Votes against the British disease

RULING BRITANNIA: The Failure and Future of British Democracy by Andrew Marr, Michael Joseph pounds 16.99
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The Independent Culture
NATIONAL introspection is, to some extent, a good thing. Many critics have said that the British did far too little of it: were, in a word, too complacent. If so, things may be changing. Discovery of the "British disease" - a peculiarly adaptable virus which reflects the special concerns of each diagnostician - led to a spate of head-scratching and finger-wagging. This is not wholly new. As Andrew Marr found, there are uncanny similarities between our millennial anxieties and those of the last fin de siecle. The Liberal MP Charles Masterman (demoted, or promoted, by Marr to "newspaper hack") sounded many familiar alarm bells in his 1909 tract The Condition of England. But there are still more of them now. Lack of effort, lack of skill, lack of will, have all been identified as what ails us. Andrew Marr's diagnosis puts lack of democracy at the centre of our problems.

Marr is an exceptionally acute political commentator, and as a guide to the real workings of the British political system we could hardly hope for better. He does a fine job of showing how far the system has moved from the governing conventions of Masterman's day - or even Macmillan's. His writing is sharp and stylish. If his book feels somewhat long-winded, this is partly because it reads a little like a string of op-ed pieces, and partly because he never quite moves beyond dissection into prognosis. As he aptly says of Thatcher's achievement, "we should not confuse demolition with architecture". Marr is not that rather un-British thing, a political thinker who might tell us what democracy ought to do. Many people will agree with him that it is not working, but they will not know when or why it ever did.

He rightly says that democracy as he understands it - incorporating universal suffrage - is a recent set-up, and indeed, a strong case can be made that the British establishment has always been underwhelmed by the concept. For all our haughty western disapproval of Asian ideas like "guided democracy", that has been very much the spirit and the practice of our own system. The case for democracy still needs to be made.

In the abstract, there are both positive and negative arguments for it. Liberals thought it would tap a fund of public talent that would deepen as education increased. Fewer people hold to that belief in the age of the Murdoch press and the TV soundbite, when the sophistication of public discussion has gone into reverse. The negative argument is that democracy, whatever its inconveniences, is uniquely robust because of its capacity to accommodate dissent. It was this resilience which led to the (possibly premature) rejoicing about the final triumph of liberal democracy in 1989. On this view, the important thing about a democratic system is not its institutions but public morale: do people feel that it is responsive to their problems? If not, what can be done - and who can do it?

It is not hard to find evidence that British public morale is declining, even threatening the collapse of the civic culture, and Marr produces plenty of it. In his view the most baneful recent developments have been the erosion of local in favour of central government, and the delegation of immense governmental functions to unelected bodies - the creeping quango coup d'etat. He laments the destruction of parliament's effective role (especially in interrogating the rhetoric of "ministerial accountability") which has been accompanied by loud harping on the supposed "sovereignty of parliament". He emphasises the paradox whereby real state power has shrunk, with the erosion of its effective sovereignty in the international sphere by global forces beyond its control, while its internal control has burgeoned.

Marr is clear that we have gone wrong somewhere, but sees that we cannot go back: the world has changed too much. Unfortunately, we are also unlikely to go forward - say, to a more responsive system of proportional representation - as long as power rests in the hands of the beneficiaries of the first- past-the post system. Is there any way out of this fix? Marr is disappointingly cautious on specific remedies. He seems to hold to the enlightenment hope that pointing out errors will lead people to rectify them. He certainly does not propose any other mechanisms for reform. He is noticeably lukewarm about such things as bills of rights and freedom of information laws, a little warmer about referenda and civics education. He is sensibly sceptical of the fashionable invocation of "community".

The answer seems to be that we need (as John Lennon told us) to change our minds before changing our mechanisms. Well, yes - but that still leaves the problem of who "we" are. Even if his name were John Smith, Marr's approach would leave readers in no doubt that he is not English (he is a Scot). This allows him to make several good quasi-Martian observations about the underlying logic of politics - the sort of thing that the English have traditionally avoided. But it leaves him in the same uncertainty as the rest of "us" when he grapples with the collective qualities which underpin the democratic spirit. We shift unsteadily between the ethnic and the civic labels for our "nation". He himself, in his account of the local protest movement, talks of "the Middle English in revolt". Charles Masterman, like so many others, agonised about the condition of England. This was no accident: Victorians believed that democracy was a naturally Teutonic quality.

Now we can be sure that while most peoples want democracy, they don't necessarily want it enough to fight for it. Marr is cagey on just how strenuous the fight may be. There is still an uncomfortable truth in the old slogan "the price of liberty is eternal vigilance". He may be right to say that our culture is still "saturated with the spirit of democracy"; we have "good civic traditions, and a certain store of native wit". Laughter, he suggests, is "the secret weapon of democrats". But it can also breed a fatal cynicism: in the battle for democracy, Spitting Image will not be enough.