Counter democracy

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Last week, at the kind invitation of a Fellow, I was the lunch guest of a Middle Eastern bank.

The conversation turned quickly to UK politics and then to the US. The bankers were united in their sympathy for what they saw as our long term decline of that of our Atlantic cousins. They were in awe of the progress being made by China both at home and in extending its influence around the world, especially Africa. They were also contemptuous of American claims that China is taking unfair advantage by holding down the value of its currency. Their view was both the US and the UK and many other Western nations need to go through a long process of adjusting public expectations and restructuring their economy. But they considered this impossible due to the nature of our politics and democracy. ‘You need a benign dictatorship’ said one ‘but you have a crazy democracy’.

As America elects a House to oppose the President it elected two years ago (which will surely lead to logjam at best and chaos at worst) these words ring true. The Coalition in this country can be commended for being brave on the public finances (as I have said, this is a gamble which worries me but which I hope succeeds). However, there must be real question marks still about whether the people will react with such equanimity when the cuts start to bite. This piece by my former IPPR colleague – and former Brown advisor - Gavin Kelly suggests not.

I have spoken in the past about the way the consumerist myth of democracy (that politicians should give us what we want even when what we want is impossible or contradictory) saddled with us with the triple deficit of unsustainable consumption, unsustainable public spending and the generational legacy described by David Willetts in his book ‘The Pinch’. 

I have just put a new book on my must-read list (currently 157 and rising). It is ‘Counter democracy, politics in an age of distrust’ by the French political historian, Pierre Rosanvallon. In it he argues that democracy performs two central tasks: first it is concerned with mechanisms for agreeing the common good and the parameters of a just society, second, it is dedicated to preventing the abuse of power by elected representatives. The emphasis placed on each of the two tasks changes from era to era.

Currently, for a variety for reasons – the decline of social deference and class based affiliation being the most significant - it is the second task of democracy which is the one which receives by far the greater predominance. One symptom is the tendency to devolve more and more decision making power to institutions which are more trusted than political parties to act in the public interest – the courts, the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee, the Office of Budgetary Responsibility etc.

But surely in the face of challenges and opportunities ranging from climate change and ageing to globalisation and technological innovation - it is the first task – the definition and pursuit of the good society which is now the most urgent. If political discourse is to focus on developing a common account of progress and winning consent for us all to play our role in its pursuit then we urgently need new ways of thinking about and practicing democracy

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