Monday, July 18, 2005

Murdoch wants a more diverse democracy

A few weeks ago, Anatole Kaletsky in The Times (via) characteristically provided support to a Eurosceptic means by which Europe's democracy can be improved.

Apparently, according to someone called Larry Siedentop (who Kaletsky reviews here), Europe's greatest strength is the diversity of democratic models on offer. His proprietor at the Times would agree with this: Ask any Murdoch-watcher around and they will confirm that the best way to build a profitable business in that market is to beat regulators more effectively than your rivals. So here's to an incoherent EU!

But the way that the review portrays Larry Siedentop's views is also interesting. Apparently, ...

"On one side there are French-style “concentric” countries, respectful of order and authority, rigorously rational and politically centralised. On the other side are British-style “eccentric” countries, characterised by liberal individualism, pragmatism, grassroots democracy and disdain for authority.

The differences go as far as linguistic structure: the open vocabulary and unstructured grammar of English contrasts with French linguistic rigour, as supervised by the Académie Française."

I wouldn't agree with either of these characterisations. It's a lot more simple. European countries are strong in areas where there policy is dominated by representative democracy. They are weak where they are dominated by direct democracy. Where there are strong pressure groups and rival internal powers, governments are bad at acting in the wider public interest.

So, French public policy is generally better than ours. Their system of governance includes strong cabinet ministers who don't owe their place to Prime Ministerial patronage. Their trains run on time, their working hours are more comfortable, their hospitals gleam and are uncluttered by waiting lists, their economic strategy isn't one that's been directly dictated to by business interests for the last 25 years. French people are generally better governed and more prosperous in any real terms than we are in the UK.

But on agriculture, French governments of all complexions have been defeated by direct action. They are unable to advance the public (and global) interests because they are dominated by farmers.

In the UK, however, we have a much more direct democracy. Pressure groups are stronger. The media has it's own agenda that if advances shamelessly. Elected representatives are largely mandated by over-powerful political parties. They are hamstrung by our amateurish Civil Service and most of the policy thinking seems to go in in Think Tanks funded by commercial sponsorship. We have a winner-takes-all electoral system that favours adversarial negotiation of policy.

Tellingly, French policy is dominated (according to Siedentop) by a need to be 'rational'. I've spent long enough around the Labour Party to know that (like all other parties) a policy is settled upon because it has the greatest weight of powerful supporters. In the UK, political pragmatism determines the value of any proposal. If anything, the official opposition in the UK uses a lack of rational coherence as it's main weapon.

The same is true of the US. They aren't refusing to budge on climate change (just) because Bush is a bad man. Clinton would be no more likely to bend on this if he were still in charge.

Bush can't change his view on things like this because the US is even more of a direct democracy than we are. Political parties and campaigns are actually bought by lobby groups and special interests. Pressure groups are fantastically well organised and individual elected representatives are ruthlessly targetted for slighting single-issue campaigns.

On issues like this, Congress simply knows that it has been mandated to follow a particular line - regardless of the arguments involved.

One last thing (off topic). Blogger's spell check offers 'Mortice' as a correction for Murdoch. My old WordStar4 spellchecker (circa 1993) used to offer 'Repeat Murder' for 'Rupert Murdoch'.

And the use of the word 'Europe's' prompts Blogger's spellchecker to offer 'Orpheus'! How US-centric is that?!?

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