Freedom, knowledge and agency
The notion of having the freedom to access required information, to extend one's existing knowledge to understand the range of options, upon which to decide on actions that are of mutual interest to a community, is what constitutional economists refer to as "public choice". The agency, or ability to act, usually lies in the hands of representatives who, in receiving a community decision to act, administer assigned resources to implement the decision. Such decisions can be policies devised to address identified needs by removing gaps in provisions that are affecting society, or segments of society. An underlying principle is that the freedom of choice be exercised by each individual in a responsible fashion to clear the ways forward, if not for ourselves, for others, helping improve the general benefits of community choice to all. This helps raise the general levels of confidence and mutual trust of community members in the exercise of universal suffrage.
However, in the United Kingdom, this freedom to evaluate all options to advance one's knowledge to refine one's choice, by being informed of all options does not, in reality, exist. This is because the proposals of subjects for decisions are established by tiny factions who are members of political parties. All of the British political parties combined have a total membership that constitutes less than 1.5% of the electorate.
The electorate in 2020 was approximately 48,000,000. The current party of "government", the Conservative party has a membership of 180,000 people or 0.375% of the electorate. It is more than evident that such a small group of people do not possess the intellectual critical mass to be able to identify what issues are of importance to society. Such a small group cannot be representative of the population as a whole. However, the concept of universal suffrage is that voters vote on propositions to serve society as a whole. The likelihood of 0.375% of the population coming up with propositions that address the needs of society as a whole is exceptionally small. The largest party, Labour, has 480,000 members which is only 1% of the electorate. As a result, general elections are devices whereby the majority are faced with a choice between agendas proposed by organizations which not representative of either the cultural and social make up or of the size of the constituency of the United Kingdom. And yet this country considers this operational interpretation of universal suffrage to represent how a democracy should work.
Imposition and choice
One of the critical factors in bringing about necessary change is a combination of a general education of the population that creates an expectation that all decisions should be taken on the basis of all available evidence based on a system of information dissemination that makes relevant facts available on matters of concern. If the media are biased either politically or as a result on incompetence or inability to cover all matters of interest, this represents a weakening of the necessary foundations of free choice to be exercised by the constituents of the country because of gaps in information. Where media have a narrow focus masquerading as the natural choice and where the majority of media follow a similar line, then there is an imposition of a limited range of options in the information generally available and of interest to only a limited segment of society.
In the United Kingdom, unfortunately, the state of affairs is one in which media are owned by very few, like-minded proprietors who operate through corporations. The media are, of course, private profit-making concerns that rely on advertising income. Most advertising comes from companies and as a result it is to be expected that the lines followed by the media will favour the interests of their main advertisers. The coordination of this process, with the same companies being political party benefactors, closes the circle of a promotion of the interests of the political parties whose propositions support the interests of the companies. It is here that the combination of benefactor funding and the power of the media becomes an imposition on Britain's tiny political parties by limiting the range of policy options that they can even propose. The media corporations and companies do not have the vote their influence outdoes the influence of the majority of constituents.
The inescapable conclusion is that beyond idealized notions of the functioning of democracy, those who are able to align the exercise of power by political parties in terms of policy propositions and in government as law, do so for self-interest of selfish reasons. Where this is directed specifically at financial benefits and the accumulation of assets such a motivation can be associated with greed.
The evil of dependency
Although the industrial revolution started in the United Kingdom in the 18th century, this was also a period when evictions of people occurred from occupying assets owned by land owners and such people migrated to other lands or to urban centres to become asset less workers surviving on their daily pay from work. Most pay was spent before the next payment was received. This clearance and employment dynamic created a mindset of asset holders being the creators of employment affording a status of power. Where most needed to rent or pay in kind for their accommodation then the asset holders, usually landowners would earn rent on land and houses. Now, some 300 years later this dependency of the majority be they manual labour, medical practitioners or politicians remains. This is why politicians remain very much in line with their whips because they wish to gain government positions which grant higher income and power. Those who can escape this dependency include owners of companies and financial institutions and top executives whose incomes are multiples of the pay of their work forces.
Assets and pay
One of the "historic inevitabilities", according to some, are the hegemonic cycles. Britain's started with the industrial revolution, expansion continued with export and the proportion of free trade which in many cases was not free, the investment in offshore low income economies starting with colonies, the accumulation of money and then a speculative phase of financialization. This is why the City of London financial services sector became so large. However, whereas the corporations and banks involved accumulated assets the general drift of real incomes of the majority declined as a result of falling investment in domestic production and therefore productivity exacerbating the levels of wages.
