democracy is not worthy of the name.

That is what has happened in our country. It is very important to understand that there is no single party, not a single party in British politics, who now on their own can wrest power away from the Conservative Party. It is not a conspiracy; it is perhaps a set of accidents: the dominance in Scottish politics by the SNP has kneecapped the Labour Party; the electoral system flatters the Conservatives, they’ve got this cabal of vested interests in the right wing press that clear their way for them.

Whatever the reasons, the outcome is remorselessly the same. The pendulum of British democracy has just got stuck. No one, no single party, can now compete for power with the present incumbents in Number 10. That’s the first crisis: that the ebb and flow of democratic life in British politics has been arrested and I think it is important to be more candid and blunt in spelling that out.

Secondly, and partly related to that, we have a system which has become very vulnerable to the influence of vested interests, moneyed elites, and unaccountable individuals and organisations who are able to use the peculiarities of our democratic system in the absence of formal checks and balances which generally prevent vested interests, and moneyed elites, from hollowing out politics in other systems. We don’t have a written constitution, we don’t have meaningful checks and balances, we have an electoral system which gives extraordinary centralised power on a minority of the popular vote. Theresa May’s government got barely 24% of the eligible vote at the last general election.

We have a system which has become very vulnerable to the influence of vested interests, moneyed elites, and unaccountable individuals and organisations.

For all of those reasons we are now seeing an encroachment by way of proxy and unaccountable influence of a new Brexit elite who are operating almost like the new puppet masters of British politics and are doing so in a way which is entirely unaccountable, much of it is invisible, and almost all of it is entirely unknown to the British public.

So if you look at the financing of the Brexit campaign it is very striking that some of the richest individuals in this country – almost all of them – almost all, curiously, are men who are working in finance, in one sector of the British economy: folk like Peter Hargreaves, Jeremy Hoskins, Michael Hintze, Stuart Wheeler, Paul Marshall etc.

All of them may be decent individuals but they have acted knowingly or otherwise in an unusually coordinated fashion to mobilise very significant amounts of money derived from one sector in pursuit of one particular ideological objective, which is not only to remove the UK from the EU but, crucially, if you read the musings of these individuals they are all motivated by a hard-line, libertarian, small-state view of the world, that we need to move as a country in order to regain our economic virility, that we need to pursue a small state offshore, so-called ‘Singapore style’ low regulation economy.

You see it in the media: the competitors, some of the principal newspaper owners in this country – the Barclay brothers, Rupert Murdoch (he’s not an owner but he’s clearly a power in his own right), the curdled, zany prejudices of Paul Dacre in the Daily Mail – these are all men, older men, they used to be competitors, but Brexit has acted as a glue to turn them from competitors into a cabal. They’ve created this praetorian guard around the Brexit cause, and around Theresa May, who is now in a sense their perfect prime minister – they have her exactly where they want her, she will do exactly as they instruct.

The media have transformed themselves from vigorous competitors into a cabal that kneecaps any opposition to Brexit.

They have transformed themselves from vigorous competitors into a cabal that kneecaps any opposition to Brexit, discredits and delegitimises – whether it’s the governor of the Bank of England, whether it’s me, whether it’s you, whether it’s the young, whether its pro-European businesses – anyone who speaks now against the trajectory that they want is treated in a coordinated fashion – this is the difference from previous years – to an industrial scale attack.

Then you have increasing evidence that some of the campaign organisations, particularly those that utilised a lot of data that was used in the referendum last year, were funded and organised by Trump supporters from the other side of the Atlantic – Robert Mercer, one of the founders of Breitbart, seems to have played a big role.

We have a democratic system that is stuck. It doesn’t work anymore it is also very susceptible and vulnerable to takeover by unaccountable elites. I think that is one of the curious things about the Brexit revolution – if you look at the eruptions of populism in other countries, if you look at Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Le Pen in France, they were in many ways an eruption, a groundswell of grassroots dissatisfaction, entirely understandable dissatisfaction with the status quo. What is curious in the UK is we have seen the victory of one part of our commercial and media elite getting one over the other part of the elite. It is a curiously British elitist revolution and we need to understand what it is.

