Government of the technocrats, by the technocrats, for the technocrats

Democracy must not be regarded as merely an optional extra when solving economic problems.

Greece and Italy now have new Prime Ministers. Neither of them have had to endure the indignity of actually standing for election. New Italian PM, Mario Monti, is a former European commissioner and an economist. Lucas Papademos, the new Greek Prime Minister, is a former Governor of the Bank of Greece (there is a great irony in a central banker being imposed as Prime Minister following a debt crisis fuelled by poor central bank decisions and a collapse of the banking system).

The European debt crisis has been almost as damaging for democracy as it has been for the economies of the Eurozone. In Greece and Italy, democratic legitimacy is clearly regarded as an unaffordable luxury.

If democratically elected leaders do not satisfy the markets, the IMF and the European Commission, they are now, in effect, summarily dismissed, without any reference to the wishes of the people. The unsubtle message coming out of Greece and Brussels is that international bodies believe that democratic governments have failed to tackle the economic crisis and should be replaced with more reliable (and controllable) technocratic governments.

Rule by technocrats has replaced rule by the people - with unelected, economically orthodox international bodies like the European Commission and the IMF working with unelected technocrats now heading up national governments to implement tough austerity measures that have never received public backing. The democratic deficit at the heart of Europe has become a democratic chasm.

The events of the past week are immensely important. For the first time in a generation, European countries are now headed by individuals who have had no popular endorsement at the ballot box. It is difficult to see why the people of Greece and Italy should see their new governments as representing their wishes when they have been imposed from above.

If people no longer see their Governments as being democratically legitimate and no longer see the ballot box as a legitimate way to express their grievance, they may be more likely to consider other ways to express that grievance. This is particularly dangerous at a time of painful austerity and falling living standards. Technocracy will have no answers for growing popular discontent.

The growing power of international bodies has steadily diminished democracy. Rule by place men has gradually replaced rule by democratically elected individuals who have been elected and can be removed. To an extent, the imposition of technocrats on Italy and Greece is the apotheosis of the technocratic concept that runs through bodies such as the IMF and European Commission

Indeed, Tony Benn famously warned of this threat in a mighty speech during the Maastricht debate, pointing out that, to a democrat, a good King is never better than a bad Parliament. He said:

We are discussing whether the... people are to be allowed to elect those who make the laws under the which they are governed... Secondly, we say to my favourite friends, the Chartists and suffragettes, "All your struggles to get control of the ballot box were a waste of time. We shall be run in future by a few white persons, as in 1832."

Government of the technocrats, by the technocrats, and for the technocrats is hugely undesirable and, by its very nature, bad for democratic legitimacy. It is not a long-term solution and should not have been considered as a short-term one. Democracy must not be regarded as merely an optional extra when solving economic problems.

If politicians do not bring their people with them, they risk creating extreme alienation and discontent. If politicians do not trust the people, why should the people trust their politicians? When they are working to solve the economic crisis engulfing Europe, the continent's leaders must be very careful that they don't create a new crisis of political legitimacy, which will have even more serious long-term consequences.

David Skelton is Deputy Director on Policy Exchange, an independent think tank. You can follow him on Twitter @djskelton

David Skelton is the director of Renewal, a new campaign group aiming to broaden the appeal of the Conservative Party to working class and ethnic minority voters. @djskelton

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder