Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Democracy and Money

This article was published in The Nation on 04 February 2012 .

 

The corrupting effect of money on politics has been witnessed in many democracies. In the UK, it was cash for questions, cash for influence, cash for honours and cash for peerages followed by the unsavoury spectacle of MPs fiddling their expenses.

 

In October 1994, The Guardian alleged that lobbyist Ian Greer had bribed MPs Neil Hamilton and Tim Smith to ask parliamentary questions on behalf of Harrods owner Mohammed Al -Fayed at GBP2,000 per question. There had previously been allegations against another two Conservative MPs, Graham Riddick and David Redinnick. The Downey report on the Hamilton affair also condemned conservative MPs Michael Brown, Sir Michael Grylls, Sir Andrew Bowden and Sir Peter Hordern.

 

Peerages and party funding

 

 

In the UK, bribery and corruption is not limited to the Conservative Party. New Labour came up with the spiffing wheeze of offering peerages to those who donated to party funds. In March 2006, several nominations for life peerages by Tony Blair were rejected by the Appointments Commission. They had lent, at the suggestion of Lord Levy (Blair’s tennis partner, a former pop impresario known as “Lord Cashpoint” – manager of luminaries such as Alvin Stardust and Bad Manners), large sums of money to the Labour Party. There was a long and involved police investigation during which many MPs, including Blair (three times), were questioned. Levy was arrested. The Labour Party acknowledged that it had taken loans worth $24.5 million from individuals, more than three times what it had previously reported. It did not say who had made the loans, which accounted for most of the $31 million Labour said it had spent on the May 2005 elections. The case was eventually dropped by the Crown Prosecution Service but the Labour Party’s funds were disastrously hit by returning the loans and Blair’s own reputation was further undermined.

 

 

Veiled reforms

 

 

Also questioned by police was Secretary of State for Health Patricia Hewitt. Hewitt was also one of the MPs named in the 2010 sting into political lobbying by Channel 4. Hewitt appeared to claim that she was paid £3,000 a day to help a client obtain a key seat on a Government advisory group.

 

 
While in charge of the health service, Hewitt pushed ‘reforms’ to privatise it. In January 2008, it was announced that Hewitt had been appointed ‘special consultant’ to the world’s largest pharmacists, Boots. Hewitt also became a ‘special adviser’ to Cinven, a private equity which owns 37 private hospitals. Her predecessor, Alan Milburn, (he once ran a small radical bookshop in Newcastle called Days of Hope – known locally as Haze of Dope), has joined Beckham, Britney and Beyonce as a well-paid advisor to Pepsi-Co. Milburn also became an adviser to Bridgepoint Capital, a venture capital firm backing private health companies in Britain and works 18 days a year advising Cinven. The revolving door between the government and civil service and such companies surely must qualify as corruption.

 

 
Not many UK citizens would vote for the privatisation of the NHS. That does not stop their elected representatives selling it off for a fast buck.

 

 

Corporate interests

 

 

In the USA, no candidate can get elected without huge funding. This allows corporate interests to call the shots and to ensure ‘pork-barrelling’ and ‘earmarking’. The Supreme Court has ruled that corporations have the human rights of ‘persons’ when it comes to campaign contributions.
In 2002, investigative journalist Greg Palast published a book called The Best Democracy Money Can Buy. The book focuses on the 2000 US presidential election and provides great detail on the methods used to prevent many black voters from voting. Chapters are available in PDF on the internet. One of the most illuminating chapters is entitled The Bushes and the Billionaires who Love Them.

 

 
(http://web.archive.org/web/20050120154301/http://www.gregpalast.com/bestdemocracymoneyc
anbuychapter2.pdf)

 

 
Palast writes: “The Fortunate Son rode right into the White House on a snorting porker stuffed with nearly half a billion dollars: My calculation of the suffocating plurality of cash from Corporate America (‘hard’ money, ‘soft’ money, ‘parallel’ spending and other forms of easy squeezy) that smothered Al Gore runs to $447 million. They called it an election but it looked more like an auction.”

 

 
Super PACs

 

 

In the 2012, US presidential election cycle alone, political action committees (PACs) and Super PACs have spent over $25 million so far. Move to Amend is a national coalition of people and organisations working to amend the US Constitution to explicitly state that a corporation is not a person with Constitutional rights and money is not equal to free speech.

 
The problem is compounded by globalisation. Classical liberal theory sees capitalism and democracy as independent systems with disparate goals. Democracy restricts economic processes only to protect basic rights and does not limit wealth. Capitalism creates a large, wage-dependent class lacking the political power of the wealthy. Unrestricted global capitalism has created multi-national, non-democratic bodies with the impunity to override the environmental or labour laws passed by sovereign legislatures.

