I’ve been reading Michael Foot’s entertaining 1980 book ‘Debts of Honour,’ which contains brief biographical sketches of an eclectic mix of people Foot admired and indeed, as the title suggests, felt some debt to. They range from Disraeli to Paine, Beaverbrook to Defoe. The range and scale of Foot’s interests and his wit and intelligence illuminate these mostly long departed characters’ lives. The year of publication is interesting, or perhaps just coincidence. It came out shortly before his election as Labour Party leader, so for those of an enquiring mind, they would have been able to discern more intimately perhaps what kind of leader they were going to get.
Foot was not the first politician to write in this fairly rare genre. In 1957, in a career enhancing move, JFK wrote ‘Profiles in Courage’ (although some suggest it was ghost written for him by Arthur Schlesinger, his speechwriter) which looked at the lives of eight Americans and won a Pulitzer Prize. Long after Foot, and perhaps seeking to replicate the JFK magic, our very own Gordon Brown wrote ‘Courage: Eight Portraits’, published in 2007, just as Brown was becoming Labour Party leader. The multi-biographical format lends itself to self-promotion, the author very prominently identifying him or herself with the heroes written about. Perhaps some of the magic is intended to rub off – ‘these great people have influenced me more than I can say (but I’ll say it anyway).' I don’t apply the last cynical comment to Foot of course – he was a genuinely good writer, worth reading for his own sake. Other much less substantial figures have employed the broader biographical genre to promote themselves. Boris Johnson, for example penned ‘The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History.’ (‘It reads at times like a mixture of Monty Python and the Horrible Histories’ – D. Telegraph) In Johnson’s case, to paraphrase Senator Lloyd Bentsen’s put down of Dan Quayle in the 1988 U.S. presidential campaign: ‘Mr Johnson – I knew Winston Churchill, and you’re no Winston Churchill.’
But for a serious politician, I can’t see it would do any harm to pen an admiring book about one’s heroes. It is now clearly Corbyn’s turn to switch his word processor on and get to it. Who made him who he is today? This would be an opportunity to counter-act the impression that the only people he hangs out with are murderous terrorists who believe the state of Israel should be destroyed. There are risks of course: the book would probably be peer reviewed in the Daily Mail by ‘Lord’ Jonathan Sacks, seeking hints of irony. It would be panned in the D. Telegraph as a Marxist tract. The National Allotments Association, whilst broadly welcoming it would nevertheless question whether in 1978 the winner of the biggest marrow competition (OAP Section) was indeed a Czech spy.
Don’t be deterred Jeremy. Get the book written.
David Runciman’s How Democracy Ends* thankfully doesn’t have the subtitle which seems to adorn so many books with hand-wringing titles these days: and what we can do about it. After spelling out a host of threats to democracy, Runciman admits he doesn’t have a solution. He reckons that democracy now is in a middle-aged state of life, and various diseases beckon as old age appears. These form the three chapters at the core of the book – Coup, Catastrophe and Technology. I wouldn’t want to recap his arguments, which are succinctly and astutely put – Runciman after all is an Oxbridge politics don – but they do deserve a wider audience, particularly amongst our political class.
What is democracy? Runciman offers a simple definition, ‘which is that at the allotted time the people get to say when they have had enough of the politicians who have been making decisions for them.’ (p.13) What could be simpler? But later, we learn that ‘Contemporary political science has devised a range of terms . . . ‘audience democracy’, ‘spectator democracy’, ‘plebiscitary democracy’. These terms might be too mild: ‘zombie democracy’ might be better. The basic idea is that people are simply watching a performance in which their role is to give or withhold applause at the appropriate moments. Democratic politics has become an elaborate show, needing ever more characterful performers to hold the public’s attention. The increasing reliance on referendums in many democracies fit this pattern.’ (p.47)
Might this not always have been the case? Hasn’t our democracy always tended towards the audience model, rather than a participatory one? As an anarchist slogan has it, whoever you vote for the government always wins. Of course, if no-one voted the government would still win, although that’s probably not what the anarchist meant. As things stand, governments are elected by minorities. Theresa May won a mere 31% share of the vote in 2017, or 26.8% of the electorate. Tony Blair did worse in 2005 – winning the votes of just 24.5% of the electorate, but thanks to the system he banked a 60+ overall majority. (Whilst looking at these figures, I think it must gall Blairites to know that Corbyn’s numerical support in 2017 exceeded all but Blair’s since 1997.)
