When Marx met Mill

People just don't want to be told. Personal political responsibility, like virtue, is notoriously di

May I suggest some summer reading? Consider it as a little extra homework, or an intellectual workout for the holiday season. The book is Democracy: Crisis and Renewal by Paul Ginsborg, professor of contemporary European history at the University of Florence. Ginsborg is a public intellectual of international renown, but you probably won't have heard of him because he writes mainly for the Italian press. The book is only 124 pages long, if you don't count the notes and bibliography. It is written in a perfectly accessible, non-academic style. It would take you an afternoon by the pool to get through it and, as a result, you would be vastly better informed about the state of global democracy and well placed to engage with the political process when you return from your holiday.

How do you feel about that? Patronised? Even more turned off politics than you were before you started this article? Deeply determined to read the latest Robert Harris after all? Your perfectly understandable reaction proves one of the main points of Ginsborg's book: it really is very difficult to inform people about the importance of participating in the democratic process. Because people just don't want to be told. Personal political responsibility, like virtue, is notoriously difficult to teach.

Ginsborg argues that since the fall of the Berlin Wall, liberal democracy has entered into a period of crisis not of quantity (something like 120 of the 192 nation states of the United Nations can now be described as democracies), but of quality. As he writes: "While formal, electoral democracy expanded with great rapidity all over the world, disaffection grew in democracy's traditional heartlands. This is expressed in a consistent decline in voter turnout and membership of political parties and a loss of faith in democratic institutions and the political class."

This decline has also seeped into the new democracies of Europe, however. In the 2004 European parliamentary elections, turnout in the UK was under 40 per cent. But it was 38.5 per cent in Hungary, 28.3 per cent in the Czech Republic, 20.9 per cent in Poland and just 17 per cent in Slovakia. People may not have liked communism, but they do not seem greatly enthused by democracy, at least not at the level of the European Parliament.

Ginsborg's delightfully bonkers book begins with a meeting in London in March 1873 between two great political minds of the age, Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill. Over a generous dinner followed by port at Mill's home in Albert Mansions, Victoria Street, the two men discuss their competing visions of democracy. Marx argues for a "participatory" model based on the Paris Commune of 1871, in which the workers seize direct control in a process of radical decentralisation (otherwise known as proletarian revolution). Mill, on the other hand, argues for the "representative" model, in which an elected elite rules over the less-informed, poorly educated and hopelessly prejudiced majority. The party broke up just before midnight, and the two great men agreed to differ, although Marx conceded that in some countries, perhaps even Britain, progress towards true democracy might be possible without violence.

Did it really happen like that? You will have to read the book for yourself to find out. Mill's belief in "the admission of all to a share in the sovereign power of the state" remains something on which all democrats would probably agree. By the late 19th century, the Marxist tradition and the liberal tradition diverged, with the latter ultimately triumphing in the revolutions of 1989. Ginsborg believes this discussion remains central to contemporary political debate: democracy should be essentially representative, or could people become more engaged with a country's political institutions if there were more direct involvement on the participatory model.

Like many on the left, Ginsborg is excited by the participatory politics of Porto Alegre, a city of four million in southern Brazil. In a system set up by the Workers' Party, the people of Porto Alegre take part in a series of meetings throughout the year to decide on priorities for the forthcoming budget. Delegates from local assemblies are then elected to a central budget council, where they thrash out a policy programme to be adopted by the mayor at the end of the year. In 2004, the Workers' Party was defeated in local elections, but such was the consensus around the participatory budget that the incoming coalition agreed to keep it.

Could such a model be adopted in Britain as a way of breathing life into local politics? Well, it has been tried, in the leafy outer London borough of Harrow, of all places. In spring 2005, in collaboration with Helena Kennedy's Power inquiry into political participation, the Harrow Open Budget Process brought together 300 residents to discuss priorities for the 2006/2007 budget and elect a panel to monitor how local politicians responded.

Ginsborg's book ends with an imagined conversation today between Marx and Mill about the merits of the Harrow experiment. Curious to know what had become of it, I called Harrow Council's press office. It has yet to get back to me. A report I found online showed that 94 per cent of those who took part thought it was a "good" or "very good" experience, and 74 per cent suggested it should be repeated. So what did happen? The Conservatives seized control of Harrow and the idea was scrapped. One thing you can rely on in Britain is that the dead hand of local politics will always throttle anything approaching genuine participation.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Money rules: Why cash now counts more than class

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To the Commonwealth, "Global Britain" sounds like nostalgia for something else

And the former colonial subjects have a less rose-tinted view of the past. 

Earlier this month, Boris Johnson became the first British foreign secretary to visit the Gambia since independence. His visit came a few days before the inauguration of the Gambia's new President, Adama Barrow, who has signalled his intention to re-join the Commonwealth - an institution that his dictatorial predecessor had left in protest at its apparent "neo-colonialism".

