Is Britain Really A Democracy?
By Ian Sinclair
7 July 2022
Appearing on BBC Radio 4’s The Moral Maze in January, Jeremy Black, Professor Emeritus of History at Exeter University, strongly opposed the toppling of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in June 2020. “Since 1928 we have had a full, equal parliamentary democracy… we do have democratic processes in Britain, both in local government and in national government, to change the law or to give effect to the law,” he argued. “I’m not happy with the way of using force and violence in order to affect change when there are democratic processes there.”
Professor Black’s belief in the efficacy of British democracy echoes repeated statements made by the British elite. “I am fortunate to live in a democracy, I am fortunate to be the Prime Minister of a free, independent, democratic country,” Boris Johnson told the BBC’s Sophie Raworth in February. Indeed, these kinds of self-serving platitudes tend to be popular when discussing international affairs, with Tory MP Andrew Percy responding to the Russian invasion of Ukraine by announcing“We are lucky to live under the best form of government ever known in human history”.
As the quote from Johnson makes clear, one function of public pronouncements about “British democracy” is to confer legitimacy on the status quo, and our rulers.
But what is the reality?
There has been some important research done on this question in the US, with a 2014 BBC report on an academic study into American political system titled “US is an oligarchy, not a democracy.” The authors of the research – Professor Martin Gilens from Princeton University and Professor Benjamin Page from Northwestern University –noted their “analysis indicates that economic elites and organised groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.” Writing in his 2012 book Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America, Gilens explains his research shows “that when preferences between the well off and the poor diverge, government policy bears absolutely no relationship to the degree of support or opposition among the poor.”
Back in the UK, there is considerable evidence all is not well with our own much heralded democracy. Note, for example, the following polling results.
A May YouGov survey found 60 per cent of respondents backed the public ownership of the railways, which echoes a survey done by the polling company in 2017 which found a majority of people in favour of nationalising Royal Mail, water companies, energy companies and railway companies.
Another YouGov poll in January found 67 per cent of respondents (including 65 per cent of Tory voters) supported capping private housing rental rates, with 69 per cent supporting “Increasing the percentage of new builds required to be set aside for affordable housing.”
In October 2021 the thinktank Demos and WWF surveyed 22,000 British people – the “biggest analysis of [climate] policy preferences ever published,” according to the Guardian. They found overwhelming support for a number of policies, including a carbon tax (94 per cent), food campaigns that promote plant-based diets and reduced meat and dairy consumption (93 per cent) and raising flying costs, especially for frequent fliers (89 per cent).
And in 2020 YouGov also found 61 per cent of the public supports a wealth tax for people with assets over £750,000.
Morning Star readers will know that despite public backing, these policies are not supported by either the Conservative government or Labour opposition, and garner little support amongst the wider political class.
To (mis)paraphrase The Jam’s Going Underground, on key issues the public often doesn’t get what the public wants.
This is because there are more powerful forces bearing down on the political system that are actively working in opposition to public opinion – corporate interests, being a key influence.
The Democratic Audit research unit at the London School of Economics came to a similar conclusion in 2012. “There are very firm grounds to suggest that the power which large corporations and wealthy individuals now wield on the UK political system is unprecedented,” their report noted about the “long-term, terminal decline” of representative democracy in the UK. “Evidence is presented throughout our Audit of ways in which policymaking appears to have shifted from the democratic arena to a far less transparent set of arrangements in which politics and business interests have become increasingly interwoven.”
This influence occurs in a number of ways, many of which, as the Audit suggests, are hidden from public scrutiny as much as possible.
For example, in 2011 it was revealed by the Guardian that financiers in the City of London provided over 50 per cent of the funding for the Conservative Party. More recently the Guardian reported “private firms including healthcare bodies, arms companies and tech giants” had provided £13m for All-Party Parliamentary Groups, informal groups in parliament made up of MPs focussing on a variety of topics.
In addition to directly funding of political parties, corporations undertake extensive lobbying of politicians. In 2012 the Bureau of Investigative Journalism found that the City spent £92.8 million (with 800 staff working full time) on lobbying government in 2011. Unsurprising this work creates access to the highest level of government. For example, in 2015 the Guardian reported “fossil fuel companies enjoy far greater access to UK government ministers than renewable energy companies or climate campaigns,” with just Shell and BP having double the number of ministerial meetings as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. Incredibly, 2012 Freedom of Information requests uncovered employees of oil companies Shell and ConocoPhillips working at the Department of Energy and Climate Change – in most cases paid by the government to do so.
Corporations also exert influence through well-funded thinktanks such as the TaxPayers’ Alliance, the Institute of Economic Affairs, Policy Exchange, the Adam Smith Institute and the Legatum Institute. All are very close to the current Tory government, helping to shape the political debate in the media and Westminster.
And of course big business and wealthy individuals own significant sections of the media, the primary source of news for the population. With three companies controlling 83 per cent of the national newspaper readership in 2018, in their 2020 book The Media Manifesto, four academics note “levels of concentration of press power are actually increasing” in the UK.
What all of this shows is we have a corporate-dominated democracy – a managed democracy in which we have formal elections but governments that are often unresponsive to voters on many of the key issues but usually happy to implement corporate-friendly policies. Which of course means we don’t really live in a democracy at all. As comedian and writer Robert Newman argued in his 2003 novel The Fountain at the Centre of the World “Either you have democracy or you have private power – you can’t have both.”
A word of warning: don’t expect unwavering support from liberals in this fight.
“That nobody could possibly do a better job than… professionals is a core belief of elite liberalism,” journalist Abi Wilkinson argued in Jacobin magazine in 2017. Elite liberals are “suspicious of mass democracy,” she notes, because they believe “that every other social order had been tried and proven inferior. Capitalist democracy, stewarded by sharp, well-intentioned experts, had allegedly emerged from the scrum as the unquestioned victor.”
Wilkinson’s analysis is echoed by a study published in the New York Times in 2018. Using data from the World Values Survey, David Adler found that across Europe and North America “centrists are the least supportive of democracy, the least committed to its institutions and [other than the far right] the most supportive of authoritarianism.” Again, this won’t be a surprise to anyone who remembers the support and/or supportive silence Labour centrists gave when the Labour Party barred thousands of people from joining to vote in the 2016 leadership election, or their attempts to overturn the Brexit vote.
All is not lost. Another world is possible. The answer is simple: more democracy. How we get there is the hard part. What we do know is that grassroots, popular movements applying decisive pressure on the elite is a tried and tested method for winning political change. There is no way round it: successfully addressing the big problems – poverty, inequality, covid and, most importantly, the climate and ecological emergency – will require an epic confrontation with, and significant weakening of, corporate power.
Time to get busy.
Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.