Digging around my old files, I rediscovered the following essay, written in 2005 in the run up to the election. Most of it is as originally written, with a freshly written conclusion tagged on to the end. I've touched on most of these issues in subsequent articles, essays and rants, but I wanted to publish it nonetheless, primarily because it was written during one of the many crises of confidence I suffered during that time. Looking back, I don't think I had anything to worry about.
Vote For Yourself
1) No Democracy
In the strict sense of the term, there has never been
a true democracy, and there never will be.
Jean Jacques Rousseau
What do we mean by democracy? There are various schools of thought on what democracy is. Lincoln’s government of the people, by the people is probably fairly representative of what most people think a democracy should be. However, we need to adopt a rigid definition for all types of political doctrine, so that we can recognise what our society most closely approximates. A good definition would be:
Democracy: A utopian society in which the population has an equal say in the decision making process.
The term utopian needs to clarified. A utopian society is one which is perfect and thus unobtainable. This is the most singular point to remember about a democratic system; it can never and will never exist. You only need to consider the very young or the severely mentally handicapped to realise that a society in which we all have equal responsibility is unachievable. Which isn’t to say that humanity shouldn’t strive for a closer and closer approximation of a utopian society. So long as it remembers that any ideology which claims to have installed heaven on earth can only be dystopian in nature. History is resplendent with examples of this.
Winston Churchill famously declared that democracy may not be perfect but it’s the best system we have. This statement as we have can see is erroneous on two counts. Democracy is perfect and therefore Britain can not be a democracy. No matter what politicians may claim, this country (like most so called democracies) operates under a system of elective representation. Voting for a representative has been called the act of giving away one’s democratic right by proxy. Of saying, Here, you make my decisions for me.
Elective representation can be viewed as anti-democratic in nature. In a democratic society the general population sets the agenda. This needs to be informed and based on what’s best for that society. In a system of elective representation however, democracy is turned on its head. It is the politicians who set the agenda. Party manifestos are little more than itemised bribes in reward for voting in a particular party. Which raises an interesting point. Why do we even need political parties? If a cabinet minister is the best qualified to carry out the will of the people, it shouldn’t matter which party they belong to. Indeed, in many ways the most democratic result we can hope for in Britain is a hung parliament.
Democracy within political parties is even further watered down. Parties, especially the one which rules, are semi-fascistic in nature. There is no secret ballot within Westminster. Back bench MPs are free to follow their conscience, but face removal of the party Whip for voting against the party. When John Major faced rebellion in ratifying The Maastrict Treaty a few years ago, he threatened to call an election if defeated. The rebels backed down. These antics make a mockery of what little democracy we have.
Finally, within the lifetime of this parliament we have shown how little democracy we truly have. The War on Iraq. Opinion polls in the build up to the invasion consistently show that 65% of the population were against the war without a second resolution. Around 20% were in favour. Now, in a democratic society the justifications for an invasion would be irrelevant. Only that it be the will of the majority.
2) Support for Authoritarian States
Because authority, though it err like others,
Hath yet a kind of medicine in itself
That skins the vice o’th’ top.
Measure For Measure
The democratic principle should not only be fixed but universal. If we are to apply it then it must be applied to everybody. To deny democracy to a single man, woman or child is to make a mockery of its ideals.
In the modern era, the government has become inexorably link to the arms industry, the second largest in the world. As in the case of the slave trade, basic human rights like freedom, equality and the right to live without being in constant fear of murder are secondary to the profit motive. During the Iran-Iraq War, it was estimated that both sides would run out of ammunition within two weeks. However, the UK, UK, France and Russia kept rearming both sides and the war waged on for eight years.
The idea of arming both sides of a conflict is by no means restricted to the Iran-Iraq war. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, where over three million have been killed, Britain continually supplies weapons to Zimbabwe, Nambia and Angola fighting on one side and Uganda and Rwanda on the other. It has also made a mint out of fuelling tensions between Pakistan and India in the disputed region of Kashmir. It should be borne in mind that at the end of the First World War, civilian casualties accounted for 15% of those killed in war and conflict. By the end of the twentieth century, that figure was 90%.
Saudi Arabia, one of the most repressive regimes on the face of the Earth has been supported for years by western countries. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that oil is the motivating force behind this. In Tony Blair’s address to parliament on the case for war with Iraq, he used the gassing of the Kurds in Halabja as evidence of Saddam Hussain’s evil. Yet strangely he omitted to mention that the Halabja atrocity was committed whilst Iraq was still a major client of the west. Within a month of the gassings the then Tory government offered Hussain £340 million worth of export credits. In the dossier released by the Iraq’s shortly before the invasion, it was alleged that 17 different British companies had armed them with components for nuclear and biological weapons, including Matrix Churchill, C Plath Nuclear and Euromac Ltd UK.