The USA initiated its own hegemonic cycle around 1900 and following the last war established the Bretton Woods "system" of financialization. One objective of the USA was to eliminate the UK's Imperial Preference where by colonies used sterling as the international medium of exchange while hoping these countries would not cash in their paper money for gold. The period 1945 through to date gave the USA a free ride becoming rich by acquiring products in exchange for paper. The best summation of this new Imperial Preference model but applied to the notion of the dollar as an international reserve currency was made by Barry Eichengreen who explained,
It is notable that when countries began to cash in dollars for gold Nixon immediately exited the gold standard in 1971. Within a decade the UK balance of payments went into negative territory and by 1995 the US follow suit as the Chinese hegemonic cycle began.
Rhetoric and self-promotional declarations by the Bretton Woods institutions aside, this experiment was a failure (see: "Why the Bretton Woods financial system was a baked-in failure"). The problem is that the printing presses outputting dollars, Euros and pounds sterling are accelerating as a result of quantitative easing (QE) introduced in 2008 but running as a demonstration of failure in Japan since 1985.
The relative location of the demos
Politicians and the media have done an effective job in keeping the demos (the UK constituents) away from decision-making concerning the central bank behaviour which supports the interests of a small minority of wealthy individuals while prejudicing the interests of the majority. Quantitative easing funds are being channeled into speculative markets of shares, precious metals, fine art, land and real estate as well as into offshore investment or purchase of offshore-produced goods. QE is associated with close-to-zero interest rates so that fixed income retirement resources were liquidated prejudicing millions and very little of the QE funds are channeled into investment in the supply side production of goods and services onshore.
As a result any productivity gains flow to shareholders while the purchasing power of wages declines. Inflationary leakage from land and real estate speculative markets if flowing into higher prices and rents for housing, retail unit, offices, industrial units and warehouses squeezing supply side margins and imposing cost-push inflation which will result in the need to raise unit prices and prevent any rises in wages. It is more than evident that this inability of the demos to curtail the excesses of the Bank of England and current economic policies that are biased towards further privatization and reduction in public services to channel yet more funds into the hands of wealthy individuals needs to be brought to an end.
However, political parties, as is more than evident, have never pointed out the direct impacts of these destructive policies. This is because they fear the reaction of the media that can be "deplatforming" campaigns to attack the reputation of the parties and to discourage the demos from voting for them. This tactic is based on the maintenance of a barrage of misinformation as to the "benefits" of the macroeconomic policies under monetarism.
Therefore it is evident that the political parties in the United Kingdom are incapable of serving the interests of the majority. This is either because they do not understand what monetarism is doing and how the independence of the Bank of England prevents any effective action to curtail this destructive process, on the one hand, or they are fully aware of the havoc this policy imposes and do not consider it to be in the interests of party survival to draw attention to these facts, on the other.
However, the price paid by the majority is becoming intolerable and this state of affairs has been exacerbated by Covid-19. Paying furlough and other money printing exercises are less about magnanimity and a generous Chancellor but rather more about heading off a social and political disaster that could end in violence and social upheaval; certainly resulting in the present government losing office.
A way forward
The last major social upheaval in the United Kingdom, or rather England, was the Civil War. The shock led to an amazing series of propositions on constitutional settlements initiated by such groups as the Levellers. John Lilburne, William Walwyn, Thomas Prince and Richard Overton, all of whom were Levellers, had been imprisoned in the Tower of London by Oliver Cromwell. While there, in May of 1649, they penned out a proposal called "An Agreement of the Free People of England". This document was a proposal for a written constitution for England. Within the text the authors state that their proposals are not detailed but that redrafting work, aimed at improving (the process of perfection) the content, should be undertaken by faithful representatives of the people. Lilburne and his colleagues sought to secure fundamental rights for the people of England. In the preamble to their declaration they set out the context of their proposal. They wrote that the nation should be free and happy and that all differences should be reconciled so that all can stand with a clear conscience whilst preventing the prevalence of interests and private advantages. They wrote that actions should not be driven by malice against anyone nor as a result of disagreement over opinions but should be geared towards peace and prosperity for all. They proposed that the free people of England establish a government without arbitrary power and whose action would be bound and limited by law, as would all subordinate authority, with the purpose of removing all grievances.
Some 40 years later parts were used in the English Bill of Rights of 1689 and the American Bill of Rights in the American Constitution of March 1789, some 140 years later.
