03
Jun

#PUTNEY

Written by AC Grayling on 03 June 2020.

Are we helpless in the face of the Johnson government’s Parliamentary majority and the harms it is doing, seemingly with impunity, in relation to the Covid-19 crisis, Brexit, and the Climate crisis?

No.

We not only have a right to oppose, but a duty. The right to dissent, oppose, rebel, is a democratic right, and when a regime is harming the people it has taken control of, that right becomes a duty. (For supporting evidence see the Appendix.) And there is much we can do.

Here follows:
1 Background
2 Immediate Activity
3 Longer Term Reform Goals

1 BACKGROUND

The present British government is acting, by a combination of incompetence and deliberate policy, in ways that are doing, and will do, serious harms to the people of the United Kingdom. The harms are to the health and well-being, and to the economic and social welfare, of the British people.

The first set of harms is the result either of incompetence, or of a deliberate ‘herd immunity’ policy anticipating – and accepting – large numbers of deaths mainly of older and vulnerable people. As these words are written the FT estimates that about 60,000 ‘excess deaths’ (over the seasonal average) have occurred in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic. This is several airliners full of people crashing and killing everyone on board, every day, since the pandemic took hold in the UK. The great majority of these deaths were avoidable had policy been aimed at avoiding them: compare this to New Zealand, Germany, and other places where active efforts to protect the public were made.

The second set of harms is the direct result of Brexit, now exacerbated by the clear intention of the regime to have a No-Deal Brexit, severely damaging to the economy and risking millions of jobs (this is not hyperbole: one million jobs have already been lost since the Covid-19 crisis took hold in March). A No-Deal Brexit is harshly against the interests of the people of the UK, but it is in the interests of financial speculators who have invested billions of pounds in its occurrence, and in the interests of those (doubtless including this same group) who seek to make the UK an offshore tax haven economy, requiring the dismantling of the welfare state and the social, employment, environmental, health, education and welfare structures which require levels of taxation opposed by the members and backers of the group now constituting the regime. These points are on public record.

The third set of harms that will be visited upon us in the near future will be the result of the government's failure to take the drastic and urgent action that is necessary to slow down climate change and ameliorate its effects. This crisis will dwarf the current pandemic in its consequences, yet the government continues to fail to acknowledge the science and tell the truth to the public. It continues to pour huge subsidies into polluting and destructive industries whilst at the same time dismantling support for sustainable energy and farming practice. It cynically distorts the emissions figures to pretend to be taking action and it neutralises criticism and advice from its own advisory bodies. As with the other two harms the climate crisis will impact most severely on the poor and disadvantaged, and will further increase the inequalities in our society.

The regime came to power on the basis of a minority of votes cast in the last General Election (43%, representing 29% of the total electorate), and therefore has no legitimacy in democratic principle. Yet because of the distorting electoral system it has a very large majority of seats in the House of Commons, and therefore controls Parliament. Through that control it is sidelining Parliament, denying access to elected MPs and marginalising even the token scrutiny that Parliament might otherwise attempt to exercise over its activities. This group sought to sideline Parliament with a long prorogation last year; it is achieving the same effect by different means now.

The bottom line is that we the people of the UK have been taken hostage by a group whose aims and activities are hostile to our welfare and well-being. They have no democratic mandate to do so other than through the distorting and dysfunctional system that allows a group or clique to capture the levers of government and thereafter do as it wishes.

This group – the regime in Downing St – is the very same group of people as the Leave Campaign, who, as a result of activities found to be crimes by the Electoral Commission and courts, in 2016 persuaded 37% of the electorate to support Brexit. Now on 29% of that electorate it occupies 10 Downing Street. It has given to those who worked with it in the Brexit campaign control of such activities as the ‘test and trace’ procedure and the harvesting of information this involves.