Democracy UK

This article was published in The Nation on January 15 2012

 

The phrase ‘the mother of parliaments’ is often mistakenly used to describe the legislature that sits at Westminster. The phrase was originally coined by John Bright in 1865 and he used it to describe the nation of England.

 

 

People who live in those islands at the north of Europe get a bit confused about nomenclature. The United Kingdom consists of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Britain consists of England, Wales and Scotland. Historian Norman Davies wrote a monumental book called The Isles – the term British Isles also includes the nation known as the Republic of Ireland. Davies’s latest book is called Vanishing Kingdoms. In it he predicts the break-up of the UK. The English “in particular are blissfully unaware that the disintegration of the United Kingdom began in 1922, and will probably continue”.
Notice that Bright did not say that the UK was the mother of parliaments, even though the legislature that now sits at Westminster is a UK parliament. The English Parliament developed its power and influence by limiting the power of the monarchy, even going to the extent of chopping off the head of Charles I (the executioner was appropriately named Colonel Hacker). The monarchy was allowed back in 1660 but Parliament was supreme. All future sovereigns had little executive authority. This continues today as a group of aging people of German origin sit in an expensive gilded cage representing Britishness to visiting tourists.
English Parliament
The 1707 Act of Union merged the English Parliament with the Parliament of Scotland to form the Parliament of Britain. When the Parliament of Ireland was abolished in 1801, its former members were merged into the Parliament of the United Kingdom.

 

 

The current Westminster Parliament is a peculiar institution in that it includes members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland even though those components of the UK now have their own devolved assemblies. Indeed, it often seems that the UK is ruled by Scotsmen as there have been so many of them in British cabinets.

 

 

The West Lothian Question has been much discussed. Before 1998, all political issues, even when only concerning parts of the UK, were decided by the UK Parliament at Westminster. Issues concerning only those other parts of the UK were often decided by the respective devolved assemblies; purely English issues were decided by the entire UK parliament, with MPs from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland fully participating in debating and voting. Members of Parliament are elected simultaneously in general elections all over the UK. There are 529 English constituencies, which because of their large number form an inbuilt majority in the Commons. However, there have been occasions where MPs elected in England have been outvoted by MPs from the rest of the UK on legislation relating only to England.

 

 

The idea of representative democracy is further complicated by the UK’s membership of the EU. Previous articles in this series have looked at how the PIGS EU countries (Portugal, Ireland, Greece, Spain) have had their democracies usurped by EU and IMF technocrats and bankers.

 

 

Eurozone

 

 

The UK seemed to be bucking this trend. It was not part of the Eurozone. David Cameron has used his power of veto to block an EU-wide deal proposed by Germany and France for treaty changes that would lead to greater fiscal union. Instead, France and Germany will lead the 17 Eurozone countries and at least six other EU nations in a new treaty. Many hailed Cameron’s decision to use his veto as a triumph for British independence. One French diplomat said Cameron was acting “like a man who wants to go to a wife-swapping party without taking his own wife”. This was not about democracy and power for the UK voter; it was a “principled” stand on behalf of the City of London. London is no longer the capital of England or the UK. It is the capital of international capital. The government’s main aim is to protect the financiers rather than ordinary voters.
Democracy as practised in the UK does not seem to help ordinary voters. They wanted to punish New Labour but did not give a ringing vote of confidence to the Conservatives. Cameron had to rely on the support of the Lib Dems, but that support has effectively destroyed the Lib Dems’ electoral future.

 

 

Threat to democracy

 

 

Ordinary voters did not vote for the vicious austerity measures now being implemented. It is more likely that they would have wanted the banksters who got the country in such a mess to be punished. The mild regulatory measures proposed by John Vickers will not be implemented until 2019. As Robert Jenkins, who sits on the Bank of England’s financial policy committee, points out, the date is distant enough “to allow lobbyists to chip away until the proposal becomes both unrecognisable and ineffective.”

 

 

While the government has introduced no meaningful sanctions to discourage a repetition of the crash, it has also failed to repeal the oppressive laws preventing voters from challenging those who caused it. When he became deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg promised that the government would “remove limits on the rights to peaceful protest” but there is no such measure in the Protection of Freedoms bill, which was supposed to have been the vehicle for this reform.
As well as the banksters, another threat to democracy has been the power of the Murdoch empire. Nobody voted for Murdoch, but this ruthless advocate of the market system, opponent of regulation and the welfare state, was able to enter Downing Street by the back door for secret meetings at will for over thirty years, whichever party was theoretically “governing”.

