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Rings of Power

June 6, 2020 - 00:55 -- Admin

The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is not so much a democratic leader as a monarch with a five-year term.

By George
Monbiot, published in the Guardian 3rd June 2020

Do we live
in a democracy? You may well ask. An unelected adviser seems to exercise more
power than the Prime Minister, and appears unanswerable to people or
Parliament. The Prime Minister makes reckless public health decisions that
could put thousands of lives at risk, apparently to dig himself out of a
political hole. Parliament is truncated, as the government arbitrarily decides
that MPs can no longer join remotely. As the
government blunders from one disaster to the next, there seem to be no effective
ways of holding it to account.

Established
power in this country is surrounded by a series of defensive rings. As soon as
you begin to name them, you see that the UK is a democracy only in the weakest
and shallowest sense.

Let’s
begin with political funding. Our system permits billionaires and corporations
to outspend and outmuscle the electorate. The great majority of money for the
Conservative party comes from a small number of very rich people. Just
five hedge fund managers have given it £18 million over the
past 10 years. The secretive Leader’s Group grants big donors special access to
the Prime Minister and his frontbenchers in return for their money. Courting
and cultivating rich people to win elections corrupts our politics, replacing
democracy with plutocracy.

This
grossly unfair system is supplemented by outright cheating, such as
breaching spending limits and secretly funding mendacious online ads. The
Electoral Commission, which is supposed to regulate the system, has
deliberately been kept powerless. The
maximum fine for winning an election (or a referendum) by fraud is £20,000 per
offence. Democracy is cheap in this country.

Despite
such assistance, the Conservatives still failed to win a majority of votes at
the last election. But, thanks to our preposterous, outdated
first-past-the-post electoral system, the 43.6% of the vote they won granted them a crushing majority.
With proportional representation, we would have a hung parliament. Five
years of unassailable power for Johnson’s Conservatives, even as popular
support collapses, would have been impossible.

The
structure and symbolism of Parliament, with its preposterous rituals and
incomprehensible procedures, could scarcely be better designed to alienate
people, or to favour former public schoolboys, educated in a similar
environment. Even its official emblem tells us we are shut out. It’s a portcullis: the
means by which people are excluded from the fortress of power. The portcullis
is topped by a crown, reminding us that power is still vested symbolically in
an unelected head of state. Many of her actual powers have been assumed, in the
absence of a codified constitution, by the Prime Minister.

These
powers are routinely abused, by all governments. Prime ministers bypass
Parliament, governing through special advisers like Dominic Cummings. When they
make catastrophic mistakes, they have the power to decide whether or not there should be a public inquiry, and, if
there should, what its terms and who its chair should be. It’s as if a
defendant in a criminal trial were allowed to decide whether the trial goes
ahead and, if so, what the charges should be, and to appoint the judge and
jury.

Even when
an investigation does take place, the Prime Minister can suppress its
conclusions, as Boris Johnson has done with the Russia report by Parliament’s
intelligence and security committee, that
remains unpublished. Does it contain details of unlawful donations to the
Conservative party? Or about Conservative Friends of Russia? This
group is closely associated with a man who has subsequently come under suspicion of being
a Russian spy. He has been photographed with Boris Johnson, whom he described
as a “good friend”. What was
going on? Without the report, we can only
guess.

The same
inordinate powers enabled Johnson to suspend Parliament last autumn, until his
decision was struck down by the Supreme Court, and to terminate remote access for MPs
this week, preventing many of them from representing us. He is, in effect, a
monarch with a five-year term and a council of advisers we call Parliament.

The House
of Lords is a further defensive ring within this ring. Some of its seats are
reserved for hereditary aristocrats. Some are reserved for bishops, making this
the world’s only country, other than Iran, in which religious leaders have an
automatic right to sit. The rest are grace and favour appointments, keeping
power within existing circles. Many of them are granted to major political donors,
reinforcing the power of money. In any other country, they would call it
corruption.

Despite a vast
array of new democratic techniques,
pioneered in other countries, there has been a total failure to balance our
supposedly representative system with participatory democracy. This failure
grants the winning party a scarcely-challenged power, on the grounds of presumed consent, to do as
it pleases, for five years at a time. Even when public trust and consent
collapse, as they have now done, there
are no effective channels through which we can affect the decisions government
makes.

These
formal rings of power are supported by further defences beyond government, such
as the print media, most of which is owned by billionaires or
multi-millionaires living offshore, and the network of opaquely-funded
thinktanks, that formulate and test the policies later
adopted by government. Their personnel circulate in and out of the
Prime Minister’s office.

Our
political system has the outward appearance of democracy, but it is largely
controlled by undemocratic forces. We find ourselves on the wrong side of the
portcullis, watching helplessly as crucial decisions are taken about us, without
us. If there’s one thing the coronavirus fiascos show, it’s the need for
radical change.

www.monbiot.com