Dan Hind's new book on the constitution of the British state makes the radical case for a republic. Socialists should take up the argument for democratisation, says James Doran
Dan Hind, The Magic Kingdom: Property, Monarchy and the Maximum Republic (Zero Books 2014), 153pp.
In his last book, The Return of the Public (Verso 2011), Dan Hind put forward an argument for media reform which skewered both the media barons and the BBC. It linked Britain's political economy to the phone-hacking scandal and the failure of the public service broadcaster to report accurately large-scale criminality in the City and large-scale protests on the streets.
Hind's analysis of the British press, and its claims to freedom, was matched by a critique of the public service ethos of the state broadcaster. In its place, he advocated a model of ‘public commissioning’ in which people would have a vote on the allocation of the subsidy to investigative projects.
In his new book, The Magic Kingdom, Hind addresses the unique constitution of the British state and points to democratic assemblies as the way to challenge the established order. With chapters based on his 2012 ebooks Common Sense and Maximum Republic (Commonwealth Publishing), the work is as timely as its predecessor.
Because it is unwritten, Hind argues, Britain’s constitution allows governing parties or coalitions to make far-reaching changes without prior consultation. He cites the Tory government in the 1980s which centralised the powers of local government and abolished the GLC, and the New Labour government in the 1990s which transferred power from the Treasury to the Bank of England. In both instances, changes were made by simple act of parliament that in other states could have required constitutional amendments - and thus could have involved the electorate through referenda.
The existence of the ‘Crown-in-Parliament’ allows the powers of the monarch to be exercised by a party leader able to command a parliamentary majority, either as a single party, or in coalition. Britain’s parliamentary system is often counterpoised to that of the U.S. Presidency, but Hind draws attention to the distraction of royal reporting. For the most part, the royal family plays no part in executive power, and so anti-monarchist republicanism will have limited popular appeal (unless this link becomes overt).
Hind sees in mass democratic assemblies the hope of developing political alternatives, and from these horizontal forms of meeting, both online and in person, going on to build campaigns for immediate reform. If there is a criticism to be made here, it is that the process of assembling to debate has to be repeated if trust between individuals is to maintained: this means institutions are required to bridge the gap between the ebbing and flowing of interest. This is not a criticism of Hind, but of the experience that the horizontal model of assembly, taken up by social movements in recent years, tends to lack the resources to develop an independent institution.
The Occupy movement, to which the chapter on assembly is addressed, was initially focused on occupying physical spaces (usually outdoors) and this came to define the trajectory of the movement. Without the creation of a membership organisation, with regular financial contributions from members, a lasting institution has not been forthcoming. This is a lesson that the People's Assembly Against Austerity has learned.
The Magic Kingdom serves as an invitation to debate the nature of democracy and the state. It is not a matter for the future: the direction of the British state, despite the majority vote against Scottish independence, is towards a breakdown of the existing constitutional settlement. Far from being distractions, questions of democracy are central to the struggles we face.