What is the point of democracy?

Peter Wilby on the second man in the Basil D’Oliveira story, why capitalism still has legs, Tory pla

Basil D'Oliveira, who has died at 80, was perhaps the greatest of all cricketing heroes because he achieved so much against such enormous odds. But there was another hero, less widely acknowledged. When the England squad to tour South Africa was selected in 1968, the man who initially took the place that should have gone to D'Oliveira was the late Tom Cartwright. After a public outcry, Cartwright withdrew and D'Oliveira, a Cape coloured, replaced him, leading to apartheid South Africa's cancellation of the tour.

The official reason was that Cartwright had a shoulder injury. But he came from a solid Labour family, had worked in the Coventry motor industry and, since touring South Africa in 1964-65 and visiting a car factory in Port Elizabeth, had felt uneasy about the treatment of non-whites. He told his biographer, Stephen Chalke, that when he read how the Cape Town parliament cheered as the original tour party was announced, "I went cold . . . I started to wonder whether I wanted to be part of it."

I do not suggest Cartwright faked his injury, though the truth is that most bowlers' shoulders are in a dodgy condition most of the time. But in the deeply conservative world of cricket, pleading injury was wiser than pleading socialist conviction. Cartwright, like other players from humble backgrounds, couldn't afford to make heroic stands. “I didn't," he told Chalke, "have any other profession or trade or training."

Keeping the faith

At Labour Party and union conferences, of which I have attended more than I care to remember, delegates enter a kind of parallel universe. For a few heady days, they believe it is within their power, and theirs alone, to create a more peaceful and equitable world. Then they go home. When gathered together, I have discovered, members of the capitalist community behave in the same way.

On the strength of a 1,050-word newspaper article - to which there was less than met the eye - I was invited to the SuperInvestor conference in Paris, an annual gathering of venture capitalists, private-equity fund managers and others whom we lefties respectfully describe as greedy bastards. I sat on a panel for a session entitled "What are the socio-economic benefits of private equity?" - a question to which, I thought, there was a one-word answer. But my fellow panellists talked quite eloquently about how they would guide capital to where it could lift Africans out of poverty, children out of ignorance and workers out of idleness.

During another session, the delegates voted by a margin of nearly four to one that, in their work, integrity is more important than money. All that stripping of assets, sacking of workers and charging of very high fees is, it seems, just an unfortunate side effect of their unstinting efforts to improve the human lot.

Eastern European communism fell when its leaders could no longer delude themselves that their regime was for the ultimate benefit of the people it was supposed to serve. I saw no sign of a similar loss of faith among the capitalists in Paris.

Speed striking

Another indication of continued ruling-class confidence is that it never hesitates to seek new ways of repressing protest. I often wonder if anyone under 30 realises that strikes sometimes used to last for weeks, even months. Now even a one-day public-sector walkout provokes Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, into threatening legislation to require strike ballots to reach turnouts of at least 40 per cent. Maude has also suggested that workers could make their point by striking for just 15 minutes. If they did so, the Tories would soon propose another law requiring strikers to take a lavatory break during that time in order to minimise interruptions on their return to the workface.

Left out in the cold

Yet another reason why capitalism still has legs is that its supporters keep getting elected to office. The latest example is Spain, where the conservative People's Party has ousted the Socialist government, which lost a third of its seats. Is everybody mad? Do they not see that pro-market policies have failed? Such questions misunderstand how democracy works. For most people, the point of voting is not to elect good governments - as it is almost impossible to predict how an opposition party will perform in office - but to punish bad ones.

Left-wing parties in Spain, Portugal, Italy, the UK and elsewhere were unlucky enough to be holding office as the economic outlook worsened and were therefore perceived by voters to have failed. Nicolas Sarkozy will probably receive his punishment next spring when the Socialists win in France; Denmark's right-wing rulers received theirs in September. Even Angela Merkel and her Christian Democrats could be out in 2013 if, as seems likely, a double-dip recession hits Germans as badly as everybody else. Left parties will not escape this depressing cycle until they stop pursuing modified versions of their opponents' policies.

It's his funeral

Hugh Grant was being a touch disingenuous when he told the Leveson inquiry that he'd be happy if the tabloids never mentioned his name again. When his next film is released, will the publicity people be instructed not to say that he is playing a leading role? Will he decline to attend launch events and awards ceremonies lest he inadvertently find himself in a newspaper picture? And will he advise future girlfriends not to follow the example of Liz Hurley, who achieved celebrity and wealth almost entirely on the back of her relationship with Grant?

Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998-2005

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 28 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the muslim brotherhood