Renew's Terrance Knot investigates the demise of democracy in the UK.
The term "democracy" first appeared in ancient Greek political and philosophical thought in the city-state of Athens during classical antiquity. The word comes from demos, "common people" and kratos, "strength". Led by Cleisthenes, Athenians established what is generally considered the first democracy in 508–507 BC.
Since then, many countries have claimed to be democracies, but none more so than the United Kingdom. Indeed those who still profess to be British, and who identify, more or less, as English, Scottish, Irish or Welsh, have often taken pride in a supra-national United Kingdom: renowned worldwide for its sense of honesty, fairness and democratic decision making and rule, although in some cases harshly, but with “tough love” over countries comprising a quarter of the globe.
Nowhere was the sense of a thriving democracy more portrayed than in the coming together to support the “mother country” in the two World Wars, with thousands laying down their lives, for a concept founded on a common ideal, principle, or faith. Meanwhile one of the modern bodies of democracy was - at the same time as women got the vote - a health system, created for all. We also battled with the consequences of the national sale of assets to fund the defence of democracy – still living, believe it or not, with the abolition of the Slave Trade. Many will find it hard to come to terms with the fact that, although the UK connection with this trade officially happened in 1833-1840, throughout the British Empire, we were still paying off the money borrowed for the Slave Abolition Act in 2015!
On a lesser scale, the UK took steps to abolish child labour, to improve schooling (although the battle between so-called private and state-run schooling continues to this day) and workers were striking and marching against poverty and unemployment (Yarrow march 1936 et al.). On the back of this poverty and the feeling of frustration about the condition of the country, trade unions gained in power, especially in the fields of mining, textiles and transportation. An even-minded person would perhaps admit that the people of the country were fighting back in the only way they knew how: by denying their labour. Indeed they were “voting with their feet”, a democratic exercise of their human rights.
Before readers assume that this is a rant about human rights, let me assure you that it is not: it is simply a portrayal of some of the major steps along the way, as the British people, led by the English in 1215, gradually threw off the yoke imposed by royalty, later the “robber barons” and finally the affluent upper classes. This development of the “rights of man” (Thomas Paine in 1791, published a book, in which he linked the French Revolution with the idea that popular political revolution is permissible “when a government does not safeguard the natural rights of its people”) was a gradual process, over several centuries, but sped up as modern communications allowed ideas to be spread over the internet and similar systems.
Meanwhile the other major component countries, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, in no particular order, also showed a strong and understandable tendency to rebel and "do their own thing".
It is of note that, impoverished though she was after the Second World War, Britain (readers will forgive if I shorten Great Britain and Northern Ireland to “Britain, or the UK), played a major role, in international deliberations, post WW2. This applied, amongst other activities, to help to rebuild Europe, much of which was in ruins, both financially and in terms of assets and infrastructure. Of course, anyone with a grasp of basic history knows that this included the initial building blocks of a Free Trade Area, or Market, which grew in time, into the European Union.
This one short paragraph above disguises an enormous development, which in time has proved enormously popular, no matter how some may try to gainsay it, encompassing an amazing mixture of long-term civilisations, including a rather unsteady Greece, the so-called cradle of democracy, and many younger and smaller countries, some of which did not exist, at the end of WW2.
Again, despite sniping and protestations to the contrary, this union, as opposed to the British one, developed a democratic system of elected members from each country, a council and a mechanism for enabling each countries’ own elected senior ministers to exercise the right to contribute to - and vote for – its further development. It would be a surprise only to the most naïve, that this development, enabling seventy-five years of relative peace in Europe, has not been without its problems along the way, but try to point to a similar union which has not? Indeed compare the UK’s chequered history of sometimes vicious infighting between Irish, Scots, Welsh and English. Compare also, the “Land of the Free”, in which the American Confederacy fought against its Southern counterpart; and some in Virginia still quarrel to this day!
So, while the Continent of Europe was rebuilding itself, with initial whole-hearted input from the British, what of our own “Home of Democracy”?
We have only to say the word “Brexit”, to recall immediately the appalling schism that has developed in our union, and the negative effect this is having on our immediate international neighbours. One has only to take advantage of the Freedom of Movement that we have enjoyed for the last seventy-five years, to realise the shock and horror, the incredulity and derision, the snigger behind the hand that confronts the British, as they travel, holiday, or read the international press.
To say that we have become an international laughing stock, as the present Tory government wrangles about percentage points of approval or disapproval, is an understatement.