If western governments are to be believed (and all available evidence points to the contrary), freedom and democracy are their primary goals for the world. NATO went into Kosovo in 1999, ostensibly to prevent a humanitarian crisis. Yet the lion share of the crisis happened after the bombing began and most now grudgingly admit that the conflict had less to do with human rights and more to do with providing a platform to increase the credibility of NATO. Indeed, the idea of humanitarian aims was laughable when at the same time a NATO state, Turkey was continuing its persecution of its Kurdish population. What’s more, Turkey’s security forces did so using British made equipment.
However, the most blatant example of the Britain and the west’s attitude towards democracy an be seen in its relations with China. China’s human rights record by any standard is appalling. During the reign of Mao Tse-tung, it is estimated that anything between forty and one hundred million people died in the Cultural Revolution. In Tibet alone, well over a million Tibetans have been killed since the Red Army invaded the country in 1948. Those who haven’t killed have been ethnically cleansed from the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and replaced by the Han Chinese that have been relocated to the area.
Amnesty International recently reported that 3,400 people were known to have been executed in China last year. However, one party official stated that the figure was nearly 10,000. People like Shaheer Ali, a Muslim from the Uighur region, adjacent to Tibet. Shaheer’s crime was helping to organise a demonstration.
If economists are to be believed, China will have the largest economy in the world in the next few decades. Profit is once again sufficient for any pretence of human rights to be sidelined. Look at the label on most clothes or electronics sold in this country and it will bear the legend, Made in China. China is accepted into the World Trade Organisation with barely a murmur of concern for its people. The Olympic torch will be set alight in Beijing in three years time. All of which gives credence to the repression and atrocities it commits. Up until now, the EU Code of Contact has banned EU countries from selling weapons to China. Only weapons components have been allowed. With its presidency of the EU, Jack Straw and the British government are aiming to change that. It can’t be too long before we find the Chinese one party state being referred to as a democracy. After all, the people do vote!
How can we, in all conscience, pretend we are democracy when the people we elect knowingly and deliberately deny those rights to others? To vote for any of the major parties is essentially an act of racism. Of condoning and legitimising oppression.
3) The Narrowing of Political Choice
Britain has in effect only two political parties, the Conservative Party and the Labour Party, which between them broadly represent the main interests of the nation. But during the last twenty years the tendency of these two parties has been to resemble one another more and more.
These words were written in 1943. One can only imagine what Orwell would make of the state of British politics today. The most compelling reason why we should have a fixed idea of democracy is in order for us to judge when our democratic rights have been denied to us. If the Orwell saw the narrowing of political choice in his day as referred to as a democracy and we see that choice narrowed ever further, at what point do we cease to be a democracy? Is China a democracy? Or the United States? The US’s system of electing a President is barely one step above that of China. Noam Chomsky refers to the Republicans and Democrats as two factions of the same party.
4) The Serving of Elite Interest
[T]he men who are the most completely ignorant of the state
of the country are almost always those who represent it.
Pierre Jean Proudhon
A back-bench politician earns £57,485 a year. This rises through the ranks of junior ministers and Secretaries of State, reaching the dizzying heights of £178,922 annual salary for the Prime Minister and First Lord of the Admiralty. And yet a politician can earn 95% of his yearly income through outside interests. But what is meant by ‘outside interests’ is directorships in companies who have vested interests in the decisions of parliament. These interests have to be declared, but they are there nonetheless. So those who decide if a particular arms company should be granted an export licence to provide weapons and ammunition to fuel conflict may well be on the board of that selfsame company.
One of the things I find most unacceptable about the state of British politics is that politicians, even back-benchers, should be allowed to hold any other roles outside of Westminster. MP and MP only. The usual response by politicians is to cry poor. £57k a year is well above the national wage, even for London. The present system is ripe for corruption and past examples have shown this to borne out in reality. The years of Tory sleaze seem to have continued unbroken into the Labour incumbency. Making outside interests illegal would not put an end to corruption. Politicians could still lobby on behalf of corporations and be rewarded for their efforts upon retirements, but it would separate a lot of the wheat from the chaff. Our representatives, even in a system as vaguely democratic as ours, need to be pillars of our community. A cursory glance at Prime Minister not-answering-the Question Time is all it takes to see the depressing reality.
Whilst writing this essay, their has been a fine example of political fraud. The election of six Birmingham councillors was overturned by the courts. In his summing up, the Judge stated that the rigging of the postal vote in the wards under the spotlight was equivalent to that of a banana republic. I’ve seen the standard of the electoral system before. This wasn’t in local elections however. This was the 1997 General Election. When I was studying at Cardiff University, student friends of mine voted both in Cardiff and at home by postal vote. Moreover, I read reports of overseas students receiving ballot cards and voting in Cardiff. Electoral fraud by design or by accident is hardly a new concept.
