BOOKS: PAPERBACKS: Democracy rules

ROBERT HANKS Bring Home the Revolution: The Case for a British Republic by Jonathan Freeland Fourth Estate pounds 6.99
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The images we get of American politics are, by and large, not flattering: glitzy television campaigns, interest groups bargaining for votes, presidential candidates signing death warrants to show they're not soft on crime, and voters who frankly couldn't give a damn. The whole Monica circus hasn't increased anybody's confidence that this is a system for grown-ups. But beneath the shiny surface, Jonathan Freedland finds signs of an altogether livelier, more engaged and more effective democracy, with strongly supported local government, vigorous communal institutions - from softball teams to pensioners' rights organisations - and, above all, power that emanates from below: to Americans, government is there to serve the people, not rule it. Don't we have something to learn from this?

Freedland finds plenty of quotations and anecdotes to back up the argument, and he is not afraid to talk about the bad parts of American life. For instance, most liberals would take popular support for the death penalty as evidence of what Brian Walden calls "the hole in the heart of democracy", and rejoice that things haven't gone that far over here. Freedland, who's surely as liberal as the best of us, argues that the fact that most American states have capital punishment just goes to prove that American government is responsive to the people's wishes. The excesses of American litigiousness are, he maintains, just the flip side of a strong legal system which has done a phenomenal amount to enforce the rights of the individual and to hammer out sexual and racial inequalities.

Elsewhere, he brushes aside some of haughtier British cliches about our colonial cousins, such as the superiority of our television: in America, they have cable channels which show nothing but Congressional debates, in all their unexpurgated tedium; and a surprising number of concerned citizens do tune in to see what their legislators are up to. The insularity of America he takes as a simple reflection of its size, and it certainly doesn't affect its welcoming attitude to new immigrants.

A lot of this is persuasive, particularly when we get to the chapter on the class system - for all its inequalities of wealth, America has an openness and inclusiveness that makes this country look positively feudal. Not all of his arguments transfer to Britain, where we don't have the money or the civic traditions to cushion the more brutal effects of democracy. But his basic conclusion - that we need more democracy and we need it now - is inescapable.