 

 

The less regulated the better

 

 

Anthony Barnett writes: “In the UK this informal, elitist constitution of ours while lauded as strong because flexible is, in fact, a weakness. Murdoch joined with Thatcher in exploiting its informality to expand their power and in the process further hollowed out its self-belief. They began to dismantle the old regime without any desire to replace it by anything other than themselves, the less regulated the better. The process continued under Tony Blair.”

 

 

Peter Oborne, no left wing radical, argues that a new “ethic’’ appeared under Thatcher and developed further under New Labour. The incorrupt disinterested administrative class of the 19th century was replaced by a political class who are mostly Oxbridge-educated men recruited young into the circuits of political influence. This class seeks personal gain from public office and makes its fortune from “a fusion between the media and political domains”. People like Gordon Brown, David Cameron and both Milibands have little experience of real life as experienced by the Man on the Clapham Omnibus. They go straight from university to think tank to internship to governing.
The English feel proud that their brand of parliamentary democracy has been exported around the world but do not seem to have noticed that democracy is dead in their own country.
Another phrase coined by John Bright was “flogging a dead horse”.

 

Democracy and Cuckoo Clocks

This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday December 8 2012

 

“You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? – The cuckoo clock!”

 

 

Orson Welles, as Harry Lime, portentously intoned those words, from the great height of the Wiener Riesenrad, a Ferris wheel in the Prater amusement park in Vienna, from which he looks down on the ant-like humans scurrying below. Lime, like many of today’s politicians, was able to cheerfully use his charisma to make money and disregard the human suffering he caused. Lime made his money selling contaminated medicines. on the black market  Welles himself added those words to Graham Greene’s screenplay for The Third Man. Welles is quoted as saying “When the picture came out, the Swiss very nicely pointed out to me that they’ve never made any cuckoo clocks, as they are in fact German, native to the Black forest”..

 

Confederation
Welles’s insertion was a travesty of the reality of Swiss history and echoes remarks made by the painter Whistler in a lecture published in 1888. The original Swiss were known as Helvetic Celts. They were subdued by the Romans and became free-born subjects of the Roman Empire. In the 13th century their independence was threatened by the Hapsburg Empire in nearby Austria. In 1291, the Forest Cantons formed an Everlasting League against the aggressor which developed into the Swiss Confederation. By the 16th century, the Confederation had 13 members and had developed a fearsome military force. Historian Douglas Miller has pointed out that during the period of time the Borgias flourished in Italy, the Swiss Confederation provided “the most powerful and feared military force in Europe”; this was not the peacefully neutral country it is today.

 

 

The Swiss nation as we know is very young. As the Website Direct Democracy Ireland commented: “Not five hundred years of democracy and peace, merely 162 years, in the epicentre of war-torn Europe, with enviable prosperity and direct democracy.”

 

 

Women’s suffrage

 

 

Switzerland is a country of four  languages which was, until recently, poor, backward and divided. It was established as a modern and devolved republic in 1848, the year of revolutions, and only became really established as a nation in 1891. It may not be generally realised that Switzerland, often thought of as an ancient democracy was the last Western republic to grant women’s suffrage. Women got the vote in Ceylon in 1931. The Swiss referendum on women’s suffrage was held on February 1, 1959. The majority of Switzerland’s men voted “no”, but in some cantons, women obtained the vote. The first Swiss woman to hold political office, Trudy Späth-Schweitzer, was elected to the municipal government of Riehen in1958. Swiss women did not gain the right to vote in federal elections until 1971. Appenzell Innerrhoden became the last Swiss canton, in 1991, to grant women the vote on local issues.

 

 

Constitutional theorist Albert Venn Dicey was an implacable enemy of Irish Home Rule and had railed against it in books, pamphlets, letters to and series in The Times.

 

 

In 1914 Dicey wrote about Switzerland:

 

“Never was there a country in which it seemed more difficult to produce national unity. The Swiss cantons are divided by difference of race, by difference of language, by difference of religion.” Dicey continued: “These distinctions till nearly the middle of the nineteenth century produced a kind of disunion among the Swiss people which in 1914 seems almost incredible. They forbade the existence of a common coinage; they allowed any one canton to protect the financial interest of its citizens against competition by the inhabitants of every other canton.”

 

 

A Swiss historian, William Martin, argued that his nation’s success was mainly because of its answering the needs of the time and addressing the needs of the future by the insertion of revision clauses in the federal and in all cantonal constitutions. The constitution of the Irish Free State in 1922 promised similar referendum choices but this was reneged on through successive amendments.

