Alastair Stephens: we need to democratise the state in all its aspects, but for now the battle lines are clear: we want democracy restored not jingoism revived
As was predicted the Scottish Referendum, despite not breaking the dam of the UK state has stirred the stagnant waters of British political life.
It has shocked the system and bounced the British political elite into making promises of further devolution that they may not be able to keep, and can only keep by seriously disturbing the constitutional balance of the UK.
This may sound like a dull subject, but a year ago most people south of the border (and there were few enough that had any opinions at all on this) were predicting the independence referendum would be a damp squib.
It would not be the first time that the question of the redistribution of constitutional power in the UK upset the applecart. Three times promises to grant Ireland Home Rule within the UK (devolution, not independence) up-ended the British political system. In 1883 it split the ruling Liberal Party, in 1912 it almost led to civil war in Ireland, and indeed a few years later the country did explode in violence.
Scotland is not Ireland, but as the sheer panic of our rulers in the last few weeks has made clear, it does represent a major problem for the system.
Tam Dalyell’s last laugh
The granting of extra powers will reopen for the Tories the West Lothian Question, raised in the 1970s by Tam Dalyell, the MP for the eponymous seat. The question asks why Scottish MPs can vote on English affairs but English MPs cannot vote on Scottish affairs (which incidentally makes them politically unaccountable for voting for policies that their electors do not have to suffer the consequences of, such as privatisation and deregulation which they loyally voted for under Blair).
The West Lothian question has been quietly ignored since devolution, not really much disturbing even most Tories. But it is being revived by a Tory party furious at Cameron’s panicked promises of Devo Max.
Its revival now is entirely instrumental, not having anything to do with the fairness or not of the current arrangements. It is being raised in order divert attention from the obvious democratic deficit in our society, and provide an alternative to real democratic reform
The referendum has shown up the decline of democracy in British society, and in particular the hyper-centralisation of power in Westminster, and the foisting on people of a whole series of neoliberal policies, effecting every aspect of life, that they never voted for.
It is also a reaction to the government's austerity program: something which the Tories argued for in 2010, and was decisivedly rejected by the electorate, but is being implemented regardless. Another clear example of the undemocratic nature of our state and society.
Everybody in British society knows that there is a yawning democratic deficit: that decisions are made elsewhere, by people we can’t really influence. This is the basis of the appeal of Ukip, it's just that they locate the shadowy elite that dominate our lives in Brussels. Obvious nonsense, but that is point, the object is to direct blame away from the corporate and financial interests who dominate our country.
An English Parliament - a Rump Parliament
The Tories know that it is now game on, that the edifice of the pseudo democracy that they have erected is wobbling, and they are coming out fighting.
Their battle cry for a new settlement for England is an English Parliament.
Of course no one is actually saying that England should have a new Parliament as Scotland has, or even an Assembly like Wales.
What they actually mean is that only English MPs voting on English affairs, which, given the balance of population in the UK (85% live in England), is most of the work of government.
A more undemocratic, jingoist lash-up can hardly be imagined.
An English parliament would serve the Tories four ways:
1 It is a way to whip up English nationalism, always the core the British nationalism, ethnically exclusive and tied to memories of Empire.
2It would shift the balance of power in parliament towards the Tories. The question of the role of Scottish MPs in forming a UK government has been controversial on the left in the referendum campaign, for there is a difference between taking the Scots out of the equation and Wales and Northern Ireland out too. Even if in 2005 Labour would have had a majority of 43 in England, in the last General election the Tories would have had a majority of thirty in England, freeing their hand to do what they like. We are also now in a period when both Labour and the Tories have difficulty gaining a majority. Every seat matters.
3An English Parliament would preserve the undemocratic nature of parliament and rule from Westminster. An English Parliament would be even more dominated by the big three parties than the current arrangement.
An English parliament would just be a rump House of Commons still elected by First Past the Post. It would still use an electoral system invented in the late Medieval period to elect a body which meets in a neo-Gothic palace presided over by men in tights in turn presided over by men in gowns. What a step forward!
4An English parliament would also preserve the balance of power in England, the most hyper-centralized country in the Western world. Local government would remain a shell, power concentrated in government departments and the quangos and big privatised services.
The calls from an ‘English Parliament” should be vehemently opposed, as an attempt to preserve the most undemocratic features of the status quo.
We should demand the opposite, the democratisation of our state.
For the referendum and the riot of democracy seen in Scotland has opened the question of the undemocratic nature of government in this country, the legacy of a monarchical-aristocratic state that absorbed the demands of the capitalist class, and then made concessions (if few) to the working class.
The latter have now been withdrawn and the political system has been reduced to a closed shop entirely dominated by corporate interests. All power has been drawn again to the top of the state, and the main parties, where they intersect with corporate world. All other levels of government have been deprived of power. Without the lifeblood of the struggle for power, the ability to change things, grassroots politics has withered and died. Much of the civil society activity that does go on is dominated by grant chasing from quangos and corporate cash, and civil society has to follow their agenda.
Devolution in England
Anther cry is going up in England: the call to restore local democracy, for devolution in England.
The shrillness of their denunciations is indicative of their worry. It has nothing to do with efficiency or sense, every other major European government has extensively devolved regional and local government. The United States, which they admire so much, gives most every day aspects of government to the states (which also shows that it is not a panacea in itself).
But most people in this country, even many Tories and Ukip voters, have views to the left of the three many parties
Outside the straightjacket of Westminster’s out of touch political machines, away from corporate lobbyists and the narrow options of First Past The Post, politics tends to plough a different furrow.
Neoliberalism has thrived in the decades or political torpor. It desires a population of passive consumers; a society of social actors is inimical to it.
Having real policies to discuss and debate, would revive local politics and political participation. It would let people have control of their local education systems and health services again.
The lesson is that away from the centre, the political power of neoliberalism is reduced. This is why British governments have ruthlessly centralised for three decades. This is why Thatcher destroyed local government in the 1980s and New Labour centralised public services in the 2000s, and why today an austerity-driven offensive against devolution is being waged across Europe.
Three decades of neoliberalism have eaten away at democracy in every aspect of our society. Union power and the democracy that enabled in the workplace was destroyed. The state has become ever more centralised, more secretive and more of its functiones have been hived off to the corporate world.
We need to start taking that power back. The debate over power in the state has suddenly gone live again. We need to democratise the state in all its aspects, but for now the battle lines are clear: we want democracy restored not jingoism revived.
Alastair Stephens has been a socialist his whole adult life and has been active in Unison and the TGWU. He studied Russian at Portsmouth, Middle East Politics at SOAS and writes regularly for the Counterfire website.