Yet, this wrangle, voiced in every newspaper, TV show and published article, both pre and during the pandemic, seem to make little difference to the small yet vocal group of alt-right politicians, bent on wresting political and financial advantage and lining their own pockets and those of their friends and cronies. Never mind that current polling indicates some 55-65% of the population of the UK would prefer to cancel Brexit. (Professor John Curtice, political guru, asserts that many of the young, who were unable to vote in 2016, are now “twice as likely to vote Remain and puts the Leavers on only 44-47%).
But here is the crux of the matter. Under the current “first past the post” (FPTP) electoral system, the public vote of 2016 overturned the referendum of 1975 and since then, the 2019 election, by what some regard as devious means, persuaded the great British public to return the Tories with a majority of 80 members in Parliament. This completely ignored the fact that a “proportional representation” (PR) electoral system would return a very, very different result. Yet neither the Tories, nor indeed the Labour Party, would vote for such a change, as their power base depends upon the status quo.
It does not help that the major party, in favour of PR, the Liberal Democrats, were completely out-manoeuvred and beaten, in the 2019 election: hardly a cause for confidence in the future. Other smaller parties also exist, such as the relatively new and centre of the road Renew Party, and the Green party, but again, under FPTP, the “big beasts” of politics are reluctant to switch loyalty, to more centrist policies, which lack a high profile. Except by honest and reasonable people, of which there seem to be fewer and fewer these days, most support tends to go to the headline catching extremists, rather than the outmoded concept that “the government of the people should be by the people, for the people”!
In that respect, the writer and many others, both friends and acquaintances, are amazed at the supine attitude of the average “Brit in the Streets”, compared with, for example, the French and many other significant countries in Europe, who are not slow to voice their views on poor government. Apart from two major marches, which saw not a single person arrested, the British public seems to have rolled on its back to have its tummy tickled! People outside the UK regard this as quite extraordinary and quite at odds with the battles and indeed a Civil War, fought for democratic freedom.
Meanwhile, the UK’s current government takes full example of the impact of the pandemic, to cement its grip on power and to railroad through policies and stratagems, that cannot be queried or fought on the floor of the House of Commons. It might be said that the Tories have a stranglehold on the throat of Democracy.
One other point before I close. From one who lives most of the time now, in Mainland Europe, amongst a thriving, educated, motivated group of 1.3 million British citizens, I must note that two aspects of life are paramount. We view with mounting horror, the downward slide of democratic freedoms in our mother countries of the union; and we feel embarrassed at the pity we encounter, amongst our fellow Europeans.
Is Democracy dead in the United Kingdom? Not yet, maybe, but on its last gasp.
Another day, another moment where you can’t believe Anne Widdecombe isn’t an actual zombie from an apocalyptic Brexit-dystopian future sent to the present to kill us all, according to Renew member Paul Gerken.
Strictly’s Anne Widdecombe has taken to the Brexit limelight like, as she may put it, an oppressed slave to a 17th-century transatlantic trading vessel. Shackled, bound, beaten, gagged, tortured and ripped from her family and possessions, Widdecombe took to the stage in Brussels. Anne was here to tell her oppressors that enough was enough; Britain - that cowed, bruised and abused nation - was setting itself free. Like the displaced Africans in America, we will rise up to a glorious future once rid of our brutal subjugation. Just you wait and see…
Not lost on Anne is the fact that the EU Parliament is the only democratic institution that has actually ever given UKIP, and latterly the Brexit Party, a democratic voice. Widdecombe is aware that the UK’s first-past-the-post system means that their voice and party would have inevitably always been crowded out by the two big parties. Of course, it is only the democratic institutions of the EU that have given them the oxygen and platform to survive, but this doesn’t matter at all, because – FISHING NET LEGISLATION! Damn you to hell, EU, and the laws we’re allowed to vote on.
All this reminds me of is that point in history where we ruled a quarter of the globe, shipped people around in chains and sucked vast swathes of the world of their resources without a hint of a democratic voice. It’s exactly the same as our evil past, and we want out!
Alas, at least like with slaves past, there is a generous per diem on offer to Anne for her commitment to voice for the oppressed. I’m not sure how much it was back in ye olde days, but one can only imagine that, with inflation, it was similar to the 320 euros Widders will claim. Did all oppressed slaves also get about a £7.5k base too?
