Democracy. It is a Greek word. The word is the conjunction of “dêmos”, meaning “people”, and “krátos”, meaning rule. The word has been around for a long time, as has the problems associated with running a democracy. A quick look back at history shows that Britain’s little crisis of confidence about the corruption of its rulers is nothing new.
Hundreds of years before Christ was born, the ancient Greeks were experimenting with lots of different ways to govern their multitudinous city-states. In order to study them, the philosopher Aristotle decided to sort these varied governments within a consistent schema. To do so, he devised a categorization that still puts democracy into context. Aristotle divided constitutions based on whether the state was ruled by one person, was ruled by a few people, or was ruled by many people. He also divided them between their pure forms, where the goal is the common good, and their perverted forms, where the goal is to benefit some at the cost of others. Most elected politicians (especially from the US) love to harp on about the joys and benefits of democracy. I suppose they would – they did get elected after all. Aristotle, however, was far from a cheerleader for democracy. He ranked the constitutions, from best to worst, as follows:
1. Pure government of one person (“monarchy”)
2. Pure government of a few (“aristocracy”)
3. Pure government of many people (“polity”)
4. Perverted government of many people (“democracy”)
5. Perverted government of a few (“oligarchy”)
6. Perverted government of one person (“tyranny”)
Aristotle was no misty-eyed sentimentalist. Whilst one good person, if given free reign to rule, might do the best job of all, Aristotle also recognized the danger that an autocrat could end up becoming the most diabolical despot. By the same token, whilst a good government by the many would be less free to act, and do less good than other forms of government, it would also be less bad when it went wrong. The restrictions placed on a government of the people by its need to maintain popular support does as much to inhibit its freedom to do good as it inhibits its freedom to do ill. I believe Winston Churchill was alluding to Aristotle’s idea of democracy being the “least worst” when he famously said:
Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.
Winston Churchill, Speech in the House of Commons, The Official Report, House of Commons (5th Series), 11 November 1947, vol. 444, cc. 206–07.
British democracy is in a malaise. It is not hard to tell when British politics is in trouble, because normal people start talking about it. The point was rammed home amidst the early evening chat of the BBC’s The One Show. The affable Adrian Chiles was joined by Henry Winkler. Or perhaps I should say Chiles was joined by Henry Fonz-Winkler. Winkler should consider changing his name to ‘The Fonz’ given how often they called him that, though he stopped playing the character of The Fonz when the TV run of Happy Days was canceled twenty-five years ago. For those that cannot understand the difference, I included this photograph of Winkler as The Fonz to confuse you further. Everybody else can keep reading. Presumably Winkler has done other things in the last quarter of a century, though I dread to think how many involved saying “hey!” whilst giving a thumbs up. Co-star Ron Howard (‘Richie Cunningham’) directs proper films and even Anson ‘Potsie’ Williams directs TV, so Winkler really should move on. He got his chance to do just that when Chiles asked him what he thought of the current political crisis in Britain. Yep, Chiles asked the The Fonz to comment on greedy British politicians fiddling their expenses. That goes beyond taking politics into the mainstream. It takes politics through the mainstream and carts it out the other side again. If Brits are asking American TV stars from the 1970’s what to do about MP’s expenses, the British democracy must have really come off the rails.
Like so many others, I share the current feeling that there is something rotten in the state of British democracy. The last time I felt this way about politics was during the 1997 election campaign. Lest we forget, that was the campaign that swept out a seemingly corrupt bunch of Tories who had been in power for well over a decade. In came shiny new Labour. A decade later, and it feels to me like so little has changed.
During the 1997 campaign, I was, like so many people, angry at the perceived corruption of Britain’s rulers. On one evening, I got so irate at the scaremongering tactics of one Conservative election poster that I literally ripped it down with my bare hands. It was the ‘Tony and Bill’ poster for those who remember such things – a picture of Tony Blair alongside a bill for £20bn in increased taxes. Those were the days when £20bn seemed like a lot of money. Now the government borrows that amount every week. But I digress. It offended me to see propaganda, seemingly from a gang too busy raping the country to think of a single positive reason to vote for them instead of against their opponents. The hoarding was on a very public street in Battersea, near the inaccurately named Clapham Junction train station. At about 3am in the morning, and still only partway through a disastrous journey home, I allowed my frustrations with the underinvestment in public infrastructure to pour out. When I write that I destroyed it, bear in mind that this was no small poster like you might find in a teenager’s bedroom. The hoarding was a full eight metres by three metres, the kind you can see a mile away. The location must have cost the Conservative party several thousand pounds to rent. Had I been caught, I would undoubtedly have suffered a severe penalty for my unilateral and rather negative contribution to political debate.
