The Democratic Deficit


Democracy – British style

The term Democratic Deficit used to be taken as indicating Scotland’s inability to get the government it voted for, specifically in 1979 and throughout the ’80s. But Democratic Deficit says much more than this. It’s pointed up by 1979, certainly, but more widely it describes a dysfunctional franchise, in which personal action is always distanced from official representation. Although the independence referendum triggers deficit questions it in a way the British left will refuse to admit right up to and through 2014, the deficit is not specific to Scotland.

The 1979 UK note was not, of course, a Scottish national vote, any more than the 2010 one was an English national vote. Neither Scotland nor England vote for UK governments – both are caught in a constitution which prevents them from expressing any such wish. We can speculate that most English residents might vote Conservative in an rUK or English election and we might be right or wrong, but we can’t know, and we can’t know about any patterns of political behaviour outside the UK. The idea that Scotland as a nation, or (more often, and these days a byword of Labour think-tanks) that England as a nation, votes for a specific UK government arises from a sleight of hand, which absorbs volition to the an apparently pre-existing British consensus. And yet it is easy to fall into accepting deficit as a kink in the processing of a national vote, and in fact recently even the Radical Independence Convention are doing it.

So this week’s boffinism, in fact already familiar, that Scotland’s political authority was extinguished by the Acts of Union – while England’s authority may simply have expanded – is annoying but not surprising of a constitution which has always already existed and can never be written anew. This constitution doesn’t exist ‘before Scotland’ specifically, but ‘before’ any determination by any person or people, outside of history and only as unwritten precedent able to interpolate ‘general will’ behind it. It is this unreachable constitution and its celebration as progress that might define Democratic Deficit.

The past century has seen increasingly strong versions of whig (imperialist) assumption that British franchise always takes the most progressive form possible, and that all changes will take place for the good, for the progressive, arise naturally, and outside of popular determination. This assumption was built into welfare consensus – as seen in the constitutional commentator Ivor Jennings’s celebration of the quirks of British voting, first published in the year of the Beveridge Report. This may help explain why we so often hang on to the managerial form of 1941 Welfare even as we know it disenfranchises us, rather than move to one open to all. We might note that over the past week or so there have been signs that the part of the UK most concerned with popular sovereignty – Scotland – is breaking the military-Keynesian taboo by showing a scepticism over the 1941 Welfare State as a form of management of the whole person which aims to maintain and streamline state-capitalism.

1940s British Welfare arises through wartime consensus and, as ever, the threat from Europe – but it has to become saleable as heritage during the era we now know as neoliberal – the era in which citizenship is openly defined in terms of indebtedness (as ‘deficit’). An unpayable debt, heritage stands in opposition to history, and offers no origins and no ends: the ideology is that it has always already been there. For Thatcher’s reinvention of post-colonial pride, heritage was to be positively contrasted with culture, which was too close to experience (and we might put the peak of rising heritage’s eclipse of the everyday at around the time of the Brixton and Toxteth riots of 1981). Heritage describes the maintenance of the uncodified constitution, putting all affective political life beyond time in a celebration of everything is great because it is unaccountable – as is typical of regimes struggling to resist republicanism.

This ends up at the deficit welfare capitalism we read every day in the Guardian, or the sheer weirdness of the 2015-directed Magna Carta Committee, for which parliamentary sovereignty is timeless and must be protected, cutting out nations, people, and political action altogether. Magna Carta 800’s website declares its aim to preserve ‘Our Democratic Heritage’, and its Committee are duly drawn from all sections of the British establishment standing against popular sovereignty (and one patron, even more weirdly, is the Queen).

It is sobering to think that this idea of ‘democratic’ heritage as something naturally evolving and to be maintained is how British parliamentarians and their media apologists still imagine political process – and their shielding of action from people might be seen as a definition of Democratic Deficit. Almost any column by Polly Toynbee will tell you why the unreachable constitution must be preserved at all costs, this time by voting for the red team rather than the blue team, and waiting for them to ‘reform’, that is, to find new ways to distance the franchise.

This is the whole of democracy for the managers of deficit, keeping sovereignty away from the people and maintaining the state as perpetually disenfranchising financial interests. David Cameron is surprised that this isn’t obvious from a successful Olympics (and NHS, a name which it seems can be drawn on indefinitely even after it is dismantled): constitutional skepticism is just ‘baffling’.

Cameron’s bafflement is the essence of the Democratic Deficit: increasingly a vested media have come to expect British citizens to author their own disenfranchisement, to take it to their hearts, and see it as their heritage. This is not a specifically Scottish problem, but a problem for everyone under the regime. This wider definition of Democratic Deficit is needed not simply pragmatically to get England on side, but because 2014 brings up ethical questions which we will not want to ignore. Who wants this for their neighbours? The United Kingdom is the Democratic Deficit: we are all bound by it, and we will all have to leave it.


Comments (7)

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  1. picpac67 says:

    Excellent. The wider recognition is that there is no genuine democracy anywhere in the world. But most countries do at least have a written constitution as something to appeal to (though we have seen how easily that “scrap of paper”, as George Bush termed it, can be torn to shreds or simply ignored, being replaced by self-assumed dictatorial powers).
    This is why any constitution which has pretensions to be democratic must contain provisions for effective popular control – at the very least through statutory rights of initiative, referendum and recall.
    The simple question the article invites is: do the people come before the state (historically, morally and democratically)? Or the state/ruler/government before the people? There’s only one correct answer.

  2. Michael –
    Thanks for such a provocative piece.
    I won’t be the only one who floundered – I’m a normal bloke with a very limited awareness of history and I cannot ‘see’ the bigger picture you’re describing.
    What I ‘know’, as a 50-yr old who lives in Scotland right now, is this – we have tolerated this pish for too long.
    It’s over.
    Come Yea or Nae, on the day, Scotland will continue – ‘we’ are not an abstraction, and ‘we’ defy any effort to subsume or bracket us in any equation, no matter how elegant it may appear to commissioned boffins.
    More power to ye – the higher this debate is elevated the better, even if it leaves some of us feeling a bit lackadaisical.

  3. williemacleod says:

    To stop evictions, please support the Govan Law Centre Petition to amend the Housing Act Scotland. The fightback against the Bedroom Tax needs your support.

  4. magentalemon says:

    As said in other comments, democratic deficit is available wherever you shop and only true participatory real democracies are purposefully ignored by mass media.

    Very interesting post, by the way.

    1. magentalemon says:

      Moreover let me add that independence is not an automatic ticket to real democracy. It opens a chance, through being a fresh start, but often falls into the mistakes of the past. Democracy (such as the right to choose) comes from profound changes in political systems but also societies.

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