The doublethink of 'democracy'

If The Sun took the democratic rights of the Brits seriously it would campaign for Murdoch's influen

Democracy is a rather unusual political value - everyone seems to be in favour of it. Just think of the regimes that have clamoured to call themselves democratic.

History provides examples as striking as the grotesque pantomime of the authoritarian Stasi-land of the old East Germany describing itself as the German Democratic Republic.

Despite its governing ideology being anything but democratic, the prestige of democracy meant that the DDR (like so many other unsavoury regimes) was eager to pay lip-service to the idea, while simultaneously treating its people with utter anti-democratic contempt.

A less extreme example of exploiting 'democracy' in very bad faith comes with the current campaign being waged d by the tabloid press to force Gordon Brown into calling a referendum on the EU’s reforming Lisbon treaty.

The Sun merrily brandishes appeals to the democratic rights of the British people in trying to force a referendum, but it is hard not to conclude that its commitment to democracy is, at best, rather partial and selective.

Indeed, these appeals to democracy seem to be a sort of self-serving doublethink that echo the worst examples of using the rhetoric of democracy in the cause of its suppression.

Let me explain why.

Any plausible commitment to the values of a democratic society will minimally involve the thought that there should be a degree of political equality.

Citizens should not only be equal before the law, but should have an equal opportunity to influence the outcomes of democratic deliberation.

If we are to have government of the people, for the people and by the people - in Abraham Lincoln’s phrase - then we need to take seriously the thought that the people’s voices need to be heard.

The political philosopher John Rawls, in defining his principles of justice for a democratic state, talks about the significance not only of ensuring that citizens have equal basic liberties (such as freedom of speech, freedom of association and the right to vote), but of further ensuring equality in the fair value of the rights and liberties involved in political life.

Without such commitments to the fair value of our rights and liberties, invoking democratic ideals can look like an empty charade, devoid of genuine substance. In other words, if we take democracy seriously, we need to walk it like we talk it.

But what would be involved in delivering a truly democratic society, in which citizens' democratic rights were not merely a charade – all form and no substance?

Well, one thing it would certainly involve is some restrictions on the ownership of the media, so that it could no longer be the case that the content of public political debate is decided by the private interests of a few rich proprietors, like The Sun’s Rupert Murdoch.

If The Sun took the democratic rights of the British people seriously, then it should be campaigning for the influence of foreign tycoons like Murdoch to be extirpated from British political life. Needless to say, we shouldn’t be expecting this to happen anytime soon.

Murdoch and the other proprietors are rational enough. They fear the EU because it has the potential to develop the political confidence and regulatory heft to break up their cosy little empires.

Concerned at the terrible prospect of the balance of political power slipping away from him, Murdoch will do whatever he can to maintain the status quo.

To accommodate his aims, his journalists whip themselves up into a self-righteous lather about democratic values. But taking democracy seriously is not something that can be done whilst the mechanisms for the transmission of political debate are in the hands of a self-serving plutocracy.

Now, none of this is to take a stance over whether the Lisbon treaty should, under ideal circumstances, be subjected to a referendum. But, under our current extremely non-ideal circumstances, the answers are very clear. It is better, on democratic grounds, to have Britain’s foreign policy in the hands of our elected representatives, than to grant a power of veto to our bloated press barons.

As Stanley Baldwin succinctly put it in 1931, quoting his cousin Rudyard Kipling during his campaign on free trade against Lords Rothermere and Beaverbrook, Murdoch and his ilk have “power without responsibility, the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages”.

Baldwin was quite right: government by harlot falls far short of the democratic ideal. Hypocritical appeals to the values of democracy, issued from the mouthpieces of harlots, are surely even worse.

When The Sun calls for a referendum in the name of democracy, what it is really calling for is the transfer of de facto political power from elected politicians to unelected media proprietors. They are calling for the subversion of democracy, in the name of democracy: the worst kind of political doublethink.

No doubt there are tabloid journalists who believe everything they write about the democratic threats from an invented, hyperbolic EU superstate.

Such views of course deserve their airing. But it is hard to take them seriously when they can clearly be seen to mesh so neatly with the wishes of those, like Murdoch, who have most to lose from an organized EU that gets its act together on trans-border corporate taxation and media regulation.

Euroscepticism could be taken much more seriously if it was aired under conditions that ensured the fair value of the political liberties, rather than in currently less-than-democratic political world, where Rupert Murdoch’s political liberties are worth a lot more than yours or mine.

I’ll finish with two quick points. Firstly, through the law of unintended consequences, the very factor that makes Britain comparatively weak within the EU is our Eurosceptic press. Gordon Brown needs political cover in his efforts to avoid a referendum, and so has to cede the political agenda to other member states as part of the quid pro quo.

A saner and more balanced press at home, leading to a more thoughtful political climate on the subject of Europe, would create the conditions for more British leadership within the EU on trade, development and, perhaps most importantly, reform of the Common Agricultural Policy. A more fair and democratic Britain, unconstrained by the need to pay tribute to Murdoch, would have more real political power where it matters.

Secondly, if we want to achieve the sort of fair value of political rights and liberties that is a precondition for a robust democracy, then we (of course) need our politicians to get to grips with the issue of press ownership.

This will involve some political fights that will be messy and difficult. Politicians who are used simply to reactive forms of media management need to think themselves into a broader context. They need to get off the back foot, and onto the offensive. Murdoch’s power isn’t an unavoidable fact of our political life. It’s a disfiguring distortion that can be eradicated by concerted political effort.

Stanley Baldwin may be an unfashionable figure these days, but those who care about democracy should welcome a revival of Baldwin’s rapier-thrusts against Beaverbrook and Rothermere. If we take democracy seriously, as a real value rather than an empty form of words, then Baldwin’s fight needs to be fought all over again.

Martin O’Neill is a political philosopher, based at the Centre for Political Theory in the Department of Politics at the University of Manchester. He has previously taught at Cambridge and Harvard, and is writing a book on Corporations and Social Justice.
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The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.

***

Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”

***

May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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