I am doubtful about whether I should share the story of my electioneering sabotage now, a full twelve years later. There must still be a small possibility that I will suffer as a result, hounded like a politician who once stuck a spliff in his mouth but insists he never inhaled. Anyhow, I confess. I did it. Better still, I did what today’s fiddling MP’s failed to do. I got away with it. In hindsight, I should never have been able to get away it. If the red mist had not descended, I would certainly have considered my chances of escape from punishment to be slight, at best. Apart from the very late hour, there is every reason why I should have been caught. To begin with, we are talking about a public street in London, the kind of place where it makes sense to have huge billboards aimed at people driving past or walking to the train station. Then, it took a full hour to tear the blasted thing down. Imagine peeling the label from a jar. You pull one tiny shred for a few centimetres, it tears, you do the same thing again. Repeat and scale up for a space which is eight metres wide and three metres high. On top of that, I did not have a ladder with me. For obvious reasons I started at the bottom, but after a while I was unable to reach the higher parts of the poster. That did not stop me. Fortunately, directly beneath the billboard there was one of those peculiar electrical junction boxes you find on some London streets and which I assume are put there for easy access to the circuits for the local neighbourhood. I climbed up on the box, precariously balancing on it and, near the end, sometimes jumping up to get the final few remnants of the tattered billboard. Had anyone called the police, I would have been easy enough to identify. I was dressed in a business suit, which I was still wearing after a long day’s work. As well as committing a crime, I could easily have been the victim of a crime, with my work laptop left sitting in its bag at the base of the junction box whilst I did my handiwork. Doubtless these days I would be recorded on a CCTV camera, but on that night, it would be up to somebody in the public to report the crime to the Police. Nobody did, or if they did, the Police did nothing about it. None of the seven or eight people who walked by on the street remonstrated with me, though I got some approving nods. Nobody on the buses that drove past shouted that I should stop, but I did sometimes get a cheer. I guess all those witnesses to my crime were either indifferent, or supportive, of my peculiar solo attack on the British political system. Given the current mood of the British public, I imagine that performing a similar act of vandalism today might just garner even more encouragement. Or maybe it is just that people awake at that hour are more inclined to hate the government.
Despicable as many British MPs are, I am loathe to do what I did that night and ascribe corruption to one side over another. The problem is not that one party is especially corrupt, although obviously some excesses are worse than others and it is simple-minded to brand all as equally contemptible. The problem is not even that politicians are especially corrupt compared to any other group in our society. The problem is that, by and large, across all walks of life and all jobs, everybody is corrupt. Public outrage with MPs is fueled not by the belief that MPs are going to be better than anybody else. The public is already far too cynical for that. An MP is as likely as the rest of us to say nothing when handed too much change at the corner shop, and we all know it. Public outrage is fueled by the recognition that whilst the rest of us must answer to our rulers, our rulers seemingly answer to no-one but themselves. There should be no surprise in that. The British constitution has always been like that. The elite that makes the rules are the elite that makes the rules. You cannot then ask for yet another elite to sit above them and impose rules upon the elite. The only power that sits above the elite is the dêmos – all of the people, acting collectively. If our rulers are corrupt, it is in part the fault of the people who picked them. As Joseph Marie de Maistre wrote:
“Toute nation a le gouvernement qu’elle merite.”
(“Every country has the government it deserves”)
Lettres et Opuscules Inedits, (1851) vol. I, letter 53, 15 August 1811
We picked them. There is no point blaming our representatives for being corrupt, if we do not also point the finger of blame at the people who selected them. Asking for somebody ‘independent’ to regulate, scrutinize, or stop politicians from being corrupt is the answer of a simpleton. That is like asking for a King to control the politicians, and then who gets to pick the King? What stops someone ‘independent’ from being corrupt too? Everybody’s position in society depends on something or someone else to some extent. However bad the current crop of British politicians are, their freedom to act corruptly is limited to the extent that the public act effectively to limit it. As a consequence, we have seen all sorts of truly depressing displays in recent weeks, as politicians fall over themselves to ‘win back the trust’ they lost by being caught out as filthy cheats. The ignobility of the British politician reached its nadir with Hazel Blears, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, going on TV and brandishing a cheque for £13,332 that she intended to pay back to the public purse. What next? When I am next in Tesco’s, will I be expected to applaud the shoplifter who voluntarily returns the tin of tuna he stole? Are we all expected to start thanking the tax evaders who give up more easily than others?
