Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Puritanism against democracy

This is a follow-on post from the one the other day on protestantism and democracy. The one that I cocked up a bit. Apologies for everything really. Long, wrong posts.
Here's another that probably won't clear much up....

As the conflicts in Northern Ireland recede, it can be reasonably hoped that the influence of radical protestantism will decline. The way that a direct internal party democracy brought the Ulster Unionist Party to the brink of destruction a few years ago, the DUP may have to weather storms in which it's own emerging aristocratic minority – those with a responsibility to serve the general will and thereby ensure their party's electability – will come into conflict with the larger body of opinion within their party – the negativists – who know only what they are against.

I would suggest (as an extension of the previous posts) that the simplistic and disastrous attitudes to internal democracy within the Unionist parties can be explained by the dominance that evangelical protestantism has over Unionism. By thrusting radical Unionism into government, HMG may be exposing the DUP to the consequences of their own puritanism.

Broadening this out, no political party has survived for very long with a direct internal democracy. Consider Labour in the early 1980s, with it's Campaign for Labour Party Democracy and it's internal warfare between constituency activists and non-compliant (anti-AES/CND/pro-EEC) MPs. Again, a baying puritan mob negated themselves.

So far, this looks like an optimistic post, doesn't it? Ok. Let's change that.

On the other hand, the wider political forces that are at play within western liberal democracy may be moving in the other direction. The 'aristocratic' (that word again) tradition of representative democracy has rarely faced as many potent challenges as it does today. Rarely have individual elected representatives wielded less power than they do now. The public appear to be prepared to offer unaccountable single-issue pressure groups an easier passage than ever before, while MPs and councillors have ever-greater burdens of accountability and scrutiny placed upon them, while having to provide more and more justification for every resource that they can call upon.

We are prepared to judge elected representatives in the light of their clashes with the 'men in white suits'. When a politician – who stands on identifiable ground – is cross-examined by a journalist who can present a moving target – the politician will inevitably come second. Yet this besting is widely used as a pretext for a disillusion with politics and a call for more constitutional checks-and-balances. (Argument made in more detail here).

Over the last few weeks, to an even greater extent than usual, we've seen that the leitmotif of modern politics – individual corruption of politicians – is drowning out every other issue.
  • That it is impossible to succeed in modern politics without funding, there can be no doubt.
  • That individuals will no longer provide that funding, there is no doubt.
  • That all of the institutions that rival representative democracy can raise huge amounts of funding without encountering much by way of scrutiny, there is no doubt.
Yet serious broadsheet newspapers are using this situation as a pretext for editorials saying that “MPs ... are drinking in the last chance saloon.”

After years of being pilloried for their mendacity, irresponsibility and excess, the dead trees have discovered the sweetest and most unprincipled revenge in their ability to make hay with the standards of accountability that politicians have allowed to be placed upon themselves.

The smaller picture is that this post may be making a reasonable point. The larger picture is that anyone who thinks that a post such as that is worth writing is ignoring the massive and systematic failings, and the downward trajectory that democracy is heading in order to take sides in a fairly irrelevant bunfight. It's a puritanism that is making impossible demands upon a political system that can only get by under a thin fog of venality.

This is not – by the way – a justification of any specific cases of political naughtiness. The perception of slackness should damage individual politicians' electoral prospects.

But would it not be fair to say that a political culture that had anything vested in the success of representative democracy would not allow a situation to arise whereby elected representatives have their resources dwarfed by their party, who in turn have their resources dwarfed by their political centres, who in turn have their resources dwarfed by pressure groups, vested interests and other rivals in the media and the permanent bureaucracy?

To illustrate this, I'll use an the example of a politician that I don't usually have much sympathy with.

Ken Livingstone stands accused of an outrage. He won an election, and having done so, he chose to appoint people that he trusts. People who share his views. Surely he would have been a lot better off with a shower of bureaucrats who don't support his programme and will suffer no downside if they bugger it up for him? Thankfully, at least non-puritans such as Paul Anderson and Dave Osler are providing a bit of proportion here.

What I'm trying to say in all of these posts - in my clumsy way - is that puritanism - in all of it's forms - is always likely to be a thorn in the side of a functioning democracy. It is a powerful tool - first and foremost - in the hands of budding demagogues.

Democrats need to recognise this, and have a strategy to deal with it.

1 comment:

John Lofton, Recovering Republican said...

Visit, please, our neo-Puritan site