The police state is just a state of mind

Political Power and Democratic Control in Britain
February 18, 2000

I was reminded of two movie images while reading this volume. The first is from A Matter of Life and Death , where the defence for David Niven responds to claims made on behalf of liberty in America by saying: "I doubt if you have more practical freedom in America than in England." The second is from a Woody Allen movie. Allen tells friends that fascists are marching in the city. Someone says that they have read a devastating satire of the march in The New York Times . Allen replies that, actually, he was thinking they should go down to the march with baseball bats. Defending our practical freedoms with baseball bats is not the reality of the British body politic at the close of the century.

Somebody might point this out to Stuart Weir and David Beetham. The portentous presentation of this volume and the earlier The Three Pillars of Liberty would suggest we are living in a barely concealed police state in which "they" are liable to come through the door at any moment. Reading it back to back with the second volume of Victor Klemperer's astonishing wartime diary, To the Bitter End , was perhaps in retrospect a little unfair. Nevertheless, leaving to one side the comparisons with anti-democratic regimes, we must face up to the reasons why these sorts of books about Britain are being written and begin to move beyond them.

There are strong historical roots to the production of these angst-filled volumes. From the mid-1980s the British liberal left - in and outside the Labour Party - lost everything in sight. Annihilated electorally after 1979, it was intellectually defeated by a polarisation of politics it could neither understand nor respond to. The only answer was gradually to abandon the battlegrounds that had made up politics since 1945 - macro-economic policy, the ownership of industry, industrial relations, incomes policies and so on - and focus on the structures of politics. On this battle-ground the argument could be won on paper.

If the right was not to be stopped from forging the new political consensus then at least it could be slowed by dropping mountains of verbiage in its path. So we had the spectacle of Samizdat and Charter 88, which tried to equate the experience of being a liberal in Thatcherite Britain with being a dissenter under a totalitarian regime. As the liberal left concentrated more and more on constitutional issues, the entire edifice of the Attlee settlement was undermined and a new macro-economic consensus was put in place that expanded the permanent underclass. First-past-the-post elections and an unelected second chamber do not actually constitute a police state, but while the streets of Brixton and Toxteth were burning, sympathetic social scientists were spending their time running general elections under an alternative electoral system to see how it could have come out differently.

From these developments there came things like the Democratic Audit. The overall conclusion of this second volume to emerge from the DA is that the electoral and governmental process in the United Kingdom is "a process operating within democratic norms and procedures, but that systematic features are at work which substantially limit their reach and impact in practice". This emphasis on the broad picture tends to dull the impact.

The DA has not chosen one or two issues, like the Campaign for Freedom of Information or the Electoral Reform Society, but has attempted to focus on everything. What was needed in 1992 when the audit was established was energy and research in areas that have finally been addressed because of the pressure of events rather than the political failure of the left.

It was not the DA that focused attention on the institutional racism of the police and brought about reform, but the murder of Stephen Lawrence. It was not the publication of books that allowed Chris Patten to investigate the abuse of power by the RUC, but the IRA ceasefire. Change in response to events highlights a further weakness in the overall approach adopted here. The irony, acknowledged in a short section at the end, is that much of this agenda of constitutional reform will be addressed in some form by the current Labour government. The electoral system will change when the Labour party feels it is in its interest to change it. The audit took place in May 1997, so that by the time the book was printed it was out of date.

This old-fashioned form of dissemination, not the authors' fault of course, illustrates the weakness of the role of academe in relation to political change. If we must have projects like this one, then maybe the DA should become electronic: the e-DA. A constantly updating and evolving electronic publication, focused on policy implementation, directed at specific areas of abuse and rigorously comparative in context and coverage. Electronic so that it would cope with changes in government and political climate. Focused so that policy change would result from its research. Comparative so that the models of good practice embedded here - elected second chambers, written constitutions and so on - could be compared with practice in Britain. For example, does the written constitution of the US produce less racist policing? If not, what does? Does the elected second chamber in France produce a better executive governance? Instead, this volume contains a number of good essays by leading social scientists such as Martin Smith, Kevin Theakston and David Byrne, which have been used to flesh out the Democratic Audit criterion that has been largely superseded by events. Moreover, an obsessive focus on the UK, with vague references to other countries with written constitutions and different political systems, means we are left wondering if any democracy would be classed as democratic by the Democratic Audit.

Unlike most political science, the purpose of this volume must be to change things. It is not a textbook that sets out to explain the generality, nor a monograph that sets out to explore the particular; it contains no political theory or model; it has a sense of history but there is no driving narrative. Though contained within it is a pretty good textbook on British politics, the purpose of this volume is to change the minds of those who disagree with its premise that there is something wrong with British democratic life. That it fails in this purpose begs the question, can books change politics? Books that have eloquence and passion can change minds; books with specific proposals can influence policy making. But this is not a book to set the political world alight with its prose. Nor does it contain legislative or administrative reforms that are framed in such a way that they might influence ministers in the current administration to increase the scope of reforms. It has neither the eloquence of the passionate polemic that can shift with the power of its words the preconceived notions of the reader, nor the dry and detailed mechanics of legislative change that stand a realistic chance of being implemented by the government. My sad conclusion is that this is a book with which I totally agree, while finding it totally pointless.

Brian Brivati is reader in history, Kingston University.

Political Power and Democratic Control in Britain: The Democratic Audit of the United Kingdom

Author - Stuart Weir and David Beetham
ISBN - 0 415 09643 X and 09644 8
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £75.00 and £22.99
Pages - 538

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