 

 

Positive examples

 

 

Contemporary Switzerland offers some positive examples of democracy to the rest of the world. In today’s Switzerland, a republic of seven million people, citizens’ law-making is exercised on all political levels – including almost 3,000 autonomous municipalities, 26 sovereign states and on the common, federal level.

 

 

Switzerland is still a representative democracy in that most laws are made by parliament. The important difference, however, between the Swiss system and the “indirect” democracy of Britain is that citizens are entitled to put almost every law decided by their representatives to a general vote.

 
If 50,000 signatures can be gathered within 100 days of the publication of a new law, a referendum is needed. In 96 out of 100 cases, no such referendum is triggered, because the parliamentary process enjoys a very high level of legitimacy. In 1993, the Swiss military chief of staff, as a citizen, collected the necessary signatures for a referendum to have a moratorium on military spending. Elsewhere this would constitute insubordination, or possibly mutiny.

 

 

According to Bruno Kaufman, president of IRI (Initiative and Referendum Institute Europe, a transnational think-tank dedicated to research and education on the procedures and practices of modern direct democracy): “That is because the elected lawmakers know that their work will be seriously checked by the public, so they do a very good job indeed.”

 

 

Kaufman says: “Interestingly, the strong elements of direct democracy in Swiss politics have not weakened representative democracy or parliament. … It took many years, and many democratic movements, to get a more fine-tuned division of power, which now offers all forces and groups in the country a fair opportunity to take an active part in setting the political agenda, and in determining the final decision. And this is not simply oppositional: while most popular initiatives proposed by minority groups fail at the ballot box, most governmental proposals get support. Government in Switzerland is not delivering for people, but with them…Startlingly, those parts of the country where the people are most involved in politics also have better public services and stronger economies.”

 

According to Direct Democracy Ireland:
“The ultimate Swiss genius was the transformation of the country’s greatest liabilities, its political geography and related religious, cultural schisms and economic disparities into one of its greatest assets. By retaining the cantons’ independence and counteracting the huge disparities in populations [largest 1,242,000: smallest 15,000] through the Council of States and in referenda, they converted what might have been the “tyranny of the majority into transparent justice….The Federal Constitution of the Swiss Confederation is unlikely to be accepted as an ideal model; ruling élites [e.g. the Irish political parties] much prefer constitutions, where the people cannot interfere without the élite’s sanction”.

 

 

That could be said of other nations than Ireland.

Monitory Democracy for Better Governance

This article was published in The Nation on January 29 2012

 

Since writing a series of articles for The Nation on how democracy was working out in practice in the contemporary world, I have been reading John Keane’s monumental work, The Life and Death of Democracy. In almost 1,000 pages, Keane, Professor of Politics at Westminster University, goes back beyond ancient Athens and also looks into the future. He challenges the myth that democracy began in Athens 2,500 years ago and argues that the ancient civilisations of Syria-Mesopotamia were experimenting with popular assemblies 2,000 years before the Athenians. Keane objects to the distorting foundation myth that leads us to assume that, as an inherently Western idea, democracy must have gone into hibernation until rediscovered in England/France/the US about 2,000 years later.

 

 

As I have shown in previous articles, the kind of “assembly democracy” or “direct democracy” seen in Athens was replaced in the modern era by “representative democracy”, where those elected made decisions on behalf of voters. Keane expresses his distaste for what he calls “the pseudo-democratic doctrine of self-determination” that emerged after the First World War and was used to justify “the brazen murdering and herding of people”.

 

 

Pragmatic democracy

 

 

Keane uses the term “monitory” democracy to describe a phenomenon he identifies as having developed after the Second World War. Democracy is now viewed pragmatically as a vital weapon for guaranteeing political equality against concentrations of unaccountability. “From roughly the mid‐twentieth century, representative democracy began to morph into a new historical form of ‘post‐representative’ democracy.” This works between elections and across national borders. As well as exploring the idea in his book, Keane has also given it much currency in lectures and articles. An example can be found at:

 

 

http://www.open.ac.uk/socialsciences/emergentpublics/seminar1/keane_monitory_democracy.pdf

 

 

“Monitory mechanisms are geared as well to the definition, scrutiny and enforcement of public standards and ethical rules for preventing corruption, or the improper behaviour of those responsible for making decisions, not only in the field of elected government, but also in a wide variety of settings. The new institutions of monitory democracy are further defined by their overall commitment to strengthening the diversity and influence of citizens’ voices and choices in decisions that affect their lives – regardless of the outcome of elections.”