Who’s to know. Probably. Anne wouldn’t go throwing around the comparison if it weren’t pretty much like for like.
Oh for the time we can be free, ruled by the Brexit Party that has no members, just an altruistic Nigel Farage at its helm. I can smell the freedom now. Glorious!
What would you give to be an MEP? More than newly-elected Brexit Party representative David Bull, if his morning-commute meltdown is anything to go by.
To add to the ever-growing list of Brexit Party embarrassments, freshman MEP David Bull threw a tantrum this week after realising that his election means actually going to work.
Lamenting the fact that he has to now “repeatedly” make the (not unscenic) trip to Strasbourg to fulfil his democratic duties, peroxide blonde hair quivering like a field of distant wheat kernels, Dr Bull appeals to the tweeting masses to offer sympathy for him. For some unknown reason, it doesn’t seem to occur to Bull that he could always rent a room in Strasbourg itself, avoiding the need for the 450-mile commute to happen on a regular basis.
To fair to the chap, Bull has it pretty tough. €7,857 a month, plus expenses, is a pretty meagre salary that most with his lifestyle would struggle to live on. Those haircuts must cost a bomb and a half, and, when coupled with a regular full-body spray tan, must consume at least half of Bull’s paltry income. An eleven-hour journey to work just isn’t worth it when you’re living below the breadline like that.
Supporters of Bull will say that the salary itself is the point - a gross ‘waste of taxpayers money’ that goes against what it means to be British. But it must surely grate even with Brexit Party voters that this man has the nerve to whine about his morning commute when he’s getting paid more than most will for a job he doesn’t take seriously.
This laughable attempt to cast the Brexit Party as martyrs ready to fall on Johnny Foreigner’s sword is just the latest in an ongoing saga of national embarrassment. As the big winner in the recent European elections, the Brexit Party found the confidence to take its brand of Poundland patriotism to the corridors of power in Strasbourg. The grand irony remains, of course, that these people don’t believe those corridors should exist - although, again, they will now doubtless claim to be the crusaders to Europe’s occupied Jerusalem, tearing down shrines as they munch on an all-expenses-paid lunch.
If this is what it means to be a British freedom fighter in 2019, god help us all. Churchill must be spinning in his grave.
Watching the Tory leadership contenders battle it out last week could only heap despair upon despair, says Paul Gerken.
The magnitude of cognitive dissonance required when you state that schools, health and green energy must be better when you’ve spent the last decade tearing them to shreds, is incalculable. Yet here we are, standing amidst the ashes of a country that is, only for want of time, merely metaphorically burnt to the ground, listening to the ones holding the matches. We must accept that it is their next bright idea that will be inflicted on the nation. The lightbulb that shines brightest? That if we just convince the European Union that we’re crazy enough to do this no-deal, somehow we won’t have to do it.
Let us unpack the logic. Here it’s pretty simple; you can’t get the best deal unless you’re willing to walk away. We’ve all been there – you’re desperate for flip-flops after you lost on them on lash last night down the Khao San Road, but unless you’re not prepared to swivel on your cut and muddied feet and walk away, that street vendor is never going to give you a dirt cheap price. Precisely the same logic can be applied to negotiating with the world’s largest economic entity. We never actually convinced them we would walk away, Johnson and Raab argue, and therefore they’ve completely done us over with that peace in Northern Ireland bit - that would’ve never been an issue had they known we were sufficiently bonkers to destroy every trade relationship we have with the world.
Now, apparently, the £2 billion of our money that was spent precisely on no-deal contingency planning wasn’t anywhere near convincing enough. We should have actually spent more! (I guess?). However, don’t get Raab wrong, he does want a deal, and apparently stating that on TV doesn’t undermine your resolution to leave without one. So, what to do, Dominic? Do we ramp up again the contracts to ferry firms with no ferries, in this great deceit? It remains unclear. What is clear is we need the gun to our own heads, stat, starting with teary bloodshot eyes directly into the resolutely calm face of Michael Barnier.
But please, let’s take a brief moment to look at this from the other side of the table. If you’re the EU, what do you gain from planning completely, with certainty, that no-deal is going to happen? As in, not just a tactic to box the UK into a corner, but planning like it’s the best outcome? Sadly, Brexiteers, they gain everything. Let's think about this:
- The EU gains absolute certainty that it can manage any outcome.
- The EU retains the respect and solidarity of its members, proving its importance.
