Book Review: How Democracies Die

I picked up this slim volume last year in the midst of political crisis in the UK with an increasingly minority government sacking large numbers of ministers and MPs from its own party ranks, and thereby stymied on the main issue of the day – itself, of course, emblematic of a democracy that had been hijacked. It was, of course, eventually (and inexplicably) released from the pegs on which it was so expertly hanging itself and the rest is now history. Vote in haste; repent at leisure, we might think, not least when confronted with a government of all the talents featuring Matt ‘Telegraph’ Hancock in charge of health and Chris ‘ferries’ Grayling in charge of the, er, Commons Intelligence Committee.

My purchase was to try and come to some form of understanding of the threats to a mature democracy and, perhaps, the myriad links between them. This book – for all its scholarly nature (one-quarter of it is endnotes) – really isn’t the tool for this since, for all the generic nature of the title, the authors’ concern is not democracy in general but democracy in the US: the book’s focus is the US constitution and party system and the checks and balances these offer (or not) against the slide into authoritarianism. Particularly, therefore, the authors – both Harvard professors – are concerned with whether US democracy can survive Donald Trump; the authors are not certain that it can and, indeed, wisely observe that it is vulnerable to the same pathologies that have killed democracy elsewhere. When demagogues are in charge, how could it not be?

Now, ‘The fate of the great United States/ [Might well be] entwined in the fate of us all’ but, not being a particular expert on the US political system, I’m not that well placed to comment on the detail of the authors’ policy prescription given that this is substantially concerned with the US political system. (I do know a man who is, though.)

Given events in the UK, I was, however, attracted by the thought that polarisation is the main problem in the US and that, unless leaders find a way of addressing that issue, ‘democracy will die’ (p. 222). The drivers of polarisation in the US – religious and racial realignment and economic inequality – might be different to those in the UK (although clearly economic inequality needs to be tackled here, too) but we do of course have a highly polarised society in the wake of Brexit. Just how much this continues to affect UK democracy is as yet unknown but, given that Brexit is driving fresh support for the independence movement in Scotland, while the position of Northern Ireland remains uncertain given the government’s apparent lack of scruple over playing fast and loose with the Good Friday Agreement, it is likely to do so for some time to come. A government whose response to crisis is to go absent and, otherwise, to give every sign of making it up as it goes along is singularly ill-equipped to undertake the ‘healing’ that a polarised society requires.

Brexit and Trump are, of course, inextricably linked in terms of rationales which explain the respective votes, the connections between Trump and Farage, and the financing of Brexit promoters in the UK and of Donald Trump by the Koch brothers and Robert Mercer. Brexit and Trump are, in both cases, the illegitimate offspring of climate change denialists and, for all that the ‘Russia Report’ does need to be released, the main failing of democracy in respect of Brexit is the extent to which Leave campaigns were funded by foreign interests. Further, there are parallels between the Tea Party in the US and the Brexit Party in the UK – and their implications for hollowed-out party organisation of the Republican Party, detailed by Levitsky and Ziblatt, and of the Conservative Party in Britain.

The main concern for Levitsky and Ziblatt is party organisation and the health and vitality of US political parties and the party political process. The authors do incorporate the issue of right-wing and partisan media and they also look at the impact of non-party campaigns, such as Americans for Tax Freedom and Americans for Prosperity (Koch vehicles, both) – and there are parallels in the UK here, too – but the focus is the potential for the takeover of moribund party organisations by extremists.

But, of course, democracies are more than just about political parties. Democracies also die when people no longer feel that their voices are being heard (and that’s as true where mass, peaceful street protests, from the Iraq War to anti-Brexit in the UK’s recent history, have little discernible impact on the political process) and where people’s democratic participation becomes limited to doing no more than casting a vote in a ballot box every so often. Citizens’ assemblies, currently one of the demands of Extinction Rebellion, have some things to offer here. Levitsky and Ziblatt don’t deal with this particular threat and neither do they include in their analysis the threat posed, in a global world, to nation state democracies by internationally-led campaigns of misinformation whose aim is to distort the political process – back, coincidentally, in the news today – and the pervasive, intrusive power of Facebook (made all the more threatening by its apparently neutral, ‘technical’ face). If democracy is all about ‘government by the people’ – and clearly it quite literally is – then international interests funding the operations of domestic campaigns and providing misinformation and misdirection represents a clear threat to those democracies and, therefore, a clear potential source of democratic death.

