We all know the cliché a week is a long time in politics, but the last month has just blown that cliché right out of the water. As our new Prime Minister has just told us ‘Brexit means Brexit’ – and a pundit remarked on one of the interminable political programmes that have spawned like a virus post Referendum/Referendum (Indy/EU) ‘that’s clear but we need to know what Brexit means.’
It’s clear we are in a state of uncertainty at present and meaning seems to be thin on the ground. I cannot speculate what is going to happen – apart from to suggest it is going to be a very bumpy ride.
We’ve seen the Conservative AND UNIONIST (as our new PM reminds us) go through the mother of all political pogroms, and the Labour Party/Labour Movement is not just going through a leadership challenge, or even an identity crisis, but perhaps a defining moment. Not, I should add, its first. The Labour Party suffered its birth pangs just over a century ago. Is it now in its death throes? Thirty years ago I might have been accused of exaggeration – but then did we really see the break up the Soviet Union after a mere 70 years? I didn’t. That’s worth thinking about when we consider the European Union and our part (or not) in it as of 2016. These are not just ‘interesting’ times; they are dangerous times. Change is coming – but we are floundering around trying to make meaning of what that change might be.
I venture to suggest that a lot of our current ‘troubles’ are the result of a failure to understand that democracy comes in several flavours (not all of them tolerable.) For oh, so long, we have given ourselves up to representative democracy – and those who didn’t agree with it simply voted (or didn’t) with their feet. Then came a wave of participatory democracy in the form of Referenda. And verily, the public discovered they liked participatory democracy. It made them feel empowered.
I see it as akin to the bird in the gilded cage being let out, or the shadow people getting out of Plato’s Cave. But there is no obvious happy ending to either of those scenarios, or indeed to the one we face now.
What was overlooked in our recent process was that once the questions had been asked (and answered) people wanted to stay in the loop. But that’s not the way it works in a representative democracy.
Representative democracy is about abdication of responsibility – passing the buck to someone else who will ‘do it for you,’ whereas participatory democracy suggests that ‘we the people’ actually get involved and take some responsibility. The two things are rarely compatible.
The Labour Party/Movement debacle (for want of a better word) gives us a great example of this. Whatever you think about him here’s the basic story: The Labour Party (under New Labour and post New Labour) lose touch with ‘the people’. In an attempt to ‘democratise’ the party they open up the parliamentary leadership voting process to the ‘members’ and ‘the people’ raise a new champion – one JC- who gets their votes. He, however, almost inevitably, is at odds with the Parliamentary members (the ones who have hopelessly lost touch, remember). At the first chance of a backlash, the PLP hit back. They don’t want the people’s champion to be the leader so they try to depose him. They are really just espousing representative democracy over participatory democracy – albeit in a heavy handed and somewhat crass kind of way. We anticipate a fight to the death – and the ‘good’ bit about it is that ‘the people’ will still have something of a say in that voting process. So in a couple of months JC may rise again.
If it all sounds a bit like a soap opera, or a Shakespeare play (Coriolanus anyone) then you might like to consider that this in-fighting in the Labour Movement is not new. James Leatham records a lot of the first iteration (but he’s recording it from the position of one who would not succumb to ‘party’ lines, being a firm believer in the power of people not parties) Reading Leatham’s writings, especially from the 1890’s through till the 1920’s really shows a different view of the history of the Labour Movement (and parties.) Who says history isn’t relevant?
This month, you have the chance to take a wider view through The Gateway articles. The Settling of Britain offers a broad, historical opinion piece. ‘Education and Enjoyment’ offers a provocative, time-sensitive and yet oh so relevant view of both reading and rights (especially the right to vote). Don’t expect to agree with everything Leatham says – that’s not the point – he’s a provocateur from the past whose value today is to help us draw comparisons and challenge what we see in front of us. The Orraman continues his exploration of the literature of ‘The Edinburgh Boys’ in 1894 and the role of publishing, whereas ‘Twixt Desk and Shelves’ takes you right back to 100 years ago this month – revealing Leatham’s first observations about his recent move to the small North East town of Turriff. All in all, whether you dip in and out, or binge on this month’s edition, I hope there’s some food for thought in your consumption. Never has it been more important for us to learn to think for ourselves in the face of the machinery of parliamentary politics. We may not be about to man the barricades but we do need to be informed beyond the soundbites we are spoon-fed on social media. It’s up to us. We have been given the smallest taste of empowerment – if we want our democracy to be more weighed in favour of participation rather than representation we need to do something about it. Something more than talk. Before they talk us out of some of our fundamental freedoms, convincing us we don’t need to worry because ‘they’ will take care of all that for us. Human Rights. Climate Change. Free Movement of People. Workers Rights… these are things people have fought (and died) for in the past. We must work out how to step up to the plate and keep the fight alive. It won’t be won in the hallowed halls of the political elite. At least not to our satisfaction and benefit. Despite what the New Prime Minister says. After all, she’s not ‘new’ is she – she looks like a re-tread to me. Margaret Thatcher for the 21st century anyone?
Rab Christie, Editor.
To find past articles please use monthly archives.