In 2014, because of the Fixed Term Parliament Act, we knew with certainty that there would be a General Election on Thursday 7th
May, 2015. I therefore had considerable time to research and write a monthly series of blogs in the run up. I wrote on the NHS, immigration, education, Europe, the economy and political leadership. [i]
In 2016 we knew with certainty that there would be a General Election in May 2020. But in 2017 Mrs May, the then Prime Minister, decided that she needed a personal mandate to conduct the negotiations regarding the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union as a result of the referendum in June 2016. She won the necessary votes in the House of Commons to avoid the dictate of the Fixed Term Parliament Act. Her strategy was unwise as I pointed out in my blog prior to the Election[ii]
. A General Election is never just about one thing. It is not presidential despite the media’s attempts to make it so. One huge opinion poll conducted a couple of weeks before with a sample of 50,000 voters could only predict a Conservative majority but with a range of 275 to 320 seats. In the end the Conservatives won 318, towards the higher end of this range, but still without an overall majority.
This week the parties are all publishing their manifestos with the ever increasing litany of ill-thought through, badly costed proposals. I want to give these issues some further thought and then blog on the detail nearer the actual date of this year’s Election on 12th
December; the third General Election in four and a half years with a Referendum in the middle. But first I want to try to set the subject in a wider context, that is that I see many signs that democracy is in danger all over the world. This is partly because of the irresponsible actions of politicians. I blogged on this earlier this year when I wrote about a book on the subject of How Democracies Die.[iii]
The authors show that democracies can die with a coup d’état
– or they can die slowly. This happens most deceptively when in piecemeal fashion, with the election of an authoritarian leader, the abuse of government power and the complete repression of opposition.
Donald Trump has demonstrated all three of these steps in his first year in power. But around the world there are additional dangers. The first is social media, both as a tool of hostile powers in interfering in democratic elections and as an uncontrolled, unregulated medium of communication. In my blog The Perils of the Internet,
which I published days after the 2015 General Election[iv]
, I identified ten major dangers facing mankind as a result of the internet. These were:
Four and a half years later I still stand by all ten of these but we must add another to the list, that is The Death of Democracy.
According to Parliamentary News, the website for reports from Parliamentary Select Committees:
“6 Foreign influence in political campaigns
237. The speed of technological development has coincided with a crisis of confidence in institutions and the media in the West. This has enabled foreign countries intent on destabilising democratic institutions to take advantage of this crisis. There has been clear and proven Russian influence in foreign elections, and we highlighted evidence in our Interim Report of such attempts in the EU Referendum.”
They go on to cite numerous attempts to interfere in western democratic elections in the UK, Germany and the US, usually via Twitter or Facebook and while Twitter had a reasonable record in identifying and eliminating these, Facebook’s record was dire with alleged cover ups by its top management.
But there is a broader problem with Facebook and other platforms and that is the echo chamber effect that I described in last week’s blog on The Power of Diverse Thinking. If people choose to get their information about current affairs from a Facebook group that they have selected because they ’like’ what they see and read there then this information will inevitably be narrow and possibly biased and maybe fake. It is true that most of us probably select our favourite newspaper because of its political stance among other things. Even the BBC, which is supposed to give balance in its political coverage, is accused of bias and that has been confirmed by some of its own staff. But it appears that social media is exaggerating and accelerating this trend, particularly among the young.
There is some evidence that widespread dissatisfaction among the young has come from the recent tendency to expand university education. While no doubt a noble aim there are simply not enough ‘graduate-level’ jobs to satisfy the graduates and this is leading to social tension, and may be behind some of the protests and demonstrations we have seen in Hong Kong, Chile and elsewhere. There is always a local cause but the common phenomenon is the ease of spreading dissension via social media. I fear that the institutions of democracy, honed over years to deal with conventional media, are not robust enough to stand up to the instant messaging of social media, which is largely unregulated.
Electoral advertising is heavily regulated in the UK with strict rules about types of media, spending limits etc with severe penalties for breaches. But none of this applies to the unregulated wild west of the internet. The only limiting factor is the conscience of the politicians but even then things can be done anonymously in their names.
Another danger comes from corruption. Corruption, like the poor, has always been with us. As Lord Acton said “All power tends to corrupt. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” However, I see evidence that it’s an increasing factor in many countries where democracy is a recent arrival.
According to a recent New York Times investigation the governments of nine central European nations abuse the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy to enrich family members and political allies. Millions of euros in CAP subsidies have been directed to a handful of companies, often linked to national leaders. Andrej Babis, the billionaire prime minister of the Czech Republic is linked to a company that received at least £32 million in subsidies last year. Viktor Orban, the prime minister of Hungary, is accused of funding a system of patronage linked to land leases. He apparently organised the sale of 12 state farms to close associates when he was prime minister between 1998 and 2002, which became eligible for large subsidies when Hungary joined the EU in 2004. In 2015, five years after he returned to power, Mr Orban’s government began to sell and auction leases to hundreds of thousands of hectares at cut price rates, arranging for most of them to go to close business associates.
It appears that EU officials are fully aware of these transactions but think it is a matter for individual states to manage. I find it ironic that the EU, so often criticised for interfering unnecessarily in local state affairs, will not do so when corruption is implicated. When my wife and I were in Bulgaria earlier this year we were struck by how much contempt the locals had for their corrupt politicians.
But my thesis is that so much of this is done under the cover of democracy. Politicians use democracy to gain power which they then abuse for their own corrupt purposes. You can see this happening all over the world and the risk is that democracy becomes meaningless.