Democracy is widely accepted as the form of government most likely to ensure that people can live their lives in safety and relative prosperity. It can be maintenance-free for most of us, enabled as we have been able to leave its workings to politicians who have, for the most part, allowed the rest of us to get on with living our lives. This is what democracy was intended for – and it is a mistake, for I too, like many others, have been quite happy to leave politics to the politicians.
Perhaps I am one of those the late Professor Peter Mair implicates when he said in his opening paragraph of what was to become his last book: that “the age of party democracy has passed”. The democratic void referred to in Peter Mair’s book has now become so entrenched and endemic that it is really difficult to know how to even begin bridging it. Even now, some serious authors like David Runciman are beginning to consider what the end of democracy might look like. It will creep up on us and we won’t even see it coming.
I have just recently had the thoroughly unpleasant experience of reading Owen Jones’ The Establishment and How they Get Away With It. At times, I had to force myself to continue reading even as it left me in a horrid state of mind. Jones replays event after disreputable event where ‘elites’ in Britain operate co-operatively to ensure that their privileged positions, power and wealth are maintained and enhanced. He presents numerous case studies that illustrate how the public are manipulated, how news and information is ‘spun’ to ensure that the desired outcome is achieved and even how ‘cover-ups’ are managed and facilitated.
There are weaknesses in Jones’ book and one reviewer criticises a certain lack of objectivity that is badly needed. In his review for the Financial Times, Phillip Augur argues that Jones’ conclusion reads more like a political manifesto than a dispassionate analysis. One can sympathise, however looked at in conjunction with another startling insight into how those in power manage things, All Out War, The Full Story of Brexit by Tim Shipman it is hard not to avoid the reality that millions of lives are fundamentally affected by the often incompetent or selfish motives of people in positions of power.
Today’s world is both complex and highly interconnected. We have created technology and science that means the world we live in today is immeasurably better than the world that was inhabited by our grandparents and great-grandparents. And yet, the massive gap that exists between the wealthiest 1% and all the rest continues to grow.
In the UK, the top 1% have an average wealth of at least £3,208,500 while being in the bottom 10% means an average income of £13,600 according to the Office for National Statistics. There will always be wealthy people and there will always be those who are much worse off in financial terms. But the degree to which many people are really having to struggle to make ends meet is continuing to grow while it seems that the rich just get richer.
What's more worrying, though, is the sense that increasingly, politics in the UK and arguably in the rest of Europe is primarily focussed on the needs of the top 1%. There is a simple and readily understood explanation for this. Those 1% are both powerful and influential and, as a general rule, their ability to gain access to decision makers and policy makers is much greater than it is for everyone else.
In an article published in June 2018, the Economist Magazine highlighted that the growth of inequality may be, in part, explained by the growing influence of the wealthiest in Europe and in America. They point out that as a group, the wealthiest tend to be more politically engaged and they make use of their wealth to influence policy. This is often done subtly by making contributions to political parties or to so-called ‘think-tanks’ who seek to influence the political narrative. The article also suggests that the phenomenon of growing inequality is being accompanied by an even greater focus on social order and crime.
The implication here is clear: political decision making is unduly influenced by those with wealth and legislative action is being directed toward maintaining that privileged position to the acute disadvantage of those less well off by focussing more on law and order.
Internationally, the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency of the United States and the result of the UK’s referendum on Brexit seem to have taken the political establishment and the world by surprise. Each of these developments seem to be aimed at creating greater distance between their respective countries and the rest of the world.
President Trump has emerged with his ‘America First’ agenda to much popular support. In Britain, the ongoing debacle that is Brexit seems determined to separate the United Kingdom from the rest of Europe. Many British politicians are now, very belatedly, becoming alarmed at the prospect of an abrupt exit from the EU without a proper deal. Many decry the Prime Minister’s ‘deal’, arguing that she should go back and renegotiate despite the very clear rejection of that possibility by her and by the EU.
It is as though people thought leaving the EU would make no real difference. The very real prospect of a Britain in crisis is now upon us. Politicians are becoming increasingly agitated about the possibility of civil unrest. Meanwhile, almost every utterance from the American President seems calculated to drive further division between America and the rest of the world. In France, protests over duty on Diesel fuel has led to violence that has grown to include many other factions and issues.
The question we should all be asking is ‘why?’. Why is Donald Trump building walls, real and symbolic, and why do some people want Brexit so badly when up to recently the overall direction of travel in the world was toward closer integration and co-operation? Are there people in the world whose interests are furthered by creating division between nations? If so, who are they and what do they actually want? And how exactly does it benefit ordinary people?
In 1974, the UN Resolution 'Declaration on the Establishment of a New International Economic Order’ highlighted that there is a close inter-relationship between the prosperity of developed countries and the growth and development of developing countries thus setting the scene for better international co-operation for the benefit of all people.
While there is much to criticise about the EU, it has been successful in bringing about social change that has, on the whole, been good for ordinary citizens in many European countries. Nowhere is this truer than in my own country, Ireland, and the place I live, Northern Ireland. However, in order for there to be real international co-operation, there must also be a shared sense of social and legal justice - namely, what Charles Beitz calls ‘distributive justice’.
Social justice is a broad concept that seems to include access to natural resources and more equal opportunities for all people. Yet the advent of Trump, Brexit and recently emerging nationalism in some European countries seem to fly in the face of the UN Declaration. And all the while increasing numbers of refugees and migrants flee appalling conditions toward America, Europe and Britain seeking a better life further fuelling the tendency toward nationalism. There are few who would argue that the world has changed beyond recognition over the last twenty or thirty years. This is largely the result of the ‘Information Revolution’ made possible by huge advances in computer and internet technologies. It may be that politicians need to begin thinking much more creatively about how best to govern in a fully connected world.
Because, regardless of Brexit or Trump, people will talk across borders. And if politicians don’t start getting creative and figure out how to facilitate better representation and transnational co-operation, then people will do it for themselves.