A giant has stirred

What's going on? The first televised leaders' debate made a huge impact on me, as it did on so many people in this country. Nick Clegg took his chance, and British politics ceased to be a two-party affair. By the time of the third encounter, this state of affairs had already become familiar, and the perspective changed. Perhaps it was because I watched that final debate on a small screen with young friends who stream their TV from a laptop, but I had a strange sense of watching three dwarves missing the point.

What was really needed was a reckoning with the three giants that are shaping modern politics, two of which were denied any explicit role in the election. But, thanks to Clegg's welcome impact, one did get a look-in and, with a toss of its huge head, disrupted all conventional calculations.

Unruly cousin

The three leviathans are: global capitalism and its inequalities; the database state and the loss of liberty; and the popular demand for democracy. I'm not pretending that there is a clear alternative to global capitalism on offer (yet). But there are questions to be asked about the kind of relationship the UK should have with the global market.

Do we want more protection from its violent excesses? If so, how? The judgement of the "markets" is assumed always to be wise and realistic. But we know that it isn't, and that financial speculators can pick off fair-sized countries at the click of a mouse, for their own profit. How do we avoid playing their game?

We also have a permanent state machine that does not put itself up for election. It now sees its role as preparing inexperienced politicians for public frustration and anger, as jobs and incomes are sacrificed while banking profits rise. In Whitehall, the questions are already being rehearsed: "Isn't it a good thing, minister, given the threat of demonstrations, that traffic surveillance includes facial recognition software to track ringleaders and that we monitor all email traffic as a matter of course?" "Do you really want to abolish biometric identity cards and passports, sir, just when there is such a growing menace to public order?"

One of the most disappointing aspects of the election was the decision by the two ­opposition parties not to confront Gordon Brown about the assault on liberty that he has perpetrated. The heart of the problem is the absence of proper constitutional democracy. Those in public service regard themselves as servants of the Crown, and look down on us through that distorting optic, rather than seeing themselves as servants of the people. The culture of secrecy, entitlement and legally sanctioned corruption flows from this ancient privilege.

The database state has been embraced with enthusiasm. One consequence of this is the expansion of an international security system that entrenches bankers' hegemony. The first two giants - global capitalism and hi-tech state power - are brothers. Their unruly cousin is the demand for democracy. This is not just about having fair general elections. It is also about fundamental liberties and rights.

This demand is here to stay. It is not simply the expression of anger and contempt for a rotten system including an unelected second chamber, royal prerogatives and privy councillors. It is a plea for democracy (that is what we mean by "change"), finally provoked by the expenses crisis into an open rebellion. It was looking for leadership, and has settled on the Lib Dems.

The colour purple

Are they up to the task? On 8 May, I joined the demonstrators who took to the streets of London to demand fair votes. We wore purple, the colour of suffrage and a sign that we were independent of any party. We marched from Trafalgar Square to Smith Square, where the Lib Dems were debating their negotiating strategy.

We forced Clegg out to talk to us. "I never thought in my wildest imagination that central London would have a thousand protesters protesting for proportional representation," he said. In fact, there were 2,000 of us.

There were demonstrations elsewhere in the country as well. They will grow - another demonstration in London was called for 15 May. The giant has stirred. It will not crawl away and hibernate for another 60 years, as many in the political class doubt-less hope.

Clegg spoke to the protesters about "the national interest". The national interest is to sweep away the appalling system that got us here. Before the election - it seems an age ago now - I argued in the New Statesman that we needed to hang both the main parties and frustrate their plans, and that the voters wanted this, having lost all trust in politicians. This has happened. If it's not exactly what I wanted, it's much better than I expected. As the media bang on about deals and negotiations, watch the public. This is where the genuine change has taken place. The question is whether the party leaders are able to see it.

Anthony Barnett is the founder of openDemocracy

This article first appeared in the 17 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, On a tightrope