The absence of Lincoln’s famous quote from a book dealing with the crisis in US democracy is curious but, more than that, a book focused on the issue of failing democracies needs to address threats more broadly than the simple failure of party organisation to prevent the rise to power, within the democratic system, of an authoritarian demagogue.

#ReleaseTheRussiaReport

Election 2019 (2)

Disappointed, bruised and sore.

That a manifesto seeking to tackle social and economic injustice was rejected in favour of empty slogans; that lies, and the practise of lying, have been rewarded; that our democracy is incapable of dealing effectively with obfuscation and the deliberate avoidance of scrutiny; and that the healing which these nations which make up the UK need has been cast aside, to be replaced by further division, hatred and exploitation.

It was indeed a ‘grim’ night in which the balloon of my hope and optimism was punctured at about 22:01, before I finally called it a night just after 04:00. The only bright spot all night (there were two, really, but the failure of The Brexit Party to gain any seats, especially in Hartlepool, is rather meaningless in the circumstances) was the success of Matt Rodda in Reading East, the constituency of my birth. Rodda has been around for a while and his Tory opponent was new, and this might provide a partial explanation to his increased majority. However, a marginal drop in the Labour vote share seems to indicate that, whatever the situation nationally, Rodda – surely confronted with the same issues on his doorstep – is doing something right from which Labour might learn once its – essential – review gets underway.

Here’s a few initial thoughts about the implications of what happened last night.

1. Brexit will happen on 31 January 2020. There’s no way that this will not now take place. This was, after all, a Brexit election and Johnson’s determination to talk about nothing else than ‘get Brexit done’ – when he elected to speak at all, that is – clearly permeated into people’s consciousness, at least in key Tory target areas. Ultimately, this was a successful strategy, pains me though it does to say it. ‘Brexit, stupid’, as someone else might once have said, and keeping it simple, clearly worked.

However, we should note that Brexit remains a democratically-unpopular option. The votes cast for ‘leave’ parties added up to 14.98m, according to my quick calculations from the BBC election results website this morning, compared to a vote for parties committed to a re-negotiation/second referendum or remain of 16.63m (among the 16 largest parties attracting votes of 10,000+). So Johnson’s sloganeering was, across the UK as a whole, not successful. In the meantime, this therefore remains an utterly divided nation (note: the breakdown in favour of re-negotiate/remain is 53:47).

2. Labour’s pivot to re-negotiate to provide a Brexit which hit jobs and living standards less, and then to put this to a second referendum, was clearly not a success. It was either not understood or else it was dismissed – it doesn’t really matter at this point which. In hindsight – though some will claim foresight on this – this was perhaps only likely to work as part of a coalition (or understanding) between ‘remain’ parties. That was never going to happen and there is an argument that, looking at Brexit in isolation, Labour would consequently have been better on a platform that was, at least audibly, closer to one which ‘respected’ the 2016 referendum.

3. In the absence of any such understanding, tactical voting to keep the Tories out was a clear failure. The notion that tactical voting had more traction that it evidently did underpinned my optimism in my post below, as well as my anticipation of the fall of some big (Tory) guns. Neither happened. Evidence published only on Monday this week that people were quite attracted by the idea, though had little idea of the online tools available, ought to have provided sufficient warning (not least of the need to escape your own social media bubble once in a while). Nevertheless, it was not even close for any of the big guns – Raab, Duncan-Smith, Redwood and Johnson himself – and this looks a failure of the MRP technique which, at constituency level, had given gaps to the nearest challenger in these cases as low as one percentage point, whatever its apparent success at UK-wide level in predicting the scale of the Tory majority. In short, MRP got a little lucky.

4. We are heading for a constitutional crisis sometime in the life of this (up to) five-year mandate, once Brexit occurs. Neither Scotland nor Northern Ireland voted to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum; yet Northern Ireland now has more Sinn F√©in/SDLP MPs (the former of course not taking their seats in Westminster) than unionist ones, while the SNP’s share of the vote in Scotland was 45% (a rather interesting figure in the light of the 2014 outcome of IndyRef1).

