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Democracy. It may be dull but it’s all we’ve got.

Posted on February 14, 2020

town hall2

It’s a Thursday evening and the heater in the church hall rattles and clunks as it combats the chilly evening. Eventually we have to give up the ghost and turn it off; it’s impossible to hear the person speaking from the front.

We’re here, seventy of us – not a bad turn out – to discuss which of the four candidates our local branch wishes to support in the Labour leadership contest. People speak from the floor, making contributions brief and long-winded, eloquent and stumbling, concise and rambling. At the end of the process, a handful of worthies tot up the votes we have placed in the taped-up cardboard box, compute the vagaries of the single transferable vote and announce a winner.

Kier Starmer if you’re interested. Not my choice; I’m an advocate of Rebecca Long-Bailey but I’d had my say, literally, and been part of the process. The old cliché from Oscar Wilde is that the trouble with socialism is that it takes up too many evenings. To be fair, he could have been talking about any wing of the democratic process, the nuts and bolts of which are unglamorous, often quite tedious and usually quite drafty. In the age of instantaneous opinion-forming, guided by hasty and intemperate spurtings on social media, it’s easy to dismiss a few dozen people exchanging ideas face-to-face on a winter’s evening as outdated and irrelevant. We’d do so at our peril. Stop paying attention and the barbarians will be through the gate.

Because other ways of decision-making are available – and this week we’ve seen them up close. Why on earth should we bother with heeding the views of elected representatives when we can surround ourselves with our chums and, more particularly, our special advisers? The Prime Minister, as we know, is fond of displaying his (rather dubious) academic credentials, so it’s possible that he’s familiar with the centuries’ old notion of a Ministry of all the Talents. If he is, he’s blithely ignoring it in favour of a Coterie of all the Tractable.

So out goes the son of a bus driver and in comes another public schoolboy who went to Oxford and, just for good measure, cut his teeth in the ‘real world’ of Goldman Sachs – that worthy organisation for whose utter incompetence we are all still paying. If we’re to believe the accepted wisdom about this, Sajid Javid’s resignation was engineered via the demands of free-spirit, unelected Dominic Cummings – another of the public schoolboy, Oxford brigade (like Johnson himself, of course) – and who, just for good measure, and in a twist that seems to have been swept under the carpet of news management, remains in contempt of parliament for refusing to appear before a committee of MPs investigating fake news. Yes, you did read that right. The PM’s number one guru is in contempt of parliament. I’ll leave that there.

But integrity doesn’t seem to be a prerequisite for being at Johnson’s elbow. Another of his special advisers is homely old Sir Edward – Eddie – Lister. Eddie does housing. He’s a non-executive director of Top Hat, a housing start-up in Derbyshire which was given a hefty £75 million of investment from….you’ll be ahead of me here…. Goldman Sachs, so now he and Rishi can spend a quiet moment or two over tea and buns in Downing Street mulling over how that’s all working out. He’s 70 now, is Eddie, and so as a man of fairly similar age, I fully understand that he forgot to disclose that he was also on the board of a Jersey-based holding company for another housing start-up. And, c’mon, it’s not like he’s an elected representative or anything, is it?

I’ll be clear. I am not suggesting that those in public office should operate without the help and advice of people who actually know and understand stuff – although Michael Gove (he who led the cuckoo Cummings into the nest) infamously declared that the country had had ‘had enough’ of experts. But what we are seeing as Johnson riffles through the Trump playbook is a centralising of power and its acquisition by the ultra-loyal, the ambitious and the unelected. This latter category remains, ultimately, unaccountable, free to peel away from the business of framing the policies affecting the lives of people about whom they know nothing, whenever they wish. The world of the rattling heater and the stumbling debate is a million miles from their experience – but it’s what democracy looks like and they’re ready to trample over it without a moment’s concern.

And they’ll do it if we’re quiet and we let them.

For my former pupil and friend, Mark O’Donnell. RIP.

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