2 IMMEDIATE ACTIVITY

Democratic Activity
With an 80-seat majority in the House of Commons and its sidelining of Parliamentary activity, the regime in Downing Street has no controls on its activities. Parliament is a dead letter, a rubber-stamp mechanism for the regime at most. Therefore democratic activity has to occur outside Parliament, in the country, among the people. This cannot wait four years for the next general election; in four years irreparable damage will have been done. Action is needed now.

The way to do this is through Citizens’ Assemblies. This will seem like a tall order, indeed so tall as to be unrealizable. Assemblies in towns, cities and regions take time, organization, funds, and face such barriers as the inertia of the public, the inevitable hostility of certain sections of the media, and no doubt active opposition by the regime.

Yes: creating Assemblies is a big challenge. But that is no reason not to attempt it. From the efforts of determined individuals and groups they can be made to happen. THE FIRST STEP is informal local Assemblies, DIY assemblies started by groups anywhere and everywhere, to be a forum for democratic expression, to raise and discuss both local and national concerns, and to discuss and plan for a more formally instituted Assembly for that region. Get the idea of citizens’ Assemblies talked about; start drawing people together to discuss and challenge what the regime is doing and failing to do. Activity and participation are the first steps.

In this time of Covid such groups would need to be mainly online.

Among the activities of the Assemblies could be invitation to local MPs to be questioned by the Assembly.

Activism
Because of the Covid pandemic, street demonstrations are inadvisable, and in any case even large demonstrations (such as the million march against Brexit last year) are rarely effective unless – and this is extremely undesirable – they are violent, with people being killed or hurt and property destroyed. But there are other forms of activism. Some carry a cost to the activist, some do not. Ensuring as legal a form of the activity as possible is advised: indeed, stay legal generally.

For a variety of examples:
- Disruption by flooding MPs, government agencies and regime-supporting newspapers with mail and email;
- Taking legal action against government and/or the Conservative Party for manslaughter/negligence in the Covid crisis, or for compensation for loss of employment or damage to one’s business; or private prosecutions of the owners of regime-supporting newspapers for conspiracy to subvert the public good – use your imagination for more;
- Raising and maintaining a storm of continuous protest on social media about the regime and the individuals most responsible for its activities: Cummings, Johnson, Gove and the incompetence, ignorance, and evidence of malice prepense, variously, of ministers such as Raab, Patel, Hancock, and the rest.

If you think that most of these actions would only be effective if the entire nation engaged in them, you would be wrong. The effect of enough people taking one or more of these forms of protest can be significant; and when some brave individuals do it, others will follow. We can take encouragement from the recent examples of the effective campaigns on Black Lives Matter, and on summer food vouchers. A further example is the rise of the climate movement Extinction Rebellion from its start with a handful of people in May 2018 to a movement of hundreds of thousands all over the world by the end of 2019 engaged in non-violent protest and civil disobedience.

What is there to lose in the current disastrous situation? Between them Brexit, Covid-19, the Climate Crisis, and the current regime’s publicly stated aim of dismantling the structures of our society to replace them with an offshore tax haven economy run by a permanent oligarchy of the right, are actually in process now – they are actually happening before our eyes – and if we value the idea of democracy and a civilised society such as we once thought we were trying to build in these islands, we must at last be bold. Our options are two: submit, or act. The British people are notoriously supine and passive even in the face of outrages such as the current regime are perpetrating: it is well past time for us to stop being so.

3 LONGER TERM REFORM GOALS

Fighting against the regime’s current activities is urgent right now. But we need a clear sense of what is necessary in the longer term.

Reform of our constitution and political order is essential.

If you try to reform everything at once, or too many things at once, no reforms will happen. The need is to identify the crucial first reform, and to work onwards from there to a fairer, greener, more caring and stable society in which we will all benefit.

The first crucial reform from which others can follow later is electoral reform. We need a system of proportional representation.