Much here depends on just what sort of government Johnson actually leads – and it is, by the way, a disgrace to democracy that Andrew Marr, the BBC’s former political editor, can post on the BBC Live pages this morning, and having interviewed Johnson only a week last Sunday, that ‘The biggest question in British politics this morning is, who is Boris Johnson politically?’ (at 07:34, currently p. 5/21). A ‘softer’ Brexit than the one envisaged under the previous government would, to some degree, head off some aspects of this challenge, in the sense of minimising the impacts of a Brexit which left us isolated from the EU. Were we to end up at the end of the transition process without a sensible free trade deal with the EU – i.e. one which protected jobs, working conditions and environmental standards – then Brexit will increase these constitutional pressures.

In that context, there would be a clear argument under which lending a vote to a nationalist project, where the focus was a re-joining of international social and economic structures in the face of a disastrous Brexit, may well have merit in terms of protecting the Scottish working class against such impacts. The SNP has a platform of seeking IndyRef2 in 2020, but that’s not incompatible with the timetable under which a free trade deal with the EU would need to be approved. It’s also quite clear that the only free trade deal with the EU which can be negotiated in that timescale is one which effectively minimises the impact of Brexit. Whether Johnson can cast aside his erstwhile buddies in the ERG to deliver that remains to be seen. So, ‘wait and see’ before making any such pivot would be a wise move – but, for me, it remains a more substantial possibility than hitherto.

5. A rather thin Tory manifesto contained a particular hostage in its promise to ‘look at’ judicial review from the perspective of ‘ensuring that [it] is available to protect the rights of the individuals against an overbearing state, while ensuring that it is not abused to conduct politics by another means or to create needless delays‘ (p. 48; emphasis added). This is a clear reference to the – evidently embarrassing – cases brought by anti-Brexit campaigners this summer (Gina Miller and Jolyon Maugham. That the cases were won against the government is evidently troubling were any such ‘look’ now to emerge with restrictions on the courts’ capacity to hold the executive to account. This is one of the essential checks and balances in any democracy and, where these are cut back, democracy will suffer. Any look at the example of Poland, where the governing party is attacking the judiciary, much to the consternation of at least the previous European Commission, is clearly illustrative. A UK outside the EU would, clearly, mean no such censure were the government to embark on such action after January 2020. This is clearly not the reason for Brexit, but a government that turns out to be hardline will see it as one of the bonuses of leaving.

In the meantime, I’m off to listen to some Smoove. Loud, I think.

Brexit faultlines still apparent in UK politics

Like many others, I pulled an all-nighter on Friday morning to watch the election results come in – the first I’ve done for a while, the most recent plebiscites having left me running screaming from the living room well before 1am. The exit poll was, this time, remarkably accurate – and there were a number of positives to take from the election itself, including a well-run, positive Labour campaign on the back of a good manifesto that didn’t quite get the result it deserved; as well as the fruits of a successful registration/get the vote out drive among young people that has, at least anecdotally, brought up the electoral participation of the young to the point where it was actually above the average. Long may that contine (and, indeed, be extended).

And, of course, the loss of a Conservative majority in the Commons is a bonus. Firstly, the Tories really ought to have remembered the old adage that the great British public tend not to like exercise of any type, including of their franchise, and that they therefore tend to punish the parties who do make them turn out; and secondly we should note that a minority government may well lose the benefits of the Salisbury Convention, under which the Lords is duty bound not to over-rule the manifesto commitment of a successful party.

The departure of Theresa May’s two senior advisers today, two bauernopfer [Edit: now on p. 4 of the link @ 14:28) taking the rap for their boss’s disastrous personal and campaigning style, simply papers over the cracks in what is clearly a lame duck government – and may also hasten the timing of May’s own, inevitable, departure. One can only hope, though she who we may well dub ‘Teflon Theresa’, with the arrogance to deliver the same speech yesterday from Downing Street as if she had not lost – in her own terms – the election that she surely intended to deliver had she won it, may well yet turn out to be a survivor.

Meanwhile, the joining of the DUP’s ten, er, ‘socially conservative’ MPs in the business of government has, rightfully, raised plenty of comment, not least in the context of the contribution of Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader, to the number of MPs the Tories did win. Scotland now has 13 Tory MPs – something of a modern record, leaving the Tories up here as no longer the stuff of legend.

