Wednesday, 14 September 2011

What Would Thomas Paine Think Of The New Corruption'?

It was very fitting in view of the growing evidence that the British political system is morally and economically corrupt that a plaque should be unveiled to Thomas Paine on 17 August  in Grantham, whose most famous daughter is Margaret ‘There is no such thing as society’ Thatcher.  

Paine, a customs and excise man, lived at the George Hotel from December 1762 until he was transferred to Alford in 1764. The site of the hotel is now occupied by the George Shopping Centre.

The political system that Paine argued against became known as ‘The Old Corruption’. Reading about the unveiling in the newsletter of the Thomas Paine Society reminded me about the comments I made about the state of democracy in 2004.

Unaccountable Power

On 8 October The Guardian published a letter by me in response to an article by Michael Meacher (Bring power back under control, October 6). I pointed out that he had missed one of the most important elements about what is wrong with the state of our political system, the unaccountable power wielded by arms' length agencies, quangos and regulators has created the 'New Corruption’. ‘Why bother to vote when national and local politicians no longer have any real power and control over affairs, as a result of the enormous power handed over to arms' length quangos, agencies and regulators; power that often is used so incompetently that as always it is the ordinary people who pay the price.

We are in an era of the ‘new corruption’, just as dishonest as the ‘old corruption’ that the late 18th- and early 19th-century radicals fought against  in their campaigns for Parliamentary reform and the extension of the suffrage. Except our 'New Corruption' can be described as Orwellian.The government has talked for years about local people being at the heart of the decision-making. Tell that to the communities which are having phone masts foisted on them, or their post offices closed, or being penalised for not agreeing to stock transfer.’

It was composed during the period of Labour Government under Tony Blair, ‘The Godfather’.

The Democratic Crisis

I also had posted on my general website reflections on the state of democracy in 2004.

‘British democracy appears to be in crisis: contempt for politicians, disengagement from the political process, low level of participation in elections. A wide range of arguments are put to explain this: political and media spin, hypocritical personal behaviours of politicians (sleeze), the perceived failure of local and central government to deliver on their promises in a way that people can see beneficially affects their lives, or riding rough-shod over widely held concerns. The anti-democratic British National Party has been able to obtain short-term electoral advantage, boosted by anti-asylum seeker and refugee rhetoric from leading mainstream politicians.

Low election turnouts are not a new phenomenon. The Holborn Conservatives bemoaned it when in 1937 six Labour Councillors were elected for the first time. This anecdote is a reminder that achieving high levels of local electoral participation has to be worked at. Where local political parties take their vote for granted, and/or do not work to convince people to vote, then turnouts remain low. If political parties reduce their own internal democracy and alienate members, they will not have enough people to make the face to face contact with electors that is an essential part of sustaining a culture of electoral and democratic involvement.

Reform To Reinvigorate Democracy

The Government considers that local government reform will reinvigorate democracy. It is debatable whether the implementation of its largely technical proposals will do so. Government policies about putting people at the heart of decision making are seen as empty rhetoric, as it continues to exert heavy central control over spending programmes such as New Deal for Communities and Neighbourhood Renewal, or imposes unpopular decisions like the expansion of Heathrow airport. While it recognises that regenerating deprived communities will take 15-20 years, it is impatient for results. It does not give people and organisations a chance to obtain results before forcing another set of reforms. The consensus about local regeneration and community well-being that might be achievable through Community Strategies and Local Strategic Partnerships could result in electors thinking that there is no need to vote, because voting for a particular political party is not going to radically alter the consensus.

Devolution in Scotland and Wales has not solved the problem of disengagement. The proposed devolution for English regions seems dubious in terms of any potential claimed for it for improving democratic engagement. No wonder it has been rejected in the referendums. What might begin to make a difference and enable people to engage is to require the establishment of neighbourhood governance structures or reduce the size of local authorities.

Electors cannot be criticised for thinking that voting is irrelevant when so many decisions seem to be out of the hands of elected politicians: the requirements of the European Community, the power of multi-nationals, and the devolution at arms-length of so many services to regulators and other unelected bodies. Nor can they be criticised for thinking that politicians often get too involved in issues largely irrelevant to the majority of people, like fox-hunting. The cautious approach to House of Lords reform reinforces this by missing the opportunity to develop a new equal relationship between the four nations, and a new approach to UK wide governance.

The Crisis's Deep Roots

The roots of the current crisis have been growing slowly over a number of decades. As the population sizes of Parliamentary constituencies and local authority wards have grown, it becomes more and more difficult for people to have regular personal contact with their MPs and councillors. The cumulative decline of engagement in democratically controlled organisations, like friendly societies, co-operatives and trade unions, has eroded people’s experience of democratic representation and participation. This is underpinned by a popular lack of historic understanding of the struggle to build democracy and the consequences of not rigorously defending and promoting democratic participation. The strength of evolving British democracy lay in mass involvement in its practice and in debates about its theory through mutual associations.

Commercially driven ‘consumerism’ makes people only think of themselves, and reject collective solutions. This has been reinforced by Governments seeing people as ‘consumers’, not as ‘citizens’ with a right to services, and by many mutuals downgrading democratic engagement.

Ebbs and Flows of Popular Engagement

Popular engagement in politics has had its historic ebbs and flows. It is difficult to tell whether we are in an ebb from which we can recover, or are spiralling downwards to an extent that it will be difficult to recover support for both representative and participatory democracy.

British historical experience suggests that the challenge of reversing political disengagement and strengthening both representative and participatory democracy cannot be left just to politicians. Democracy was built from below, and will need to be re-built from below. There will be an important role in this for practical organisation of a new 'associationism’. There is considerable scope for this within local communities linked to opportunities available through the Government agendas, even though these might be only short term. Networking and alliance building will be crucial.

All advances on the road to democracy were pioneered by people with a minority perspective, whether political radicals or motivated by faith. Such groups need to be nurtured and funded to play their role in creative questioning and suggesting new solutions and approaches.’

7 Years On

Am I being too pessimistic in thinking that things have only got worse in the last 7 years? August’s riots with their extensive criminality and madness suggests that a large section of society has actually become nihilistic with no adherence to any social values apart from pure selfishness and an amoral ignoring of the effect of looting and arson on other people’s lives. So corruption at the top and corruption at the bottom.

I wonder what Tom Paine would be writing if he was alive today?

The plaque can be seen on:


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