Lindsey German on privilege and democracy, state control, and standing up to the Jewish Board of Deputies
‘The accursed power which stands on privilege (and goes with women, champagne and bridge), Broke – and democracy resumed her reign (which goes with bridge and women and champagne).’
This poem by Hilaire Belloc, ‘On a general election’, sums up the way in which the institutions of the British state survive democratic challenge. The British ruling class puts a huge amount of effort into ensuring this remains so. While that class always likes to think of itself as superior, exporting its democracy to the rest of the world and pronouncing on the democratic deficits and constitutional irregularities of others, the truth is very different.
A cursory glance at the British political system shows the exact opposite. First it is presided over by one of richest and most dysfunctional families in the world, steeped in privilege and held together with arcane traditions and customs so bizarre and opaque that a whole gaggle of ‘royal correspondents’ (perhaps one of the most useless occupations of all time) have to use acres of column inches to explain them.
Family is important to them for one reason only – to preserve their wealth and power and to ensure that it is passed through the generations. So the row about Meghan and Harry has at its root the question of money – who will pay for them and if they use their fame and royalty to accrue more wealth, will this reflect badly on the institution of monarchy? That’s why the agreement they will not use the title HRH has been made.
No doubt many of the royal family don’t like the fact that Harry married a mixed-race American actress. But they could deal with that as long as she didn’t become ‘uppity’, in the charming words of Eamonn Holmes. What they can’t deal with is something which challenges their inherited wealth and their unelected power. So they have been offered a separation which reduces that threat.
Behind this is a realisation by some that when the queen dies there is almost certain to be a major crisis around the institution. So a great deal is put into royal weddings, births, as well of the trappings of monarchy which stretch to the military, the established church, the patronage of charities and other good causes, which bind so many people in Britain to this institution. Most established politicians accept the status quo and abhor the suggestion that there can be an elected alternative.
The monarchy sits on top of a highly dysfunctional political system. The House of Lords has over 800 members – the vast majority political appointees rather than hereditary peers and bishops. It is the largest second chamber in the world except for that in China. Its members claim over £300 a day for attendance and of course use their titles to maintain and extend their privilege. It has become a destination for former MPs and advisers.
Socialists should oppose both institutions on principle. Democracy means elections not heredity or political appointments. I am very disappointed that Jeremy Corbyn has followed the standard tradition of British politics and proposed former MPs and advisers to the Lords. Even worse that he wants to ennoble Tom Watson, who did so much to destroy Labour’s electoral chances and who would have lost his seat in the election, and the former speaker John Bercow.
I fear this just makes Labour’s left look no different from the run of politicians, all part of the Westminster bubble. Rebecca Long-Bailey’s pledge to abolish the Lords is therefore welcome but should be standard for all Labour leadership candidates. Even Boris Johnson is proposing to take the Lords out of London, although why he thinks this will make them more popular is anyone’s guess.
There can be no democracy in Britain while these institutions exist. And the whole parliamentary system is flawed, in part because of these but also because its system of election, the preponderance of lobbyists around parliament, the lack of scrutiny about vested interests and institutions which make key decisions about what happens to ordinary people, the role of the civil service and judiciary. Breaches of electoral law such as breaking spending limits are met with derisory fines which are easily paid, and millions were spent on targeting Jeremy Corbyn alone in the last election.
Despite Long-Bailey’s pledge, the Labour leadership contest is shaping up into one which doesn’t challenge the status quo in any fundamental way. It is a contest dominated by soundbites, selective leaks, and acceptance of the basic set up – which puts it way to the right of the insurgency of Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign back in 2015.
One of the challenges for the left is to begin to develop a different and participatory democracy where the major decisions about society are made by ordinary working people, and this will mean challenging Labour’s commitment to the status quo, as well as that of the Tories.
Who’s terrorising who?
I found out last week that several of the organisations I support – and one that I am centrally involved in – have been accused of terrorist activities. This has come in a Counter Terrorism Police document which is part of the Prevent initiative. Stop the War Coalition, along with CND, Palestine Solidarity, Greenpeace, XR and a number of other organisations have been accused alongside violent neo-Nazi organisations. There is no reason to do so except to make it easier to criminalise protest and to demonise those who challenge the government.
It has long been obvious that Prevent has been used to limit pro-Palestine organising among the Muslim community. Now it is being extended to people who campaign against wars, environmental destruction and racism. This secrecy and scapegoating is part and parcel of the lack of democracy I’ve written of above. It only makes me more determined to campaign and I’m sure that’s how all of us feel.
Hats off to Richard Burgon and Dawn Butler, standing for Labour’s deputy leadership, who refuse to sign up to the completely undemocratic demands from the Jewish Board of Deputies which effectively demanded outsourcing of the party’s complaints procedure; permanent exclusion of named figures; suspension of anyone supporting someone who had been disciplined, and the side-lining of any ‘fringe’ Jewish voices who did not agree with them.
This is increasingly obvious as a political intervention, rather than one just concerned about discipline. There will now be a witch-hunt against these individuals – and we all have to give them our full support. As I’ve long said, you can’t fight a witch hunt by giving in to it – it only feeds the process. You have to stand your ground. That also means defending the rights of the Palestinians, because increasingly we’re hearing terms like ‘antisemitic anti-Zionism’. This has always been about minimising criticism of Israel and solidarity with Palestine.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
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