What the comment has missed so far – unless someone can point me differently* – is that the DUP is also famous for a bit more than just its hateful stance on gay rights (or its misconceived renewable heating incentive, its intransigence over which brought down Northern Ireland’s power-sharing executive earlier this year). Not only does it have a strong stance in favour of Brexit, but that it allowed itself to be used – I’m paraphasing somewhat – to channel more money into the pro-Brexit campaign last year. The source of the DUP’s funding on this was eventually, through solid journalistic endeavour, revealed as the Constitutional Research Council, an organisation that is so secretive about its research that it has – still, as at today’s date – no website on which to publish the results of the research it supports.

Any agreement between the Tories and the DUP clearly needs, as a minimum, to be publicly available, and in full, in terms of exactly what the DUP will do – and for what – as a price for keeping the Tories in power, especially if Davidson is correct in her view that there is no suggestion ‘the Conservative government would be dependent on the support of the DUP‘, whatever the nature of the ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement which underpins and rationalises the deal.

In the meantime, however, we can no longer wonder whether the results of the election imply a softer approach to Brexit, or any voluntary granting of civil rights to EU citizens in UK limbo, or even a second referendum. There is no doubt that Brexit is not under any theat: Theresa May and her new-found BFFs in the DUP will go ahead with just as hard a Brexit as if the election had not happened. There will be no softening of approach not only from the perspective of negotiating stance but because those driving the government firmly believe in the rightness of what they are doing.

We can usually point to several instances in public life that, had x not happened, y would be impossible. But it is clearly true that, had the Scottish Tories not won these 13 seats, the DUP’s ten MPs would make little difference to the Tories’ parliamentary maths. I’m not a nationalist voter, for reasons not least that the SNP in practice is not as progressive as it makes out in its literature, but it does strike (even) me that the loss of 13 SNP MPs to the Tories is a retrograde step, not a positive one. And I’m not just referring to the loss of good parliamentarians like Angus Robertson and, indeed, Alex Salmond. We will need to wait for psephologists and researchers of other types to tell us how quite so many people who voted SNP just two years ago are now prepared to vote Tory – aside of cheap ‘Tartan Tory’-type comments. It’s likely that quite a few will be independence supporters who also want to be out of the EU and who now see support for the Tories as the more worthwhile means of ensuring Brexit in the current context. Clearly, the sorts of people who swallowed Theresa May’s line about the need to strengthen her hand in the negotiations. I don’t necessarily agree that the election has killed indyref2 – but we might, however, legitimately wonder about the type of independent Scotland such voters would want to see delivered in an iScotland.

The 2017 election will no doubt turn out to have more twists before its history can be written – but the faultlines in our domestic politics that Brexit has written continue to have deep resonances. And, by the way, it’s well worth keeping in mind here that the chair of the Constitutional Research Council is a former vice-chair of the Scottish Conservative Party. I wonder if we’ll ever find out if the CRC commissioned any research prior to this election into the electoral success of the Tories in Scotland, and the DUP in Northern Ireland…

* A kind reader points out that a journalist in the Indy, and others, are researching the issue, post-election. There’s not a lot new in the report in the Indy – and I’m guessing that the Saudi trail is a red herring – but I’m glad to note that someone is on the case.

IndyRef 2 becomes a reality

Nicola Sturgeon made the call this morning for a decision at the Scottish Parliament ‘next week’ to open discussions with the UK government on a new referendum on independence for Scotland.

Following the recent Ipsos MORI opinion poll putting support for (and against) independence at 50:50, such a move was likely on the basis that the largest party in the Scottish Parliament believes in independence and whose Green partners believe likewise. The SNP does not have a majority of the 129 Scottish MSPs but, with the support of the Greens, Parliament will approve the motion seeking such authority when put to it next week.

I’ve stated before – and this blog’s comments on Brexit highlight passim – that I’m not instinctively in favour of any approach to a country’s affairs rooted in the national as opposed to the international. I can’t see myself voting next time in any referendum any differently to the last one – although it does depend significantly on the question that is put to me in the voting booth. The difference this time around is the context of Brexit which is leading – apparently inexorably – to the break-up of the UK, as Ian Dunt successfully argues. He’s not right in everything (I am a Yugo-nostalgist, but it can’t be only me to notice that this is clearly not the first ‘active dismemberment of a country against itself’). More particularly, I don’t blame those voting ‘Leave’ last June for the break-up of the UK – this is, as Dunt also points out, quite clearly the fault of Theresa May and those others backing a hard Brexit. Arrogance, an anti-consultative tendency and a totally un-nuanced approach to the questions posed by the referendum – even to the point of government ministers claiming that parliament should reject the opportunity re-given it by the Lords to maximise its role in the process (EDIT: as indeed, and shamefully, happened tonight) – were always likely (and with evident justification) to see a Scottish government feeling its active marginalisation to kick back. You would expect that of any government in an active, engaged democracy and the Scottish Government is right to raise the question as it has done. The vote to leave the EU changes everything.

