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Leader comment: Bystanders as democracy is whittled away

02 September 2022

THIS summer has been an extraordinary episode in British politics. That it comes after a succession of extraordinary episodes makes it more worrying, not less. A sitting Prime Minister, whose popularity appears to have grown since his pledge to stop governing. Two candidates to succeed him, both of whom have subscribed to the Tony Blair policy of throwing out policy ideas and seeing which ones stick. The vast majority of the electorate as bystanders, able only to signal problems via freelance champions such as Martin Lewis or through industrial action. And the arbiters of all this: the small number of paid-up members of the Conservative Party, the majority of whom, we are told, favour solutions to those problems which are ever more right-wing and ever less grounded in economic reality.

At the Greenbelt Festival at the weekend, one of the sessions considered the future of democracy. It was a topic that, even five years ago, would have struggled to find a slot or an audience. As it was, hundreds listened as Paul Mason, a former BBC economics editor, Caroline Lucas MP, and Rowan Williams expressed their anxiety about the vacuum that populists and neo-fascists are very happy to fill. In his 2021 book How to Stop Fascism, Mason lists its current belief system: “that majority ethnic groups have become ‘victims’ of migration and multiculturalism; that the gains of feminism should be reversed; that democracy is dispensable; that science, universities and the media cannot be trusted; that nations have lost their way and need to become ‘great’ again; and that there will soon be a cataclysmic event which sets things right.” He continues: “Every fascist believes all of this and more; every right-wing populist voter now believes some of it.”

Ms Lucas listed some of the anti-democratic measures that have followed the illegal proroguing of Parliament in 2019 and the undermining of the judiciary, including the requirement for photo ID at future elections (“solving the problem of voter-fraud that doesn’t exist”); the rewriting of human-rights legislation, and the anti-protest provisions in the Policing Act. The erosion of democracy was “happening under our noses”, she said. Lord Williams had reservations about democracy and its tendency to slip into majoritarianism, but he said: “Every human subject has the right to have their voice heard with respect, to be nurtured and not crushed or censored,” and nobody had worked out a better way of doing this than democracy.

Lord Williams advocated devolution as a solution to dysfunctional Westminster rule — or, rather, re-devolution, since many of the powers needed by local government to deliver essential services had once been theirs. There is little hope that this will happen in the near future, as the successful prime-ministerial candidate sets out next week to live up to the Saviour of the World image that they have projected during the campaign. Perhaps conditions in the UK will have to worsen before there is any serious suggestion of the devolving of powers. National politicians have shown themselves unwilling to share praise; when it comes to blame, they may turn out to be more open-handed.

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