Accusations of neo-colonialism, regrettably, seem to be of little concern to the foreign secretary. After Johnson committed himself to facilitating the Gambia's Commonwealth re-entry, he declared that "the strength of our partnerships show that Global Britain is growing in influence and activity around the world". 

His comments are the latest example of the government's Brexit mission-creep in its foreign engagements. Theresa May mentioned "Global Britain" no fewer than ten times in her Lancaster House speech last month, reminding us that Britain "has always looked beyond Europe to the wider world" and emphasising the UK's post-referendum desire to "get out into the world". Ministers' repeated subsequent referencing of Global Britain has almost come to the point of re-branding Great Britain itself. But now the government seems to be directly equating Global Britain with the Commonwealth, the organisation comprising most of the former territories of the British Empire. If the Commonwealth is wooing back former members and seemingly growing in stature, that must mean Global Britain is doing the same. The Gambia's proposed re-admission to the Commonwealth is reconfigured as a victory for British clout and prestige in the face of the Brexit naysayers.

But the Commonwealth cannot be a vehicle or front for Global Britain, on either a technical or political level. The Commonwealth emphasises that it is an organisation of 52 equal member states, without any preference in decision-making. India (population 1.26bn) and Tuvalu (10,000) are treated the same. The organisation is headquartered in London, receives the most money from Britain, and its members share elements of history, culture and political systems; but it is not a British organisation and will not take orders from the British government. Commonwealth states, particularly poorer ones, may welcome UK political, financial and developmental support, but will reject the spectre of neo-imperialism. Diplomats remark that their countries did not leave the British Empire only to re-join it through the back door. 

And yet, shorn of influence following the decision to leave the EU, and the single market so instrumental to British jobs and prosperity, the government is desperate to find an alternative source of both power and profit. The members of the Commonwealth, with their links of heritage and administration, have always been touted as the first choice. Leading Brexiter Dan Hannan has long advocated a "union with the other English-speaking democracies", and Liam Fox has been actively pursuing Commonwealth countries for trade deals. But the Commonwealth cannot replace the EU in any respect. While exports to the EU account for just under a half of Britain's total, the Commonwealth receives less than 10 percent of our goods. The decline of UK trade with the Commonwealth was taking place long before Britain joined the EU, and it has in fact revived in recent years while being a member. The notion that Britain is restricted from trading with the Commonwealth on account of its EU membership is demonstrably false.  

The EU, the beloved scapegoat for so many ills, cannot fulfil the role for much longer. Indeed, when it comes to the Commonwealth, 48 of the 52 members have already completed trade deals with the UK, or are in the process of negotiating them, as part of their engagement with the EU. Britain could now be forced to abandon and re-negotiate those agreements, to the great detriment of both itself and the Commonwealth. Brexiters must moreover explain why Germany, with a population just 25 percent larger than ours, exports 133 percent more to India and 250 percent more to South Africa than we do. Even New Zealand, one of Britain's closest allies and a forthcoming trade-deal partner, imports 44 percent more goods and services from Germany, despite enjoying far looser cultural and historical ties with that country. The depth of Britain's traditional bonds with the Commonwealth cannot, in itself, boost the British economy. The empire may fill the imagination, but not a spreadsheet.

The British imperial imagination, however, is the one asset guaranteed to keep growing as Brexit approaches. It is, indeed, one of the root causes of Brexit. Long after the empire fell into history, the British exceptionalism it fostered led us to resent our membership of a European bloc, and resist even limited integration with it. The doctrine of "taking back control" for an "independent Britain" speaks to profound (and unfounded) anxieties about being led by others, when in our minds we should be the ones explicitly leading. The fictional, if enduringly potent victim narrative that we became a colony of someone else's empire, has now taken hold in government. The loss of our own empire remains an unacknowledged national trauma, which we both grieve and fail to accept. The concept of being equal partners with like-minded countries, in a position to exert real, horizontal influence through dialogue, cooperation and shared membership of institutions, is deemed an offence to Britain's history and imperial birthright.

The relentless push for Global Britain is thus both a symptom and cause of our immense global predicament. Through an attempt to increase our power beyond Europe, Brexit has instead deflated it. Britain has, in truth, always been global, and the globe has not always been grateful for it; but now the government preaches internationalism while erecting trade barriers and curbing migration. After empire, Britain found a new role in Europe, but with that now gone, Global Britain risks producing global isolation. Despite the foreign secretary's rhetoric, the Commonwealth, geopolitically and economically, has moved on from its imperial past. It is not waiting to be re-taken.

Jonathan Lis is the deputy director at British Influence.