Consequently, I won’t – yet – be joining any ‘Together Stronger’ campaign. Indeed, one may not be necessary should Theresa May take this signal from Nicola Sturgeon for the final warning that it is, and change tack on the hard Brexit that she is relentlessly pursuing. David Allan Green in the FT notes the constitutional connections between Brexit and future of the UK; while it appears clear that the UK government has yet to learn the importance of listening to the priorities of the Scottish Government, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Welsh Government, as Stephen Tierney also argues. I’m not holding out any hopes of that, however: and, indeed, the early signs are not good with May having already criticised the move as ‘deeply regrettable’: a sign that she has surely missed, or otherwise ignored, the signal entirely.

Meanwhile, the dark days for those who believe in a UK where resources are pooled and shared for the greater good of all – as much as for those who believe similarly on a pan-European scale – just got that little bit darker.

IndyRef 2: It’s Back

The Scottish Government has today, and for consultation, published its draft Referendum Bill, in order to protect Scottish interests against the consequences of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. The consultation period runs until January 2017.

I’ll be blogging on this again, no doubt. But, for now, time to nail some colours to the mast. I voted ‘no’ in IndyRef 1 in 2014. I define myself as an internationalist and could never bring myself to vote for any party which defines itself, in contrast, as a national one (leaving aside the obvious -ist, sometimes held by aficionados of that same party, if not centrally); the answers to the problems of today’s world lie not in looking to the national (pun fully intended), but to the international. Given precisely the same circumstances as applied in 2014, I would be voting ‘no’ again: Scotland’s interests were then, and would otherwise be now, much better served by the sharing and pooling of resources within the context of the wider UK.

But, of course, the independence debate is not about voting for one party or another; but for a course for Scotland stretching far into the future, much farther than any (even regularly-renewed) democratic mandate normally allows. And the circumstances that apply now are qualitatively, momentously, different. Not least given the way the UK government has responded to the the vote, but not only in that context, June’s EU referendum, here in 2016, changes everything.

It is impossible to avoid the pitfalls of generalisation, but Scotland – as the independent nation that it continues to be: the (repeated) question proposed in the Bill is somewhat misleading – is substantially different to what the UK has, in voting collectively to pull out of the EU, now become (slightly more accurately, the UK outside the major towns and cities and away from the east coast). Scotland voted heavily to remain (62:38), with majorities for remain in each and every one of its 32 council areas. It is more social democratic in principle, with notions of solidarity between people more deeply entrenched. In the workplace, trade unions are better received and senior union officials are able to take their place more easily and more naturally in public life. Public discourse is (and acknowledging that IndyRef 1 was not always as ‘joyous’ as some claimed) more open, less narrow and more progressive, with the contributions of EU nationals readily embraced. In these areas as in others, Scotland looks instinctively much more ‘European’ in outlook than the UK, currently, appears. In terms of its direct interests, Scotland simply needs more people to deliver goods and public services – and so has a strong interest in ensuring that freedom of movement continues to apply.

The Bill exists to allow a debate on the issue as to how best to protect Scotland’s interests in a UK targeted towards EU exit. Tactically, and leaving aside the debate about independence, this is the right thing to do – most importantly, it keeps the pressure on the UK government to ensure that the post-Brexit landing is as soft as possible (and that it thus takes account of Scottish interests). The implication of the timing of its publication – on the same day that Theresa May attends her first EU Summit as Prime Minister, in a process in which Scotland has no direct voice – is clear. If it keeps the pressure on to the point of success, then it will have done a valuable job (and to the benefit of the rest of the UK, too).

If, on the other hand, push comes to shove, independence may well continue not to be the right answer for Scotland (or indeed the UK), even a UK that seeks to exist outside the EU. (Though it is very tempting to remind Brexiteers that a break-up of the UK was the logical, and heavily trailed, consequence of a vote to leave.) But it is, given the fundamentally-changed circumstances that now apply following the referendum, the right time at least to ask the question of people living in Scotland as to whether this is a process they might support.