Let us make an example of Hazel Blears, in more than one sense. To begin with, who picks her and who says she should be in Parliament? In theory, that would be the constituency of Salford, in Greater Manchester, which she has represented since that landslide Labour victory in 1997. That is twelve years being paid to do the same thing – not bad job security in this day and age. At the last election she won 13,007 votes out of a total of 22,600 that were cast. That equals 57.6% of the vote. Her victory margin was down from the previous election, which was itself down on her 1997 result. Even so, the second place candidate from the Lib Dems would have needed to more than double his 5,062 votes in order to better Blears. At the last general election, 35% of the people who could have voted in Salford made the effort to do so. In other words, about 13,000 people decided to put Hazel Blears into a position of public trust which she used to swindle herself £13,000, until she was eventually caught out. That works out at one pound she attempted to pocket for every vote she got. Another 40,000 voters in Salford could have intervened and picked somebody more honest – but they had better things to do that day.
Hazel Blears has good job security, but she has a way to go before she enjoys the longevity of the predecessor in her constituency. Stanley Orme was a Labour MP from 1964 to 1997. He always represented seats in Salford, moving between them as boundaries were redrawn. Like other party political careerists, including Hazel Blears, he started out by fighting a constituency he did not win. Having proven his worth and commitment he was then given a constituency he would win, and kept being given constituencies he would win. But who gave him these constituencies? It was not the voter. The voter’s only involvement in Stanley Orme’s career, just as with Hazel Blear’s career, is to keep voting for the same party election after election. By picking the same party over and over, they hand over responsibility to the real unelected elite that controls, or fails to control, corruption in our rulers: the local constituency parties in safe seats. If all the voter does is to pick the same political colour – red or blue – without fail, at every election, they abrogate their control over the quality of our rulers. No wonder we then find our rulers are corrupt. Most of them have never answered to voters. They answer to the people in the political party who select them and control their career. The voters have long since abdicated any responsibility by playing the most moronic part of all in this democratic pantomime – by cheering the hero (whoever is dressed in the right colour) and booing the baddie (whoever comes dressed in other colours). Hazel Blears, like every other corrupt product of party politics, paid her dues to the Labour party and got her reward accordingly.
This corruption is nothing new, and it is inherent in the system, not a specific party. What goes around, comes around, and has been doing so for a long time. The first parliamentary election fought by Hazel Blears – the mandatory allocation of an unwinnable seat to first prove her commitment to the Labour Party – was the safe Conservative constituency of Tatton. In that election, in 1987, she came third, with a modest 21.3% of the vote. The winner, backed by 54.6% of the voters in that constituency, was Neil Hamilton, the man who came to epitomize Tory corruption in the 1990’s.
Political parties are corrupt, and necessarily so. They hand out power based on favours and the advantage of its members and representatives, not the good of the people. Borrowing from Aristotle’s schema, they must necessarily be impure, as the can only exist if they give advantage to their group over other groups in society. If they did not do that, they would be unsustainable. Voters know that, and for the most part, they go along with it. Instead of backing the candidate that might do best for the common good, voters consistently select the party they perceive would favour their interests over the interests of others in society. It is a stable system and it is a corrupt system, so we should hardly be surprised if it tends to encourage other forms of corruption like the abuse of expense claims.
On the bright side, corruption in Britain is not so bad. That British MPs have cheated thousands of pounds of expenses is hardly on a scale with Vladimir Putin controlling the media in Russia, Robert Mugabe beating and killing his opponents in Zimbabwe, Wen Jiabao terrorizing those families that blame corruption for the schools that collapsed in the Sichuan earthquake, or even the never-ending circus of scandal that surrounds Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi. Perhaps Brits should pat themselves on the back. Maybe it is their high standards and low tolerance for corruption that has kept our British politicians in check. Even in the safe Tory seat of Tatton, Neil Hamilton was eventually booted out thanks to the collective disgust of the voter and the candidacy of news journalist Martin Bell. Perhaps the voters of Salford will teach Hazel Blears a lesson too, despite her desperate attempt to win back favour. But we could have it better still, if only we were better at selecting who runs the nation. But how might we do that? I have some suggestions. One of them comes from the Ancient Greeks. I will share more in the next post.