Soapbox

Sovereign people

Peter Phelps

Whatever our feelings about the monarchy, most of us will toast the Queen’s 70 years of devotion to a job she never wanted and has undertaken with grace and rectitude, qualities both currently in short supply. There’s little else in public life to celebrate. How different the mood thirty years ago, during her Ruby Jubilee, when Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the “end of history… and the universalisation of Western liberal democracy…” If only!

One flaw in Fukuyama’s thesis was underestimating the patriotic-nationalist fault lines of democracies, which can crack open during times of crisis. Then along came the collapse of the global financial system in 2008, and the serious mistakes made by governments in response. In the UK, hundreds of billions of pounds were pumped into the financial markets, followed by a programme of austerity to deal with the deficit.

These policies slammed the social reforms of the Blair-Brown era into reverse, dramatically widening the gap between the haves and have-nots. Average real earnings are less now, than before the crisis. 

The resentments that ensued were exploited by populists the world over, from Trump to Farage and Orbán, and seized upon as evidence of liberalism’s inevitable decline. Some philosophers, such as the British political chameleon John Gray, have gone further, disparaging the existence of universal liberal principles that might help shore up western civilisation, and proposing a retreat into the arms of the patriotic nation state.

It’s true that our liberal democracy is inherently fragile, and clearly in crisis, but not because it lacks core values. We should no more accept its inevitable demise than its supposed triumph in 1992. Those that do, confuse unfettered global capitalism of the kind that led to the financial crisis, with progressive internationalism of the kind represented by our former membership of the EU.

The excesses of globalisation don’t undermine Fukuyama’s basic contention that liberal democracy is a “fundamentally better system” than the various tyrannies on offer. Nor is there any reason to abandon the principles that have underpinned liberal thinking since the Enlightenment – universal suffrage, protection of civil liberties, equality before the law – or to give up on the idea that governments exist to serve the people, not vice versa.

Indeed, these are needed more than ever. Over January, parliament descended into a soap opera about parties that we all knew happened and all knew broke the law long before Sue Gray’s heavily diluted findings (see Jonathan Lis, Sonia Sodha, and Simon Heffer). Meanwhile, back in the real world, millions face energy poverty, while immigrants keep drowning; Brexit has brought labour shortages, border controls, and a queue of lorries stretching halfway across Kent (see Gavin Esler); there’s rampant inflation (see Peter Lawlor); businesses are struggling to stay afloat because of covid; and over 100,000 school children are “missing” from school for the same reason (see The Interview). The High Court’s recent ruling that the government’s covid “VIP lane” for contracts was illegal has been ignored, and the ongoing climate crisis forgotten.

As with all populist revolts, the wrath of the mob has turned on its leader, and the once Teflon-coated Boris Johnson is now feeling the heat of its justifiable outrage. But as Nick Cohen points out, the myopic focus on hypocrisy runs the risk of bigger issues being sidelined. And worse: we’ve become mere spectators to the political circus of a privileged clique. This is not a government that represents the nation, as the single fact that over 60 per cent of the current Cabinet were privately educated, compared to just seven per cent of the general population, attests.

Few outside Cabinet or the “wine-time Fridays” circle have any influence over the agenda.  We must wait another two years to cast a vote, in which only ten per cent of seats will be held by a margin of less than five per cent. To what extent do we truly get to choose those who exercise power? A simple reshuffling of Cabinet, a change of prime minister or the occasional redrawing of electoral boundaries: these won’t solve the problem.

Some see an elected head of state as the solution and ask what should happen when the Queen’s reign comes to an end (see Boris Starling, p. 14). But you can just as easily argue that the monarchy is the one part of our system still able to act as a reservoir of universal values, because of its impartiality and detachment from decision-making. We should remember that when the Queen uses the “royal we”, what she really means is “we, the people”.

It is not through abolition or through Brexit that we can reclaim sovereignty, but through electoral reform. Our system of choosing a government at Westminster was designed for a different age and is no longer fit for purpose. We can’t expect Tories – even enlightened ones – to accept the case for proportional representation, which would destroy their largely unbroken hegemony. Labour is also vested in the status quo, which gives it the trappings of the official opposition, if only rarely of government. But less than 30 per cent of the total electorate in 2019 gave Johnson his “stonking majority”.

If opposition parties – and this must include Labour – are truly committed to salvaging liberal democracy, then they must build a broad coalition of the progressive majority and bring about the change necessary to deliver a legislature that at least approximates the experiences, views and aspirations of a diverse people. Only then will there be the chance to have a government capable of understanding and addressing the real issues around business and employment, poverty and inequality, protection of civil liberties, and the environment. Only then might we benefit from a more gender-balanced governing class. Ultimately, if we don’t stand up for liberalism, we risk losing our liberties.

Columns

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