Democracy is dying but we're too rich to care

Simon Jenkins
The Times Literary Supplement does not do page-three girls. Instead it does page three ideas. Its last issue has a “real corker”, going to parts of the intellectual anatomy which other organs do not reach. But sensitive readers should beware. The bombshell covers not just page three but pages four and five as well. It reviews a book of 50 volumes with the knockout title, The Norwegian Study of Power and Democracy.
Sometimes we should all stand back from the turmoil and think. Six years ago this is what the Norwegian parliament did. It realised that Norway had changed over a century from desperate poverty to one of the richest nations on earth. Five million people, the same as Scotland, had enjoyed a hundred years of independent democracy. The parliament duly summoned five wise men and women and gave them unlimited resources to answer the question. How were things going? How was democracy in Norway?
The answer came back meticulous, and sensational. Democracy is not going well at all. Without urgent repair, it risks no longer meriting the name. Indeed democracy may yet go the way of other ideologies that strutted their hour upon the European stage, having strutted a shorter hour than most.
The pundits examined everything. They looking into the pattern of voting, local and national. They investigated the role of women, immigrants, minorities, rich and poor. They reported on parliament, the press, the universities, lobbyists, the law. Power was pursued up and down the land, from the Sami “aboriginals” of the North to the oil barons of Oslo.
The conclusion was that Norway is in ostensible good shape. North Sea oil has made most people well-off and happy with their welfare state. Women enjoy equality. Law is progressive and crime low. Half the population go on to higher education. Government is seen as honest and benevolent. Wealth has proved father to consent. Norway has reached the destination to which most European states still aspire.
So what is the problem? The answer is that there may be none. But there is growing evidence that contentment breeds contempt for democracy. Voters are losing interest. They are aroused by intrusions into “my backyard”. But in response they turn to here-and-now organisations, the media and direct action groups. This politics is spasmodic and mostly middle class.
The first casualty has been the ballot. Norwegians once voted with pride, nationally and locally. Turnouts are now down to 75 per cent and 55 per cent respectively. Political parties, unions, welfare associations, sports clubs, religious movements — the “little platoons” — are evaporating. Party membership is down by a half in a decade. Parties have become professional machines subsidised by the state.
Reviewing all this for the TLS, Stein Ringen, Professor of Sociology and Social Policy at Oxford University, sees a break-down in democracy’s “chain of command”. The biggest losers are two traditional institutions, the 440 municipal councils and Norway’s national parliament, the Storting.
The local councils were once the bedrock of Norwegian democracy, levying their own income taxes up to 25 per cent. Today they raise money to the limit of a central cap and carry out decisions imposed on them by central government in Oslo. This has eroded local choice and left electors feeling impotent between national elections.
National politics has not benefited from the resulting centralism. The Storting’s proportional representation is disastrous to most Norwegians. Parties may be soundly defeated at the polls yet continue to hold coalition power. Voters feel cheated and ignored by a shifting stage army of politicians in Oslo. The Storting has lost public respect and seems no more than a talent pool for government.
British readers will find this grimly familiar, as will students of democracy across much of Europe. And who are the winners? As in Britain, they are those within the charmed circle of government and with easy access to it. This means lobbyists, the media, businessmen and lawyers, mostly congregated in the capital.
In all this the Commission discerns a benign version of Lenin’s democratic centralism. The tiered democracy of Tocqueville’s “habit of association” is in decay. In its place is a relatively open and liberal elite. This enjoys “soft consent”, through periodic plebiscites (general elections) and by the disinclination of the bourgeoisie to rebel. A service industry underclass, mostly of recent immigrants, is excluded from power but is contained with “positive discrimination”.
To the majority of the Commission this was a “democratic infrastructure in collapse”. Two members (both women) disagreed. They found the new “disorder” refreshing. Women and minorities enjoyed greater leverage. Direct action was a sort of empowerment. Consent was simply shifting away from elected assemblies to more informal participation.
Lenin might cheer this latter view, but I am with the majority. For me democracy is bred in the bone. It lies in somehow sharing communal decisions, which is essentially local. Here lies what David Marquand, in his new book The Decline of the Public, calls the “domain of citizenship”. If this domain passes entirely to a central elite, to civil servants, pollsters, lobbyists and lawyers, it will end in tears. Britain’s poll tax was initiated by such an elite, and ended in a riot. Man is a social animal and his society needs some order and framework. Nimbyism, single- issue politics and fuel-tax strikes cannot substitute for elections, assemblies and accountable government.
Ringen ends his TLS review with conclusions that he shares with the commission. “The best way to repair democracy,” he says smartly, “is to repair democracy.” Constitutions must be reformed. Local democracy must be revitalised because it encompasses most of the chain of command, from people to power.
The report sees Norway’s proportional representation as a mistake. Britain’s practice of clearing out an entire cabal from time to time is refreshing. Parties should not get state subsidy but be forced to garner mass support. Excluded minorities should receive specific empowerment. Such reforms may run counter to the centralist trend. But democracy, however comfortable, must stay on guard against its foes.
There is another reason for preparedness. The report notes that government is nowadays ever more offshore and beyond reach of redress. Businesses make decisions at a distance. Norway is not a member of the European Union, yet it chooses to abide by the decisions of the Court of Human Rights and the European Court. Ordinary electors throughout Europe, inside and outside the EU, cannot realistically influence these bodies. National electorates cannot reject their laws or appeal against their decisions. These dictators may be benevolent, but for how long? Who guards them?
The message here is no less radical. All European states are de facto “within Europe”. Withdrawal is not meaningful. But national policy should be sceptical of anything supranational. Any power delegated beyond reach of national democratic control must be pursued and somehow chained. International laws must never be incorporated into national ones. Peoples should legislate their own human rights in their own parliaments, and enforce them through their own courts.
At first I found this report spine-chilling. If democracy is on the way out, I wondered, what next? Might we revert to the bureaucratic imperialism of the Habsburgs? Might we see again the mechanistic statism of Lenin’s Soviet Union? The new European constitution hints at rule by a Holy Roman Empire of pan-European oligarchs. Perhaps a century of liberal capitalism has merely made Europe safe for another bout of tyranny tempered by revolution. Must America save us yet again?
By the end I had no doubt. Good old-fashioned democracy must be returned to the fire. It must be banged on the anvil and hammered into shape. We cannot do without it. Its cutting edge must never rust. There is no safe alternative.
So thank you, Norway. Thank you for shouting a warning at the small minds of Downing Street, plodding down the road to doom. Democracy is in a bad way in both our countries. But in Norway the Northern Lights shine bright through the gloom.