Monday, 14 November 2011

The end of the road for democracy in Europe?

Unless my ears deceived me, someone on the Today programme this morning was talking with approval about the "suspension of democracy" in Italy and Greece. The phrase certainly seems apt, but is entrusting the goverment of these countries to unelected "technocrats" an aberration created by a passing economic crisis or a taste of things to come?

Richard Morris writes that were what has just happened in Italy to be repeated in Britain, Peter Mandelson would be prime minister by the end of next week. I can see the comparison - like Mandelson, the new Italian PM was once a European Commissioner (and a longtime member of the Bilderburg Group). But Mandy was at least once endorsed by the good people of Hartlepool. Mario Monti has never been elected to anything. Mandelson has been a politician all his life and a member of the House of Lords for several years. He has extensive ministerial experience. He is intimately acquainted with Parliament and the inner workings of the democratic process. Mario Monti isn't merely unelected. He isn't even a politician.

The last time anything remotely comparable happened in Britain was in 1963, when Harold Macmillan decided that it was his right to choose the next prime (and that his sucessor ought not to be Rab Butler) and pushed the 14th Earl of Home into the job. But the 14th Earl (who was already Foreign Secretary and, despite not being elected, was a practising politician) promptly disclaimed his peerage and found himself a safe seat. This was widely seen as constitutionally essential, even though the 20th century had begun with a government led from the House of Lords by the Marquess of Salisbury. At least since the passage of the Parliament Act of 1911, membership of the House of Commons has been a sine qua non of the highest political office. An unelected British prime minister is an unthinkable proposition.

Or is it? One of the most striking features of British politics during the past few years has been the disparagement of democracy. The expenses crisis has been corrosive of trust in politics, of course, but equally so was the last government's obsession with news management and spin and, most of all, the seeping away of power from Westminster towards the at most pseudo-democratic institutions of Europe, to appointed quangoes, to judges and to the markets. All these factors reinforce each other. The loss of power and the politics of image both tend to degrade the quality of politicians, as the truly talented shun the drudgery of backbench life and those interested in power for its own sake find alternative routes to obtaining it. And the public sense that their elected representatives are no longer making most of the important decisions that affect their lives, and the upshot of that is not merely a decline in trust (which is recoverable) but contempt (which isn't).

Neither Greece nor Italy have the ancient institutional memory that would make the "suspension of democracy" and putting in an unelected Eurocrat as prime minister seem so extraordinary in a British context. But it's still striking how widely such an anti-democratic procedure has come to be accepted as normal and right: good for the markets, good for the single currency, good for "stability", therefore good. Not only have the people not been consulted, sending for the technocrats is openly praised as a mechanism for avoiding consultation, whether by referendum or a general election. Instead, "governments of national unity" - a euphemism for something like one-party state - are sworn in as though there's a war on. There's not a war on. Nor has society collapsed, not even in Greece. It's just a common-or-garden economic crisis, no worse than that which British democracy sailed through in the late 1970s.

Daniel Hannan, as usual, puts this down to the "hideous strength" of the EU. He regards the imposition of unelected technocrats in Rome and Athens as "the culmination of the European scheme". Perhaps it is. But I doubt that is the whole explanation. "Democracy is finished" has recently become something of a fashionable meme. Matthew Parris, for example, has been writing in the Times about how "the people are wrong" and about how the European elites, too, have gone wrong in trying to pander to them. Democracy, he suggests, breeds a politics of delusion because, to get elected, politicians have to make promises that they cannot fulfil.

But it could also be that technocrats provide objectively better government. Their expertise lies in policy and its implementation, whereas the expertise of democratic politicians lies in getting themselves elected. Democracy reaches its culmination when getting elected becomes the only thing that counts, when government becomes a permanent election campaign. And then it dies.

Michael Heseltine raised eyebrows the other day by telling a meeting of Tory MPs that it was a big mistake for Britain not to have joined the Euro. If we had, "the Germans would have forced us to be more competitive". (As the forced the Greeks to be more competitive, I suppose.) But his really interesting comments went further, calling (rather in the manner of the Vatican) for world government:

The nation state is in decline everywhere — superseded by supra-national structures and blocs. We have unleashed forces that nation states simply can not regulate. That is why we need not just political union within Europe — but, yes, ultimately, some kind of global governance. The Chinese know this; I know this. Believe me, it is the future.

"The Chinese know this." The growth of China has energised anti-democrats everywhere. It seems to prove that government of unelected technocrats is more efficient, better at running an economy, and thus better, than one that is democratically accountable (like, say, India). Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin continues his tsar-like dominance of Russia while the United States, constitutionally invulnerable to technocratic rule, seems mired and old-fashioned, yesterday's empire. It may prove to be the last bastion of democracy, though its vertiginous inequalities make it a paradoxical one. In Europe, elections will still take place, but increasingly may become purely symbolic affairs, like the consular elections that still took place in Rome under the Caesars, or elections in China today.

This is an old story. It has happened many times in history that as societies become larger and more complex democratic institutions wither and die. It happened in Greece at the end of the fourth century BC, when the city-states came under the domination of the kings of Macedon (Philip and Alexander). It happened in Medieval and Renaissance Italy as city republics were absorbed by more autocratic neighbours or converted into duchies. It may indeed be, as Lord Heseltine believes, that the nation state is the largest unit that can sustain democratic government; and therefore, as Lord Mandelson once said, that the era of representative democracy is drawing to a close. At least until history turns full circle.

As Aristotle knew, democracy is inherently unstable. It tends to be a transitional form of government. Eventually, politicians run out of money with which to bribe the voters, as the society's resources are redistributed upwards to plutocrats who arrange to put most of their money beyond the reach of tax. And the technocrats move in.