- The EU has learnt how to manage the withdrawal of any member correctly and efficiently so that the threat of any other member leaving is less of an existential threat to the entire organization.
- The EU cannot be threatened by the UK’s no-deal threat, rendering it completely and utterly useless.
- Considering the above, their money spent on no-deal will never be wasted, but the UK’s will.
The EU has repeatedly stated they are prepared for no-deal, and seen in this light, they would absolutely be best to. They are prepared for a no-deal, not because of our threats, but because it’s in their best interest. They are not preparing as a charade but as a reality. It is us who want the deal, and these threats to Europe are so feast-eatingly embarrassing that it does make you wonder if we have, in any corner of Westminster, the brainpower to get us out of this.
One final point of reflection on the no-deal threat to the EU: If it happens, both sides will lose something, but who loses what?
- UK loses – the terms of every single trading relationship it has with every single country in the entire world.
- EU loses – its trading relationship with the UK.
And what’s more, they’re prepared for this to happen, whilst we are simply pretending to be prepared.
And with that thought, I am seriously not sure who can help us now.
London resident and member of the New York Bar John Nucciarone breaks down where the UK’s European strategy went so wrong.
David Cameron’s negotiations with the EU in early 2016 were both rushed and amateurish. Discussions should have commenced under his first mandate and the obtaining of emergency breaks on free movement within the European Union should have been made part of broader EU-wide reform.
External EU border security, the allocation of refugees between member states, the 3% of GDP deficit rule and Euro were all issues which Italy, Greece, Poland and the eastern Europeans were seeking and needed support with. Served well by London’s employment market, these same member states, along with the Baltics, could and should have been recruited to persuade the EU power brokers that emergency breaks on the mobility right were more than a reasonable demand by the UK.
Cameron could easily have taken the position that the banking crisis of 2008 and the fall of Communism were both epic events which resulted in a historical movement of peoples into both London and the rest of the UK. The emergency breaks he sought would be aimed at the tail end of such times and not free movement in general. Helping the UK obtain emergency breaks would be in the long term interests of these member states and would be more than a suitable price for the UK helping resolve the issues of immediate concern to them. It is just such an alliance that could have taken the reins in negotiations with Paris, Berlin, and Brussels.
If the Tories had kept to this type of traditional British foreign policy, we would not be looking at Brexit, a Salvini, Le Pen, an AFD electoral alliance or the Hungarian and Polish governments on the sidelines waiting for someone to talk to.
Misguided and old-style European nation-state leadership
The gatekeepers of the de facto EU political leadership structure, however, are the ones that created the conditions that led to these developments.
The European Union will eventually tear itself apart if Brussels, Paris, and Berlin continue to think that every economic, political, and cultural policy without exception could or should apply in the same manner and form to every member state despite the different social consequences for the various member states.
Liberalism, multilateralism and leadership are not found in expecting societies which have come out of 45 years of communism to react in the same manner as western European societies when dealing with refugees.
Nor were these progressive characteristics present when the EU scolded Poland for its use of coal as an energy source but stayed silent when Germany began to do so after the 2008 banking crisis. France, which preaches to Italy when it comes to refugee allocation but then does not take in the numbers to which it agreed, cannot then expect to be listened to by its Italian partner.
Moreover, France, which has an economy reliant upon public spending to function, cannot but raise eyebrows when it advocates an EU Finance Minister, just as Spain does, when with its youth unemployment rate of over 32% and large numbers of citizens searching for work in London, makes noises about joining the Paris-Berlin alliance.
The return of old Europe
Fanning the flames of nationalism in Europe has generally not ended well and this is what Stephen Bannon, the right-wing American political activist, is poised to do with his academy in Italy.
Bannon's goal of dismantling the EU may have unintended consequences, as European revolutions often do. It may see judicial independence in Poland further eroded and Viktor Orban moving to reduce economic freedoms in Hungary after already curtailing political ones by his attacks on state media and academic freedom.
For these reasons, a Europe in which populism and nationalism are becoming mainstream is not in the interests of the UK.
The future viability of the EU rests with both a French realisation that this project cannot be a search for France’s lost glory on the world stage and a German acceptance that the Eurozone has provided it with an inherent economic advantage that needs to be addressed.
The British would do well to realise that they cannot view the EU solely in economic terms and as a source of cheap labour for its hospitality and other low wage industries.
When Harold McMillan decided it was in the United Kingdom’s interests to join the European Economic Community he was simply pursuing 400 years of English and British foreign policy of ensuring that no one country dominate the Continent. At that time he had France in mind; things have not necessarily changed since then.
