Moving towards post-democracy?

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
7 Sep 2007

For those with a weather eye to current affairs, politics doesn’t stop during the long summer parliamentary recess. Instead it migrates elsewhere. And mostly it goes on happening in the usual way, just without the benefit of a running commentary from Westminster.

Even so, the idea that political activity can happen in an extra-parliamentary zone all of its own is a fantasy. This summer one of our biggest debates cycled down the road from Westminster and set up camp outside Heathrow, where environmental protestors (ranging from seasoned eco-warriors to suburban housewives) became a magnet for concern about the impact of the vast expansion in air travel on climate change.

However, the aim of the protest was not just to challenge public opinion and get people to change their minds about flying. It was also aimed at getting governments to do something.

The role of our domestic legislature was an essential part of the story in another way, too. For what few noticed is that the parliamentary Act used to challenge the climate camp makes any protest virtually illegal, interpreted to the boundaries of its meaning.

The 1997 Protection from Harassment Act, as amended by the 2005 Serious Organised Crime and Police Act (SOCPA), creates an offence of trying "to persuade any person ... not to do something that he is entitled or required to do" or "to do something that he [or she, presumably] is not under any obligation to do" in a way that harasses them.

Harassment is defined as "alarming the person or causing the person distress". Alarm and distress are left undefined. As such, they become catch all categories – rather like “terror” in legislation directed at combating what the experts rather forensically call “asymmetric, non-state sanctioned violence, designed to intimidate people and public institutions.”

Public demonstrations are, by definition, trying to get someone or somebody alarmed or distressed about something – the treatment of workers, environmental damage, human rights, global poverty, or whatever. And increasingly, the legislature is forcing the executive and the judiciary to ban them.

There are now severe restrictions on the right to protest outside parliament itself. Legislation was promulgated because one man, anti-Iraq war Christian protestor Brian Haw, really got up the noses of MPs and Lords. So they made him, and anyone else like him, get off the grass. They also seized his property and haven’t returned it.

Then, despite a High Court ruling challenging the legality of these actions, Mr Haw was finally removed by police from Parliament Square on “public safety” grounds during the recess. He and his friends were also physically kept out of Nelson Mandela’s sight during the unveiling of a statue in honour of his long struggle for freedom. The irony wasn’t lost on them. Mr Mandela was not consulted about whether peace campaigners might have caused him “alarm and distress”.

Gordon Brown has promised to review the restrictions on freedom of expression within the vicinity of the Houses of Parliament. But little has happened so far and there is great pressure against change within the hallowed halls. The natural view of politics that emerges from the seat of power is one based on representation and management, not participation and interruption.

For some, not least those who make our laws, Brian Haw has been viewed as an unsightly nuisance. For others, however, he is a warning about the increasing alienation and exclusion of sections of the population from parliamentary politics.

On a recent edition of BBC Radio 4’s ‘Any Questions’ show, which pits politicians alongside other public figures, one of the panellists raised the question about whether Britain is effectively moving towards being a post-democratic country.

Post-democracy does not mean non- or anti-democratic. It suggests, rather, a form of political management which circumscribes ‘by the people, for the people, of the people’ with so many legal restrictions, technocratic procedures and financial hurdles that the system becomes impervious towards more fundamental levels of change.

In particular, there is a growing disconnect with the aspirations of a growing number of people whose concerns are not adequately mapped by the narrow economic, political and social assumptions of the main political parties.

It is easy to dismiss such issues by pointing out the many ways in which our system remains far ahead of others. But as parliamentarians reconvene, will at least some of them awaken further to the fact that parliament’s legitimacy is rooted in people, and therefore needs to be evolving with them?

This seems at least to be on Gordon Brown's mind, even if the jury is still out on whether his move toward 'citizens' juries' is simply a way of consolidating power, or opening up power to the people. It is probably a bit of both.

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(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. His blog can be found at http://faithinsociety.blogspot.com

This piece is adapted from an article appearing in Third Way (http://www.thirdway.org.uk/) magazine.

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