 

 

This is not the same as top-down surveillance. Keane provides a long list of means by which civil society influences policy between elections, including think tanks, teach‐ins, local community consultation schemes, information and advisory and advocacy services, professional networking, citizens’ assemblies, democratic audits, brainstorming conferences, global associations of parliamentarians against corruption, banyan democracy, public interest litigation and satyagraha methods of civil resistance. Included as well are consumer organisations, online petitions and chat rooms, public vigils, peaceful sieges and global watchdog organisations.

 
– See more at:

http://www.nation.lk/edition/focus/item/1987-monitory-democracy-for-better-governance#sthash.0pHtalAy.dpuf

 

 

New vocabulary

 

 

This activity has introduced a new vocabulary: “public accountability”, “empowerment”, “transparency”,”stakeholders”, “participatory governance”. Keane says: “Democracy is no longer simply a way of handling the power of elected governments by electoral and parliamentary and constitutional means, and no longer a matter confined to territorial states.” Ideas come from all nations. “Participatory budgeting” is a Brazilian invention; truth and reconciliation commissions began in Central America, while integrity commissions first sprang up in Australia. These activities discomfit politicians, parties and elected governments, questioning their authority and forcing them to change their agendas.

 

 

There are many ways of influencing elected governments. One of my teachers at Manchester University back in the middle of the last century was Professor SE Finer. He made his name as a political scientist; his magnum opus, The History of Government from the Earliest Times, was many years in the making. It is approximately 1,700 pages long. A three-volume comparative analysis of all significant civilised government systems, past and present. There were two missing chapters when he died in 1993. These were to have covered the exportation of the modern state model outside the “West”, and variations on the theme of modern totalitarianism.

 

 

He has been described as charismatic. I recall that he was a small man and very funny, although teaching topics that could have been dull. His main topic was the role of interest groups in government. He had covered this subject in his 1958 book The Anonymous Empire.

 
Finer did not denounce lobbying and accepted that specialised advice was needed if laws were not to be bungled. Finer’s examples of lobbyists included chambers of commerce, trade unions, professional bodies and propaganda organisations. There was some transparency about these organisations, their aims and methods. However, Samuel Finer was worried about the lack of clarity about when MPs acted on behalf of lobbyists. He had traced every amendment to the Transport Bill of 1946-47 to one interest group or another, but it was a hard slog. ‘Light! More light!’ he cried, demanding a register of members’ interests.

 

 

Voice of minority

 

 

The new power‐scrutinising inventions break the grip of the majority rule principle – the worship of numbers – associated with representative democracy and give a voice to minorities. Other monitors publicise long‐term issues that are neglected in the short‐term mentality encouraged by election cycles.

 

 

Part of the monitory machinery consists of bodies set up by governments themselves. In the early 80s, I worked for Sir Arthur Armitage at SSAC (Social Security Advisory Committee). This body was made up of people from industry, the unions, local authorities, social work professionals and academics, people from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland and ethnic minorities. When the Welsh member dropped out, I suggested Shirley Bassey as a replacement – Welsh, a woman, black. The actual replacement was an Indian GP from Neil Kinnock’s constituency. A jolly fellow but he snored loudly during meetings. The government was required to submit to SSAC legislation which it was considering relating to the social security system. SSAC would then initiate a consultation exercise inviting interest groups, charities, NGOs and members of the public to offer their views. Taking account of all this feedback SSAC would prepare a report in which it might recommend changes to the legislation. In the British way, these diverse individuals always reached consensus.

 

 

Public exposure

 

 

Keane notes that the establishment of such monitory bodies by government itself contains a paradox. “Not only are government scrutiny mechanisms often established by governments who subsequently fail to control their workings – for instance, in cases of corruption and the enforcement of legal standards; the new mechanisms also have democratic, power‐checking effects, even though they are normally staffed by un‐elected officials who operate at several arms’ length from the rhythm of periodic elections.”

 

 

Finer would have enjoyed analysing the multimedia‐saturated societies of the 21st century. Today, more than ever before, the arrogance of power is being challenged and the word is being spread. Keane writes: “The quiet discriminations and injustices that happen behind closed doors and in the world of everyday life – become the potential target of ‘publicity’ and ‘public exposure’.”

 

 

Keane concludes that in the age of public monitoring of power, democracy can no longer be seen as an end in itself. Monitory democracy is an unfinished experiment that both thrives on imperfection and requires fresh ways of thinking about democracy’s virtues and its imperfections and failures.

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