As nationalists gather on one side on the wall, it's time for those who believe in the EU to say so.
The European Union has been a victim of its own success for a while now. Its increasing reach over the decades has had a big impact on the lives of EU citizens, making them richer, more mobile and more interconnected.
However, undeniable successes, from Schengen to uncompromising standards on food and commercial goods, have provoked a backlash from those who have a rather different idea of European governance. The feeling that the EU’s top dogs, such as Jean-Claude Juncker and Guy Verhofstadt, want the ever-closer union to become a federal Europe has created millions of nationalists who wish to return to a Europe of competing nation-states.
There are many reasons for this, from immigration to sovereignty, but at the heart of the phenomenon lies a battle of ideas outlining a world either open or closed.
On one side of the wall, the nationalists seek to fortify their battlements, retreating from Brussels and putting up borders. They are often opposed to the unregulated free movement of people within EU borders and blame Europe’s politicians for failing to handle the migrant crisis.
On the other side, a Europe of young liberals, along with older generations who see the EU as the best guarantee of peace on the continent fight for its Union, see strength in openness and weakness in walls. Renew sits firmly on this side of the argument.
This is the defining conflict of our time. But at some point, these two diverse sets of people will need to come together and compromise on their visions for Europe. If they do not, the seeds of division will be sown deep into EU soil. It will be hard to uproot the thorns that grow from them.
The reconciliation may come through the strengthening of Europe’s external borders that keeps Schengen intact, appeasing those who fear (irrationally) an invasion by foreign peoples. Yet appeasement is not enough; the nationalists will need to see the EU as a positive success story rather than something that holds back their communities.
Renew has been clear that this must come by unequivocally backing the EU’s ability to tackle our biggest problems, which transcend national borders. Climate change, the AI revolution and the overbearing surveillance capitalists of Silicon Valley all threaten the future of democracy in the West.
None of these can be tackled alone by a Britain, a France or a Germany. They demand multilateral action and a common framework of regulation.
In the UK, Pro-European parties won the largest proportion of the vote in the EU elections. Now MEPs must take that mandate, for however long they can, and make a no-holds-barred case for the EU’s existence.
By James Dilley
Storm clouds are gathering over Peterborough. Who will win the mantle to reform politics in the UK?
You might think of Peterborough as an unlikely candidate for a political battleground. Nestled in the heart of Cambridgeshire, this relatively small city has found itself on the frontlines of the battle to revolutionise politics in the UK.
On one side of this new struggle, you have the Brexit Party and their ideological forebears, UKIP. But the latter is dying, pushed to the fringes of the far-right. Instead, Farage’s new vehicle has done an excellent job of corralling the support of disenchanted voters and currently polls around the 18% mark for a future general election. The Brexit Party also seems to be successfully colonising the ‘people from outside politics’ message - except their people believe we should leave the European Union and retreat behind wall and border.
On the other side, Renew, backed by Change UK, as well as other pro-European parties, are fighting for a vision of Peterborough and the United Kingdom that is quite different. They believe in a European society that is socially liberal, open to the world and welcoming to newcomers. They shun the fearmongering tropes of the populists, instead placing faith in hope, reason and science. They believe that Britain is better off at the heart of European decision-making and as a key part of its union.
So the two great storm clouds meet. Yet what is perhaps most interesting is the fact that both agree on one big issue: our political system is in need of a great change.
For example, the average Brexit Party voter in Peterborough is likely to want electoral reform. You can bet your savings that they would support a proportional system that allows for new voices to be heard in Parliament. And you can bet with confidence that the Renewer thinks the same.
Do not be mistaken; this is not naked self-interest from new parties unable to gain a foothold at the highest levels of politics. Both Brexiter and Renewer recognise that the unfairness of our elections increase voter apathy and damage our nation’s democratic credentials. They know it needs to change.
But that is where similarities end. It is what these new politicians do after gaining power that really matters - and the Brexit Party lot want to retreat from our closest allies and pull up the drawbridge.
So, Peterborough becomes a clash of open versus closed, friend versus foe.
If you are a voter reading this, you must then decide - which party do I back to reform politics? Do I run from Europe, or towards it? Do I embrace my neighbour, or view them with suspicion? Do I open my arms, or do I close them?
These two grand visions are now being played out all over the world. Time to choose wisely.