So, to avoid social calamities, the Levellers proposed the wonderful concept that people should be governed by a Parliament of their popular choice. Such a concept was justified by Colonel Thomas Rainborough, a participant in the Putney Debates organized by the Levellers at the Church of St Mary the Virgin in Putney in the County of Surrey, in October and November 1647. He stated,
Political parties never were a good idea
What was never emphasized in historic accounts of the Leveller's work was their concern to avoid the formation of permanent political groups or political parties because they knew this would result in corruption and such groups operating to promote their self-interest and private advantage. It is therefore somewhat odd that politicians who are members of political parties often extol the virtues of the work of the Levellers. Tony Ben, for example while rightly praising the Levellers, never seemed to acknowledge the fact they were against the formation of political parties.
Political parties are not structured to resist take over or a heavy dependency on wealthy benefactors and as a result are easily controlled by factional minorities. Indeed the lack of appeal and low membership of parties means they cannot survive on the basis of membership fees. This results in decision making having less to do with the demos and more to do with party survival based on the exercise of dog whistle and identity politics which emerged more obviously since 1980s.
The recent arbitrary decisions taken within both the Conservative and Labour parties are cases in point. A tiny faction in the Conservative party bent on BREXIT, expelled many "one nation" politicians such as Kenneth Clark and others while a fanatical minority within the Labour party worked to deplatform Jeremy Corbyn. This was in spite of the fact the popularity of the Labour party was rising. The media and Israeli-linked operatives carried out a hatchet job on Corbyn and the party largely based on an exaggeration of the extent of anti-semitism in the party coordinated with efforts of a rump of Blairites to slow down the response to complaints as a basis to exacerbate the situation.
What is notable, if that the smaller political parties, facing the same pressures did not call attention to the close to tyrannical behaviour of the main political parties.
However, the most important issue worthy of analysis and an effort to dismantle the systemic arbitrary operation of macroeconomic policies in favour of a minority of the constituency while resulting in a gradual undermining of the wellbeing and purchasing power of incomes of the majority. This requires a mass movement free of the defects of political parties to prevent "capture" as well as clear articulate analyses of the actual operation of the economy under, for example, QE. The independence of the Bank of England needs to be questioned in terms of the outcomes of its decisions linked to 12 years of havoc imposed by QE.
Stepping back through time to manage our future
The Power Report produced some 15 years ago (2006) contains a complete list of many of the problems associated with our political party system. We recommend that readers look at this report (see right) but we also advise that readers take into account that political parties cannot be trusted to implement recommendations.
However, unlike Hector McNeill's "The Quest for Freedom", the Power Report, assumed, perhaps naively, that these reforms could take place within the existing system controlled by political parties. However, Helena Kennedy, who chaired the Power Commission, sensing possibly the potential problem, did request that," ... politicians to treat democratic reform as a non-partisan necessity"".
It is notable that the 49 constraints on freedom identified by McNeill and which were imposed by political parties over time, do not map over the constraints within the Power Report, they extend the list. This is because McNeill's analysis is a devastating critique on the power structures within parties leading to the conclusion that they are the problem and therefore cannot be expected to contribute to a solution.
Although a new edition of "The Briton's Quest for Freedom" is out next month, we have put in a request via the APEuropean Pool to arrange a summary version of McNeill's critical points to complement the existing content of the Power report. We will post this on the medium as soon as received. These combined resources alone can provide an excellent home-grown foundational resource to concentrate minds on ways and means of moving forward to put the demos, where it belongs, at the centre of our democracy.
Whereas the notion of pitchforks and storming of the Bastille or even a Commie revolution attracts some and constitutes a paranoid fear of others, the lessons from the Civil War remain apposite.Through reasoned exchange of views and by placing the general mutual interest of all to the fore, good outcomes can be obtained. The result of the Putney debates of 374 years ago lead subsequently, and through jury decisions, a device supported by the Levellers, in overthrowing poor laws contributed to the launch of a peaceful revolution in better constitutional principles and human rights legislation world wide. But throughout this inspiring renaissance of humanism, political parties have continued to meddle and interfere with such issues to serve their own interests.
Political parties are unable to assist and the "mainstream media" remains under the control of those who will resist change. Therefore the needed transformation requires that the demos must organize to bring about the necessary changes. We will return to this topic because of its significance to all.
As members of the Agence Presse Européenne we will provide an impartial coverage of what McNeill's book title refers to as "...Our unfinished journey".