The Slow Death of Democracy


Thanks to Bill Leak.

For Brits, there’s something redemptive about the voyage to Australia. Convicts, fallen women and even sometimes cricket teams find their luck changed under southern skies, and return as prosperous heroes.

Whether this applies to politicians, and particularly to Tony Blair, depends on the press you read. For the Australian papers, his recent trip was the progress of a world statesman. To the Brits with certain significant exceptions it was an exercise in self-hypnosis.

Special factors do condition this dichotomy. Murdoch, of course, is a War on Terror groupie, and his considerable slice of British print media still casts Blair as civilisation’s rescuer (though The Sun, The Times and the News of the World are less influential than once they were). In Australia, where Murdoch’s presence is overwhelming rather than considerable, pro-Blair cheerleading suffered less interference.

But with all allowances, the cold fact is that the chief British attitude to their Prime Minister is now one of weary contempt. Unlike the overseas audiences he still wows intermittently, they have spent about a generation’s time-span with him, and conclude that deep down he’s shallow.

Aside from Murdoch mercenaries, and housecarls like MPs Alan Milburn and John Reid, Blair’s significant defenders now are specialist political pundits of a liberal or neo-liberal brand. (Neo-cons also, but these are becoming as rare as South African apartheid fans.)

What they are defending is not, in the end, Blair himself, but the present day political game, in which he is the most luminous practitioner since Ronald Reagan’s pioneer-work in the 1980s. They need to defend it because they are part of it.

In 2006, we have mounting evidence from opinion polls and election results that our political system is in deep, potentially very dangerous disrepair. This evidence is becoming increasingly hard to disregard, but instead of examining the problem, blame for the popular disillusionment with politics is increasingly laid on news media malevolence (by John Lloyd, the Financial Times man now Director of Journalism at Oxford University, for example) and/or the Leftist intelligentsia (by Gerard Henderson of the Sydney Institute, for example). Less explicitly, blame falls on the electorate, too inert to recognise the honest striving of its rulers.

In this matter the ‘intelligentsia’ largely, commentators who don’t specialise in politics are distinct because they retain enough operational intelligence to separate messages from messengers. Many pundits can’t, because they now suffer a kind of Stockholm Syndrome the affliction in which hostages develop misplaced affection for their kidnappers. A decisive fraction of the political commentariat, after all, let itself be kidnapped by the promoters of the War on Terror.

Stockholm psychology rests on the human trait that it’s hard to stay skeptical about the people who control your means of daily existence. And pundits typically depend on current political elites for the information or disinformation that allows them to do their job.

Thus they ignore what is plain to journalists whose experience is less particularised; and plainer yet to the fraction disciplined enough to excavate for themselves (think Thomas Delane, Monty Grover, I F Stone, Seymour Hersh, and more recently in Britain, Tony Bevins).

The best recent evidence about the condition of the Western political system is last month’s report of the Power Inquiry into Britain’s democracy. [link:] Its focus was on the United Kingdom, but its findings would be very similar in Australia, not much different in America, and broadly similar in any sophisticated society.

Well financed by the Rowntree Trusts, the Inquiry used a variety of techniques sample surveys, public meetings, solicited evidence, unsolicited evidence, historical analysis and each mapping shows the same phenomenon: icy contempt for mainstream politics and its practitioners. Conscientious citizens, says Helena Kennedy QC, the Inquiry chairman, ‘feel they are eating stones.’ Some conventional politicians admit there’s a problem, she says, but they cannot admit its sheer intensity.

A special value of the report is erasing certain myths neo-Panglossians enjoy. First, apathy is a rare ailment: the Inquiry finds that the British engage in charities, local improvement associations, agitations, protest movements, school managements and self-education quite indefatigably (and it’s unlikely that Australians differ). However, they find it harder and harder to relate such action to the national system that Tony Blair & Co bestride.

Second, the findings also blow apart the idea that news media have degraded an otherwise healthy political process. There is ample dislike of pop tabloids (doing much to explain their failing sales). But the findings square with much earlier evidence for trust in and use of serious news media: unlike the pop market, this is one which persists and grows in spite of the pratfalling talents of its corporate management.

Respondents thoroughly rejected notions that their attitude to the nation’s leaders were moulded by journalistic cynicism: most cynicism they considered their own, and justified by fact.

Briefly, the better people know their elected chieftains, the more they distrust and despise them. This, as Harvard’s Pippa Norris (A Virtuous Circle, 2000), has pointed out, is a process by which increased engagement may eventually lead via anger and disillusion to a disconnection more corrosive than simple apathy.

Defenders of current power the Hendersons, Lloyds, etc imply that discontent is something manufactured by irresponsible intellectuals; that, should the supply be cut off, the population might relax into the happy inertia which is its proper state.

Why the intelligentsia who must have some intelligence should claim things are terrible needs some explanation, and the Henderson one is that they are consumed by self-hatred. Such politico-psychiatry is used also in London: The Independent‘s political columnist Steve Richards says a therapist is needed to explain the fury focussed on Blair by writers who aren’t full-timers in the political game.

Richards is naturally a level-headed character, but one sees the pressure he is under. His newspaper’s formal editorial line is that the Prime Minister is a dishonest and incompetent war-monger, attacking liberties which have survived Charles Stuart, Napoleon, Adolf Hitler and Joe Stalin.

A sub-section of the self-hatred argument is that political critics (‘nattering nabobs of negativism’ as William Safire once called them when acting for Nixon) ignore the present felicity of the world. Martin Kettle of The Guardian has raised this to a high level by saying that critics of the Blair regime fail to see that, ‘The large truth about Britain today is that we are living in unusually good times.’

This is of course true, and most people know it. Post-industrial society shows a stunning ability to solve problems and generate advantages: its inhabitants have lives unprecedented in comfort and duration. And some of this certainly is due to government: a small, feeble thing a century ago now ramified and puissant, but also largely mysterious. Nobody knows why present society works so well; why it still fails dismally in so many places; and how long, if at all, the present advantages can be sustained.

Quite obviously, no one is more ignorant than the politicians claiming to be in control, and their chief present failure may be dissembling their lack of knowledge. Unable genuinely to explain success or failure, they offer extemporisations and, under the pr
essure of events, these morph regularly into lies.

(‘Moral hazard’ is a bankers’ term for addictive reliance on large financial facilities: the equivalent for politicians is reliance on the large communications facilities. As the poet Randall Jarrell observed, when Disraeli or Queen Victoria wanted to tell lies, they had to do it personally; battalions of communicators are ready to do it for John Howard, scarcely waiting to be asked.)

Although the state of contemporary politics is clearly much worse than its orthodox insiders admit and remedies will take a long time to develop and apply a large improvement could be quickly made by disposing of the politicians’ claim to vision, omniscience and conviction, and this may happen automatically in the United Kingdom case.

The British have had two recent magicians Thatcher and Blair promising transformations of society based on highly concentrated personal power and a purportedly omniscient vision of society’s needs. The magic is now perceived, increasingly, as an illusion produced by the leader’s talent for disconnecting from reality: the quality Teflon Ronnie personified.

It is unlikely that another magician can be quickly produced. Indeed, the reason Blair’s Party retains some security in office is that there isn’t another in prospect and it will take some time for Parliament’s machinery to accommodate itself to doing without.

Perhaps the political pundits will then escape from their captors and start getting out a little more.

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