CAN democracy survive?

A poll in the UK by the respected Hansard Society last month found that 54% of voters would prefer a single, strong, “rule-breaking” leader in place of the present Westminster lot. While there’s room for ambiguity in what folk might mean by “a strong leader”, there was no mistaking the fact that a hefty minority (42%) thought that the UK needed a presidential-style government that didn’t have to depend on parliamentary majorities.

These are the most pessimistic results the regular Hansard Society audit has found in many years.

Of course, the imbroglio over Brexit, including the complete decision-making stasis at Westminster, is fuelling this rise in political disillusionment. But there is more at work than a rise in public disregard for elected politicians.

One-third of Hansard’s respondents said they no longer wanted to be involved “at all” in local decision-making, a rise of

10 points in a only year. There is a similar spike in the number of folk saying they are no longer interested in politics in any form.

The central danger in this retreat from political engagement is that it opens the door to authoritarian rule disguised as popular resistance to “the Establishment”. Enter populist demagogues such as Nigel Farage, Tommy Robinson and – in his inimitable buffoonish style – Boris Johnson. I might even throw in the name of Ruth Davidson here, given her notorious unwillingness ever to discuss hard policy options.

The UK is not alone in this entropy of democracy and its representative institutions. A recent Harvard University study found that 46% of Americans have “very little” confidence in Congress compared to only 11% who have “a great deal or quite a lot”. A generation ago, those numbers were reversed. Result: America’s flawed political system has now produced the minority Trump presidency, on a voter turnout in 2016 of only 55.5%.

Ditto for Europe. I am privileged to have lived through the overthrow of the fascist dictatorships in Spain, Portugal and Greece, and of the Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe and the Baltic. Sadly, the high tide of democracy in Europe has already ebbed. Populist, racist governments now blot the central and eastern half of the continent. Meanwhile, average voter turnout for EU Parliament elections fell from 62% in 1979 to 43% in 2014. It’s anybody’s guess what the turnout will be later this week for the 2019 EU election.

There is surely some deeper malaise explaining the simultaneous decline in voter participation in representative parliaments, across the Western industrialised bloc. Brexit represents a symptom not a cause. Something existential must be driving voter alienation and the consequent universal rise of populist authoritarianism – Trump in America, Farage in the UK, Orban in Hungry, Bolsonaro in Brazil or Salvini in Italy.

My modest attempt at an explanation comes in two related parts. First, the alienation of individual voters is a reflection of the decline of class-based politics. For the duration of the 19th century and much of the 20th, voters participated in democratic elections and parliamentary battles not as isolated (and therefore relatively powerless) individuals but as soldiers in great class armies: industrial workers, farmers and farm labourers, shopkeepers, mill owners, bankers.

Typically, you voted Labour, Communist, Socialist or Democrat if you came from the working class. If you were from the owning classes you voted Conservative, Republican, or Christian Democrat. Through mass membership of trades unions, churches and trade associations, ordinary voters participated in an ongoing, daily discussion about politics and the issues of the day.

But this social transmission belt between concerned citizen and the democratic process has been broken. Since the neo-liberal 1980s, workers no longer congregate in giant factories or belong to big trades unions. As a result, mass membership of political parties has all but disappeared – with the exception, in the UK, of the post-referendum SNP and the Corbynite Labour Party.

Voters are now isolated individuals bombarded through television and social media with political messages that treat them as passive “consumers”. In particular, the loss of mass trades union membership has reduced the ordinary working-class voter to political impotence.

No wonder they are easy prey for populist vultures like Farage, except where a progressive movement such as the SNP or Catalan nationalism has succeeded in mobilising support around a genuine anti-austerity project.

My second contention is that the owning classes have equally become distanced from representative democracy, and therefore more willing than ever to corrupt its functioning. Back in the 19th century, the various shards of the British ruling class – aristocratic landlords, northern mill owners, City bankers – shared the Houses of Parliament directly. The floor of the Commons literally served as the debating chamber where the ruling class thrashed out its differences. But in an age of globalisation, the Commons is an empty vessel. The real industrial and financial decision-makers are in Docklands.

In Britain and across the Western world, parliamentary institutions are now devoid of the owning class. Congress, National Assembly and Parliament have ceased to be serious deliberative bodies for the ruling elite. Instead they have been transformed into theatrical backdrops used by the Establishment media to manipulate the electorate.

As a result, Western parliaments have become increasingly corrupt – financially and politically, further alienating large segments of the electorate.

These political shifts bring pronounced dangers all round. Here in Scotland, it would be calamitous for the national movement to think we are totally immune to the global erosion of old-style parliamentary democracy and the rise of authoritarian populism.

As in the rest of the Western world, we need to recreate and maintain a powerful social transmission belt between the people and representative institutions.

One way of doing this is to devolve as much decision-making to popular organs and local communities. The SNP pay lip service to this notion, but it is decades since such radical decentralisation was at the heart of the party’s raison d’etre, as it was in the 1970s. Which is why I am glad the Yes movement has taken to the streets – unbidden and spontaneously – in such large numbers.

It is also vital that the SNP do not capitulate to the false politics of crafting synthetic “mood” messages to attract voters on a bogus political basis. If our approach is merely to treat voters as “consumers”

and invent a “safe” policy “product” for each one, then we are participating directly in the destruction of real, active democracy – just as it has been subverted across the globe.

A living democracy is a way of mediating division, not pretending that class and economic divisions do not exist.

To mobilise a popular majority for independence requires positivity in the sense we must have a genuine agenda for change in Scotland: to end poverty by abolishing the unfair private ownership of wealth and land; and to end environmental despoliation by dismantling the profit-driven quest for endless growth.

But an ersatz “positivity” framed as avoiding dissent – or pretending there are not risks or sacrifices to be encountered in restoring our Scotland – is to cheat the people. And if there is one thing certain these days, the people will not

be cheated.