Saving capitalism? The price could be democracy

Greece is faced with severe austerity measures. Why shouldn't its people have their say?

Right now everyone seems to be getting terribly excited about saving capitalism. Which is fair enough, in the face of global meltdown.

However, it seems to me that the price of saving capitalism is increasingly likely to be "democracy". Which would be a shame as I'm a big fan of democracy. On the whole, I think it's a good thing.

"What insight," I hear you cry, "what understanding of the basic tenants of human rights".

No? Well, consider this.

Let's start with Occupy London (or Wall Street, Oakland, Tunbridge Wells, wherever). Apart from the fact that some folk think they make the place look a bit untidy, the main issue people have with the Occupy crowd is "that they don't have any answers".

They have a list of things they don't want -- but not a list of things they do.

And I say, so what? What's wrong with just asking the questions? The Occupy folk aren't standing for elected office, nor claiming to be able to solve the problems of the global economy. The finest economic minds in the world, plus George Osborne, haven't cracked that one. So it seems a bit unreasonable to expect some bloke in a tent who just thinks that taxpayers' money shouldn't be shuffled through to bankers in the form of bonuses, to then have all the answers to the greatest economic crisis since the 1930s. If it was that easy, we'd all just pop into Millets and seek the opinion of the man on the till.

We'll ask the questions. It's the job of our elected elders and betters to answer them.

And now it would also seem we're not allowed to mark our representatives' homework either. Hence every democratically elected politician in the world goes white as a sheet at the thought of asking the Greek people if they're happy with the deal done on their behalf.

Funnily enough, I'm not a huge fan of referendums at the drop of a hat. I rather like Edmund Burke's view of democracy: "Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion."

But there's a time and a place for everything. And when years of extreme austerity measures stretch out before a population, pensions are slashed, public spending is squeezed, every ministry has an independent "observer" installed from Brussels, and none of it ever featured in any sort of manifesto proposal -- well, asking the people if they are up for it doesn't seem so bad? Does it?

So, we seem to be in a world where asking questions without knowing the answers, or questioning the answers you've been given, is seen as a thoroughly bad thing. Which to me is an affront to democracy.

Still, at least no-one's raising the spectre of war or postulating about the chances of a military coup to force things through.

Oh? Lordy.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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