As Runciman makes plain, it is the fact that even with as flawed a system as democracy is, its strength leads to non-violent changes in political leadership. Even with nearly three million fewer votes than Clinton, Trump’s election occurred without violence, as was the case in the parallel circumstances of Bush v. Gore. Of course, the absence of violence is a fine thing – a sign of a civilised society – but is that it? Democracy seems to permit every other kind of nefarious behaviour short of violence. The ‘greatest democracy on Earth’ as some Americans like to think of it allows wide scale gerrymandering, secret funding, voter suppression, plain lying and now, hidden malevolent technological influences made possible by algorithms. Such things can only enhance the realisation of an ‘audience democracy.’
Another issue which Runciman addresses is the oft inability of democracy to deliver what it says on the tin, or more starkly, what is the right thing to do. An example is climate change. This is where we encounter the cognitive dissonant democracy, where politicians (in the main) know what the right thing to do is and pay lip service to the necessary changes, but are immobilised by fears of an electoral backlash. The most radical political steps are often kicked into NIMTO – Not In My Term of Office.
Runciman doesn’t see democracy ending anytime soon, but like any middle aged person, more intimations of its mortality will occur. How to keep it alive? An infusion of fresh thinking is required, along with a readiness to make changes. In the U.S. the Constitution is a barrier to change, even if people like Trump seem willing to ignore the Constitution when it suits. In the U.K., where we are apparently ‘taking back control’ there has been virtually no debate about what that means in the real world. In the E.U. a great opportunity was missed when there was much talk of subsidiarity, but little conviction in it. Decision making closer to the people? Local authorities are denuded of money, which makes significant decision making all but nugatory.
As Einstein said “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” The question therefore is: how do we get rid of the people who are these ‘same’ thinkers? Just another election?
*Profile Books, 2018
Here’s something you won’t get with electronic books, and indeed don’t often get with secondhand books either – a previous owner’s inscription. Writing your name in your latest book used to be quite a regular thing. Indeed, some went further: my parents had elaborate gummed book plates, the purpose of which I think was as much decorative as a reminder to borrowers to return the volume, preferably in good shape.
In my recently acquired copy of Herbert Read’s Art and Society (2nd edition, 1945) is written the name Rex C. Russell, 1946, London. I suspect Mr Russell owned this book even perhaps until he died in 2015 at the age of 98. He had obituaries in the Guardian and the Market Rasen Mail, and it turns out he was an eminent local historian, educator, author, artist and for some years a lecturer at Hull University and with the WEA. He reportedly cycled to his village classes even in winter, arriving with icicles hanging from his beard. I recall a similar experience when I was a postie in the 1970s. Many of his books on rural life in Lincolnshire are still on sale on Amazon.
Does it not add something to the quality of a book that it passed through another reader’s hands, that it may have had some profound influence on somebody else’s life? Mr Russell had not long left the army in 1946 and was shortly to go to Durham University as a mature student. Read’s book surely had an influence on him. And judging by the fact that it still has its original dust jacket, he cared for it. I guess if he paid 15 shillings (about £22 today) for it in those difficult times, he would. I got it for £4. I’m not sure all of what Read says has stood the test of time though – he was very reliant on Sigmund Freud – psycho-analysis was quite fashionable in the 40s and 50s I believe. Still a bargain is a bargain.
I am actively considering cancelling my subscription to the Guardian. Its coverage of the so-called ‘Labour is anti-semitic’ story has largely been one sided, lacking in balanced analysis and clearly grounded in an agenda which seeks to return Labour to centrist ‘safe hands.’ An article by Gaby Hinsliff given prominence today I think merits the Melanie Phillips award for hysteria. Here’s a sample: “It’s perfectly possible to offer more social housing, renationalised railways and a welfare system in which people don’t starve without a side order of Mossad conspiracy theories. The idea that you can’t have one without another – that unless we all agree there’s nothing wrong with calling Jews Nazis, then left-wing economic beliefs will somehow die – is grotesque. And if Corbyn struggles to separate the two, then sooner or later the Labour Party must find someone who can.”
How the fuck did this garbage get past the boy pushing the Guardian tea-trolley, never mind a sub-editor? I might as well read the Daily Mail is what the Guardian seems to be saying.