John Keane, professor of politics at the University of Westminster and at the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin, calls it ‘serendipity’. A decade in the writing and the first attempt at a full scale history of democracy in over a century, The Life and Death of Democracy hits the book shelves with the sort of timing that no-one can possibly plan and for which many authors would gladly kill. Global economic downturn and the MPs’ expenses scandal at home in Britain both challenge and reaffirm what democracy means to us and yet John Keane could not have anticipated their dramatic effects on politics when he began this book sometime in 1999.
This is an extraordinary book which tells us almost as much about the future of our democracy as it does about the past and the present. It shows us how fragile is democracy and reminds us that, despite its recent shortcomings, we rather like democracy and rather take it for granted. One startling fact highlighted early on in the book is that in 1941 there were only eleven functioning democracies in the world. It also challenges our common understanding about its origins, arguing that rather than an invention of Ancient Greece, evidence of democracy can be found earlier in the Middle East.
He considers the success of the European Union as ‘the world’s leading experiment in regional integration, a new multi-layered political community committed… to the principle and practice of fashioning cross-border democratic structures, some of them without precedent’. And the historical setting of this book into the present is as elegant as it is intriguing. Despite its near 1000 pages, it is bursting with detail, information, argument and fact not to mention quite a few jokes and some splendid images peppered throughout.
But it is the modern context that intrigues me. The global economic crisis has shown us both what can be achieved by the political process and also the limitations. While concerted efforts of governments across the globe has helped to address the banking crisis and recession, the fact is that our politicians no longer have autonomy over economic policy. There are undemocratic international bodies which exercise extraordinary power and influence over policy. And the power of global markets means that capital can flow across the world at the touch of a button in search of the best returns. Countries now conform to policies in which monetary policy is used to control inflation and maintain stable capitalist economic conditions.
Meanwhile, the British expenses row has shaken our faith in the probity of politicians, just as voters across Europe likewise hold their own representatives in as low regard as at any time since the end of war as they learn of the activities of those who exercise power. One only has to look to the travails of Silvio Berlusconi to realise this is not an isolated issue. And in its analysis, this gets to a central proposition of this book: that we have moved into an era of ‘monitory democracy’.
Monitory democracy is about holding politicians to account to the extent of their day-to-day actions. For my mind, it does not necessarily hold to account politics and raises questions about exactly what it is that we are monitoring. In Britain, we all became rather interested in the departed Home Secretary’s choice of pornography after she inadvertently claimed a subscription as a parliamentary expense, but how much do we scrutinise the erosion of our civil liberties which is surely more important? The electorate now knows more about how MPs furnish their homes than they could ever possibly have wished, but I suspect they know very little about the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.
One unfortunate (and perhaps unforeseen) consequence of monitory democracy is that rather than making a better informed choice, the electorate has a tendency to stay at home on polling day. Just look at the turn-out at the recent European elections. There is more monitoring, but fewer people really care about it. And while some of those who did vote, instead picked fringe parties, I’m not so sure we ever get away from elites – even if we find one more palatable than another.
I’m also left wondering just who would be a politician given this monitoring? We have monitory democracy to thank for uprooting politicians expenses in the British Parliament and it might lead to a clear-out of a hundred or more of the old guard of MPs who will stand down at the next election. But who will replace them? If recent years are any indication, it will be more of the same – this breed of relatively young, privately and Oxbridge educated, clever, on the whole rather decent, middle class, person who has never had a real job and who is driven into politics not through conviction or ideology but as a career choice.
In the UK and across Europe we now have a political class which eschews ideology in favour of centrist governing. Indeed, politicians across the world now attend a handful of universities and share a common professional and social network. Even if we know what they’re up to in their most private of moments, I’m not sure this is better for democracy and I think the book agrees.
In viewing the future, Professor Keane (or rather his muse) imagines a world in which ‘parties worked hard to aggregate interests. But often they did so at the price of blandly stated policies, vague, visionless visions, double standards and non-commitments… policy free politics’. We are of course already there as democracy becomes ‘less and less representative’. One Conservative MP claimed for the cost of clearing out the moat around his home. I am sure that moat owners are not representative of the population, but neither is this political class.
The irony is that while politicians have become less ideological, some of the largely unaccountable, international bodies which exert influence over national policy are dogmatically wedded to a set of politically unpopular ideals.
Recent events highlight another danger the book foresees: the question of ‘who monitors the monitors?’ To assuage the electorate or at least the media, British MPs are passing over the self-monitoring role they have for their own affairs. An appointed body will monitor politicians’ expenses. In a sense this is nothing new. Gordon Brown’s first act as Chancellor back in 1997 was to hand over control for monetary policy to the Bank of England. The Tories now have a bizarre idea for doing a similar thing with fiscal policy.
One might well ask why we need a Chancellor of the Exchequer? This, without mentioning the scores of QUANGOs and other appointed bodies which have been created in particular since the privatisation programme of the 1980s and indeed European level unelected regulatory institutions. The implications of monitory democracy could be quite undemocratic as the monitors have more power than the politicians who are all too eager to relinquish control in a Faustian bargain to win office. The democratic ideal is that no single body should rule; the danger is that nobody at all is responsible.
Like all good books, this one generates as many questions as it answers. It is full of argument, detailed research, context and thought. But despite its dire warnings and the rather depressing title, it is at its heart an optimistic book which celebrates our democratic traditions. It is a book which extols the cross-border, democratic, experiment of the European Union. And it is a book which encourages the reader to rejoice and grumble about democracy in equal measure if we are to protect a way of life that we fundamentally value.