To get it we need all the opposition parties to join together on a platform for electoral reform at the next general election – which we can hope will be precipitated sooner rather than later jointly by the activisms described above and the imploding circumstances we are in. This shared platform can be just for the next general election and the implementation of the electoral reform itself; after that the opposition parties can go back, if they want, to the tribalism and in-fighting and disagreements and splits whose result, under First Past the Post voting, has been perennially to deliver Conservative governments most of the time in our country.

One major form of people’s activism therefore has to be to bring pressure on the opposition parties and devolved nations parties (Plaid, SNP) to share an electoral reform platform.

Now, it happens that all the parties other than the Labour Party have already agreed to just such a shared policy platform. So most of the effort has to be directed at the Labour Party.

The Labour Party stands for some good, even noble, things. It also stands for some unrealistic things which are a baulk to its electability. Its main problem, however, is itself. It exists to serve the people, the many; it fails them far more often than not because of its internal disorders.

One stark fact should make at least the leadership of the Labour Party, now that it has a more pragmatic individual as leader, understand that unless by some miracle it were to regain Scotland electorally, it will never again, on the current electoral system, ever form a government. In a system of proportional representation it can very realistically hope to be the leading element in government, thereby being able to implement policies that enhance social justice and reduce inequality.

Labour’s involvement in a united platform on electoral reform requires some serious grown-up action by Labour. It requires suspending the clause in the Party’s constitution that obliges it to field a candidate in every constituency. If it does not suspend this clause, it wrecks the chance of a reforming coalition in Parliament by sharing out the constituencies among the opposition parties on the basis of who can really win in them. It is this kind of practical tough action that Labour has to be lobbied hard to take.

Once electoral reform is achieved, a fairer and greener society can be brought into existence, constitutional arrangements can be clarified, and the ‘elective dictatorship’ (a phrase coined by a Conservative peer, Lord Hailsham) of our dysfunctional system dismantled and replaced with a modern, fit-for-purpose democracy.

Everything that we hope to achieve in reforms of our country, politics and government, requires electoral reform first.

FINALLY

My own personal wish and hope is that our opposition to the regime, and the mess it is making, will bring it down; that the opposition parties will unite on a platform of electoral reform, will as a result jointly have a majority in the next Parliament capable of getting that reform through, and will then have an election on that basis. All this is possible. What is possible can be made actual. It is up to us to make it so.

I have called this note #Putney in reference to the Putney Debates of 1647 when ‘An Agreement of the People’ was put forward arguing for democratic reforms. Remember, that was in the Civil War, when people opposed the dictatorial ambitions of the government in the form of a King who suppressed Parliament – a situation paralleled now given that the regime (Johnson, Cummings, the ‘government’) are acting in ways that are harming us severely, in just as dictatorial a way.

If more detail on the points in 1 and 3 above is desired, they are to be found in my books Democracy and its Crisis and The Good State, especially the latter.

Appendix

We have both a right and the duty to oppose this regime. It is a principle of democracy that when a government acts against the interests of the people, the people have a right to terminate that government and put a better one in place. This is clear in all the seminal concepts of democracy, from the writings of John Locke to the constitutional principles advanced by the Founding Fathers of the United States. Locke wrote that government is “limited to the publick good of the Society” and if a government acts in ways contrary to the public good it thereby renders itself illegitimate and accordingly ‘dissolves’ itself: “Who shall be Judge whether the Prince or the Legislative act contrary to their trust? The people shall be Judge; for who shall be Judge whether his Trustee or Deputy acts well, and according to the Trust reposed in him, but he who deputes him, and must, by having deputed him have still a Power to discard him, when he fails in his Trust?”

Likewise in The US: the Virginia Declaration affirms that ‘all power is vested in, and consequently derived from, the people…when any government shall be found inadequate or contrary to these purposes’ the people have an ‘indubitable, inalienable, and indefeasible right to reform, alter, or abolish it’; this sentiment is expressed repeatedly in the constitutional instruments of the USA.

My thanks to David Pennycuik for revision of the text.