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To club or not to club, Sir Simon

Anthony Barnett
8 August 2008

Anthony Barnett (London,OK): There was a very odd column by Simon Jenkins in Wednesday's Guardian. He says that we don't have democracy, we still have rule by clubland. Especially when it comes to choosing leaders. He is very much in the club in his own way, but writes as if he is quite untouched by this. He ends with these words:

But then all the constitutional reformers in the world will never persuade me that British politics is not stuck irredeemably in the 18th century.

Well hold on a second! He takes a knighthood but the blade has not touched him? Is he saying that "constitutional reformers" are just fiddling because the whole thing needs to be changed? In which case why did he patronise Charter 88 with his silence when its argument was precisely that the UK was stuck in the 18th century and should not be? Or is he saying that we are so "irredeemably" 18th century that there is no point at all in anyone calling for constitutional reforms? In which case why has he been such a consistent and eloqent advocate of localism, local democracy and the need for more elected officials, which is certainly a much needed constitutional reform.

Or take this passage in exasperation:

The failure of Brown to live up to the expectation he aroused just a year ago has nothing to do with his ideas or policies. It is due to his lack of public appeal - in a nutshell to his personality. The thesis, much espoused by Guardian contributors, that Brown has totally changed and thus polluted their constancy of judgment, is ludicrous. Their former presentation - indeed, eulogising - of him was plain wrong.

Well, again, hold on a moment, as I ungrit my teeth. I agree that he and others were right about Brown before he became PM. Jenkin's brilliant Penguin 'Thatcher and Sons' was investigative journalism of a compelling order, setting out how rooted Blair and Brown were in Thatcher's approach, (although its conclusion, calling for localism as a magic bullet, is as feeble as the bulk of the analysis is strong).

Politics is not just about personalities and character as Jenkins asserts. Jenkin's was convinced that Brown could never 'let go', whereas I hoped he would.  And Brown appeared to promise this. It is not that "Guardian contributors" (he means Polly Toynbee and Jonathan Freedland, and to a degree Tim Garton Ash, and I was part of this as non-Guardian) claim that "Brown has changed" and that's why now we oppose him. On the contrary, he promised that he would be a "change" from Blair. Jenkins and, ungritting even louder!, John Lloyd predicted that he wouldn't be. They have been proven right. It does not follow I and others are saying Brown has suddenly altered his character. He said that a national conversation about our democracy should begin. My response was right let's do it! The rest is 42 days.

The main theme of Jenkins article is that our leaders are chosen in a clubland fashion and not democratically. Of course this is true. There should have been an election contest before Brown took the leadership and there must be one now when Brown steps down. Preferably, he should do so as soon as possible so that the Labour Conference can become the venue for the contest.

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