Lobster Review of John Strafford’s Book on Un-Democratic Britain

Anthony Frewin wrote a review of a fascinating political history in Lobster 59. This was Our Fight for Democracy: A History of Democracy in the United Kingdom, by John Strafford, and published by the author. A history of the development of democracy in Britain from the Romans and Anglo-Saxons onwards, Frewin praised the book for its readability and the fact that it was able to say something new in area which has been extensively covered by other historians. For example, unlike the conventional Whig narrative, which sees the emergence of democracy and representative government as a smooth progress from the middle ages to today, Strafford is quite clear that not only was this process not inevitable, it had to be actively fought for. Frewin quotes him in an introductory chapter as saying that ‘riot and revolution are the mother and father of democracy’ and ‘Our history shows that nearly all the advances towards democracy were accompanied by violence.’ He notes that Strafford’s is a critical history, and so does not automatically greet the great milestones in the development of democracy, like Magna Carta, the Great Reform Act and votes for women with uncritical admiration. And the book also contains much information on how un- and indeed anti-democratic political structures and institutions have survived into the present day.

Like the business vote. Under the old political system, business leaders were also granted a number of extra votes in local elections. This was not abolished with the Great Reform Act of 1833, but survived for another 136 years before finally being removed in 1969 from all of Britain with one exception: the City of London. Indeed, 14 years ago in 2002 16,000 new business votes were created.
Strafford states that the justification for non-resident voting in the centre of the metropolis is that the real population of the City is the 45,000 people who just work there in the daytime, and not just the mere 9,500 who permanently live there. A Private Act of Parliament passed the same year doubled the number of voters to 32,000. The actual captains of industry don’t even have to vote personally. They can nominate employees to do so, and the number of votes businesses receive depends on their size. He makes the point that wealth shouldn’t be allowed to buy votes, and that non-residents of the City of London should be deprived of the franchise in the City. If that means that the City’s electorate then becomes too small to be practical, the City should either be amalgamated with another borough or split up.

Lobster is profoundly Eurosceptic, and so Frewin’s reviews discusses the sheer absence of anything like democracy in the European parliament, where the MEPs’ power is severely limited and the Union governed instead by the unelected commissioners. An example of this complete absence of democracy is the career of Baroness Ashton of Upholland, who rose spectacularly from relative obscurity to become British High Commissioner in Brussels through appointment by Tony Blair and others, without once going through an election. This is an example of the way the government has increasingly adopted the practice of co-opting outsiders. One example of this was Gordon Brown’s elevation to the peerage of ten such people, who became government ministers. These included three businessmen, a surgeon, a former head of the RN, and an ex-diplomat. Frewin also makes the point that this also exemplifies the rise of Yes-men and -women, whose government preferment depends on political patronage.

The review also states that Strafford gives a list of 69 recommendations for reforms that would make the country more democratic, and includes a sample. These are:

1: Power should be devolved from central government and the higher levels of local government to the lowest practical level.
2: For all electoral purposes the City of London should be
amalgamated with the City of Westminster.
3: The Regional Development Agencies should be abolished and their functions transferred to local Councils.
10: The oath of allegiance should either be abolished or it should be changed to ‘I swear that I will bear true allegiance to the people, Parliament and democracy according to law.’
14: The whole House of Commons should elect Select Committee chairmen by secret ballot, thus ending de facto appointment of chairmen by the party whips.
18: The people should directly elect the Prime Minister. He could be removed by majorities in both Houses of Parliament or by referendum.
25: Our entire legal system should be disentangled from the nonsense that justice is dispensed in the name of the Queen. It should be dispensed in the name of the people.
28: The people should directly elect the House of Lords.
31: The European Council of Ministers should meet in public.
32: The European Scrutiny Committee of the House of
Commons should meet in public.
39: Both the Labour Party and the Conservative Party should reform themselves to become democratic bodies answerable to their membership so that members can change the Constitution of their party on the basis of One Member One
Vote.
46: Party Political Broadcasts (PPBs) should be abolished.
59: Within one month of the monarch’s death a ballot should be held of all the people to endorse the successor. Should such endorsement not be given a ballot should be held on the successor’s eldest child becoming monarch. Should
endorsement once again not be forthcoming the monarchy
would be abolished.

Frewin comments ‘Some pretty radical proposals here.’ Yes, indeed. We’ve seen how bitterly anti-democratic the Blairites in the Labour party have been about letting the membership vote in radical leaders and changes in policy that they dislike with their purges of the membership and constant campaigning against Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters.

One of the fascinating features of the book is that Strafford himself is not a left-winger. He founded a campaigning group in the Tories, the Campaign for Conservative Democracy, who have a website at http://www.copov.org.uk/. He was also one of those marching against the Iraq invasion, where he and his wife held a banner, ‘Conservatives Against the War’.

The review is at the magazine’s website on their books pages. This is at http://www.lobster-magazine.co.uk. Pick the issue from the selection at the page, and then scroll down till you get to the relevant review. This also provides the details how you can order the book from Strafford himself.

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