In order for society to operate fairly, its elected representatives need to be above reproach. What we find is that aside from a few notable exceptions, they are beneath contempt. British politics is shockingly rigged in favour of the rich and super rich, whilst the poorest, the most vulnerable members of society are vilified and demonised.
A big brother culture exists. More than one poster campaign around the city centres and train stations of the land bear legends such as we’re watching you. Benefit fraud campaign’s have this sense of we’ll get you and yet the biggest fraudsters go unpunished and set the political agenda. In the 1992 election, it is generally believed that it was The Sun’s anti-Labour campaign that cost them the election. And yet throughout the nineties, The Sun’s proprietor, Rupert Murdoch paid no tax in this country at all. Benefit fraud amounts for an average of around £3 billion. And yet between £3 and £5 billion worth of benefits go unclaimed each year. Less is spent on educating the needy of their rights to extra funds than it is on creating a climate of hate towards the less well off.
Meanwhile, the Inland Revenue last year admitted that £14 billion worth of taxes had not been collected. It also admitted that it had not kept detailed records of this enormous discrepancy. £3 billion had been owed for over a year. Given that most employees have their tax and National Insurance contribution deducted by their employer, this money can only be owed by the self employed or corporations.
However, these figures only account for taxes actually owed. Tax avoidance by large corporations is rife. A conservative estimate put this figure at £25 billion a year, but it could be as much as a staggering £85 billion. The culprits include such household names as Shell, Virgin, Barclays Bank, The Prudential and Dixons. The present government has been talking about closing loopholes in the law to prevent tax avoidance since it came to office. So far that’s all its done: talk. Proposals to make any new loopholes illegal have been dismissed by Gordon Brown and the Inland Revenue (the government agency which would enforce such laws) has seen a huge reduction in its staff. Politicians and governments should only be judged on what they do and not on what they say.
5) Democracy is Lived Day to Day
Nothing is deader than the status quo, whether it be called Democracy, Fascism, Communism, Buddhism or Nihilism. If you have a dream of the future, know that it will be realized one day. Dreams come true. Dreams are the very substance of reality.
There seems to be a particular mind set that believes that democracy consists only in putting a cross in a box every four or five years. Government campaigns tell us that if we don’t have a vote, we can’t have a voice. As if the legitimising of a vetted, pre-approved candidate were all that was required for democracy to flourish. Like handing over a blank cheque to someone you’ve never met or signing a contract without bothering to read it.
Democracy isn’t something that comes around a couple of times a decade. It is lived day to day. The rights, the freedoms that we enjoy (and that are being curtailed in the War on Terror and Other Abstract Concepts) were won through years of campaigning and self-sacrifice. Parliament didn’t simply give the vote to women, it took years of dedicated and persistent struggle. The same can be said of slavery. In recent times we have seen the abolition of the Poll Tax and the introduction of a minimum wage. In the case of the latter it was Labour party members who campaigned for years for its introduction.
Parliament is merely the last link in a chain. When government does introduce legislation to protect our rights or to renounce an unjust law or tax scheme, it is usually something that has been known by the public for a long time. Change comes through public action, not legislative impotence.
He not busy being born is busy dying.
I hate when people say, I don’t do politics. Of course you do. Every time you step outside of your house or buy a paper or a pint of milk, every time you drop your kids of at school or stop at a red light or pay your phone bill or your council tax, you’re engaging in politics. Every conversation with any other human being, even if it’s only on Facebook or Twitter, is a political act. I have no great problem with the idea of socialism or communism because when you break them down they’re just the acts of socialising and communing. Every night out is an act of socialism, every football match or stadium concert is communistic in nature. Yet socialising and communing with our fellow human beings are ideas so dangerous and horrific to what we laughingly allow to be called a democratic system that they have had to be demonised and vilified for centuries.
Vote for yourself. No one can do it all but pick an issue, a handful of issues even, that you feel passionate about and fight for them. No one in a position of high authority is ever going to do something they don’t want to do, unless they are compelled to do so. My experience of western business practices is that the worse you are at your job, the higher you will fly. Competence is desired, but not a requirement. A total lack of idealism though, that’s essential.
A politician or public official is essentially a high flying manager and how many managers can you honestly say you’ve worked for who knew what they were doing or who wouldn’t sell you out in an instant if it meant furthering their career? There are some, just like there are a handful of politicians who actually want to make the world a better place. Unfortunately, they are so hopelessly outnumbered by yes men and women and servants to ‘higher authority’ that their voices will always be drowned out by the obedient throng.
Trust the people around you . Trust the people that have earned your trust. But don’t trust anyone that is any more than a few levels above you in the social hierarchy. You build a pyramid or any solid structure from the ground up, not from the top. Fuck politics, fuck politicians, fuck the democratic system. Vote, but recognise that any changes it wroughts are incremental and infinitesimal to the changes we can bring about by suring up our own foundations. Don’t wait for the system to change anything for the better. Change it for yourself.
Get it done.