And the third and final thing is that we have a political system which is designed to overlook and ignore the aspirations and the needs and the dreams of the young. We have a democracy which is no longer a democracy in the functioning sense of the word, one that is susceptible to elite take over, and one which is wilfully making very big and radical decisions about the future whilst then deliberately and systematically ignoring the wishes of the very people that will inhabit that future, namely the young.

Labour must learn pluralism. If it does that there is hope; if it doesn’t, there is no hope.

So what do we do about it? Firstly, you cannot restore the genius, the elixir, the necessity of competition to the British system without non-Conservative and anti-Brexit forces working more effectively together. I am not talking about any party propping up Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn. By the way, I hope this would weigh on the minds not just about Remain voters, not just on progressive voters, but all voters who care about the quality of British democracy: an opposition-less democracy is rotten.

We have now the very real prospect of a one-party state in Scotland, a one-party state in England in Westminster, and the SNP and Conservatives are ideal foils for each other. The SNP can blame everything on those dastardly Conservatives in Westminster, and the Conservatives in Westminster can blame everything on those terrifying SNP hoards about to flow over Hadrian’s Wall. They did that by the way to devastating effect at the last election two years ago. For any of us who don’t feel that either of those options are the future that we want of – of Scottish Nationalism on the one hand and an increasingly angry UKIP-lite, English nationalism of the Conservative Party on the other.

We are duty bound to work together, and it has to start in the Labour party. The Labour party must understand – and I say this as someone who is entitled to a little schadenfreude about the travails of the ills of the Labour party having been traduced by them so vigorously over half a decade. But I’m not; I am really sad that a once great party of social progress of internationalists and government has become such a spectacularly introvert and self-indulgent political movement.

The Labour party can help renew the progressive cause – but only if they understand what I think many of them get in their heads, but don’t yet feel in their hearts, is that they are not capable –  it is impossible under our electoral system, it is impossible against the vested interests that I have talked about, it is impossible because of the turn in Scottish politics – for Labour to win again. Labour must learn pluralism. If it does that there is hope; if it doesn’t, there is no hope.

Secondly as part of that reinvention of progressive, pluralist politics we must, must, must put the inevitable, often rather arcane, issues surrounding political reform – electoral reform, House of Lords reform, party funding reform – which may fascinate those of us that are gathered here, but bore the majority of the British people, we must put that centre ground. Unless you clean up the way, make more transparent the way parties are funded, unless you ensure that people can’t simply march into Downing St with barely a quarter of the eligible vote, until you open up this increasingly sour, and curdled and unhealthy relationship between the media and political elites in this country, we will continue to make the same mistakes over and over again in recent years.

Political reform, as well as the reorganisation and realignment of the non-Conservative spectrum of centre ground in British politics, is a second vital ingredient to the rebirth of our system of our somewhat tarnished and jaundiced and jaded political system. And third and finally as perhaps not the best to talk about it having blotted my copybook with them in the last parliament but as Ian McEwan and others have said there is something very, very, very wrong when a mature democracy makes a decision which represents such a radical and abrupt, and in my view damaging and self-harming departure from our post-war past and does this against the explicit stated wishes in the ballot box of those who actually have to inhabit that future and pay the consequences. That, in my book, is simply in the long run unsustainable. And the youth must, must mobilise and make their voice heard, and say what is happening to our country now is not happening in their name.

For every action in politics, there is always a reaction. The thing we must fear more than anything is passivity, is cynicism, is hopelessness, complete disempowerment.

I will end with one gloomy message which is that I think that our democratic system is now in greater peril and in greater crisis than any time in my lifetime. And I believe that if you read the history books in a greater state of disrepair than in any time of post-war period. But doesn’t mean that it is going to carry on, for every action in politics there is always a reaction. The thing we must fear more than anything is passivity, is cynicism, is hopelessness, complete disempowerment. It is genuinely in our hands to do something about this. The parties on the centre left need to understand that they need to reach out to each other. We must clean up and reform the political system ourselves and we must give the young their rightful voice back in the centre of our wonderful country’s political life.

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