Re-investing democracy with hope

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
21 Jan 2009

Barack Obama’s election as the 44th President of the United States has sparked an unprecedented wave of popular support and a renewal of hope in the possibilities of democracy, particularly for African Americans and the vast numbers of people excluded, impoverished or marginalised by the neo-liberal order embodied in the ‘old politics’ he promises to replace.

As Obama stated very forthrightly in his inauguration address, the hopes people have for change are encircled and threatened by global conflict, war, environmental destruction and economic collapse. But just as corrosive is the cynicism that says “nothing can be done” outside the old paradigms. That has bitten hard in Britain – even as politicians reshuffle their packs and rearrange their rhetoric.

According to a famous anarchist aphorism (also the title of a book by the ex-mayor of London, as it happens), “it doesn’t matter who you vote for, the government always gets in.” Failing that, the authorities can perhaps “dissolve the people and elect another one,” quipped Bertolt Brecht after riots in the German Democratic Republic in 1953.

The GDR, we recall, was a state in which people were only allowed to vote if they agreed with the government. Modern Britain has a long way to go before its popular deficit is that wide, but the growing desire of our political masters to avoid outcomes that make life difficult for them is still seen by many as a worrying trend.

Both the main parties are opposed to thoroughgoing electoral reform and the wider political choice this could offer. Under successive waves of fiscal and regulatory intervention from Conservative and Labour administrations alike, power has been centralised, locally elected politicians have seen their capacities whittled away, and civil liberties have been eroded or questioned.

Recently, the Home Secretary scrapped plans to make the police more accountable to local communities by having some directly elected members of the 43 police authorities. The argument was that extremists might benefit, though the electoral demographics suggested little of the sort.

Similarly, Jack Straw, secretary of state for justice, and immigration minister Phil Woollas have called for “reform” (many suggest, weakening) of the Geneva Convention on Refugees, because it challenges the legality and morality of government actions.

Now, following embarrassing revelations fuelled by Freedom of Information requests, MPs were due to vote this week on the new rules that would allow them to keep their expense details secret. Opponents launched an online campaign (http://www.mysociety.org/), urging voters to put pressure on their local MPs to oppose the move. It proved successful: http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/8419

Cynicism about the political process is fed by a growing anger over its unresponsiveness, except when votes are at stake. In my own district of Exeter, Heavitree, there has been an outcry because the council has spent some £175,000 on an ornamental archway no one seems to want, while pleas for genuine environmental improvements – or even meaningful consultation – are ignored.

One outcome of the gap between governors and governed has been the rebirth of direct action in a whole variety of guises. In September 2008, six Greenpeace activists were acquitted of causing criminal damage at the Kingsnorth coal-fired power station in Kent, because the jury accepted a defence of ‘lawful excuse’ after hearing arguments about the greater damage caused by global warming.

The New York Times and former US vice-president Al Gore welcomed the outcome. The British government was furious. Now the attorney general is considering referring such cases to the court of appeal where they can be overturned. Juries are not to be trusted when they reach the ‘wrong’ conclusions. But challenging the use of lawful excuse by parliamentary amendment would be politically embarrassing, so the judiciary is being asked to deny protestors their wider interest instead.

Formal breaks on arbitrary power are also being questioned. The leader of the Opposition wants to get rid of the Human Rights Act altogether, while Mr Straw has said he can see why the Daily Mail might dub it a “criminal’s charter”. According to press reports, the Church of England is about to join the fray on this one – supportive of the Act in general, but wanting opt-outs and exceptions.

Against this backdrop, a Convention on Modern Liberty (http://www.modernliberty.net/) drawing participants from across the political spectrum, from civic organisations and from secular and religious participants is being held in central London on 28 February 2009. It is sponsored by Open Democracy and human rights organisations. Both MPs and civil servants are likely to be watching very carefully – some from Westminster, others from within the popular debate itself.

As part of the convention, there will be a session on ‘Faiths and Freedoms’, which I am chairing on behalf of Ekklesia. The speakers will include Mohammed Aziz (director, FaithWise Ltd, a leading Muslim commentator), Savitri Hensman (writer, Christian commentator and equalities worker), and the Rev Vaughan Jones (CEO, Praxis). Details are here: http://tinyurl.com/ax95kc. You can also follow the development of the convention on Twitter: http://twitter.com/OnModernLiberty

A key component of the Convention on Modern Liberty is its recognition of the vital role of civil society groups, and of democracy as a participatory and dialogic process. And not just among those who agree easily, either. The involvement of the pro-hunting Countryside Alliance is bound to provoke some heated discussions.

Noble as his intentions may be, Barack Obama will prove to have feet of clay, for sure. He's a fallible human being like the rest of us, and the room for manoeuvre at the apex of conventional power is often crushingly tight. But there seems something genuine about his desire to bring governance and people, in all their diversity, closer together. This is a sign of genuine hope in difficult and dangerous times.

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(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. He blogs at http://faithinsociety.blogspot.com and his website is at http://www.simonbarrow.net. The latest book he has edited, Fear or Freedom? Why a warring church must change is published by Shoving Leopard. His forthcoming book, Threatened With Resurrection: The difficult peace of Christ, will be published soon.

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