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The Covid Crisis and the Crisis of British Democracy

The crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic has revealed major flaws in the nature of the British state – and the left's thinking on state power as well. In this article, Christine Berry argues that what is required is a new, democratic conception of state power as a way out of the crisis.

Christine Berry 3 September 2020

The Covid Crisis and the Crisis of British Democracy

Just beneath the surface of the rolling crisis that is 2020, British democracy is in deep trouble. With the ever-expanding list of ‘Things to Worry About’, it's perhaps understandable that this particular crisis has fallen from the bottom, but we ignore it at our peril. This crisis of democracy, one that defined 2019, came to a head in December’s general election. In the aftermath of Labour's defeat, most focused on what the party did wrong during the campaign. But the biggest loser on December 12th was parliamentary democracy itself. The election result resolved the protracted Brexit stand-off between parliament and the executive in favour of the latter, and by placing the blame for the defeat on Corbyn and Corbynism, the Labour Party swerved the need to reckon with its profound implications.

Many saw the Brexit referendum result as (at least in part) the product of a growing sense of disenfranchisement and dissatisfaction with politics. But it was during the three years after the vote that popular satisfaction with UK democracy really plummeted. Remainers were disillusioned because of the result, while Leavers were disillusioned by the failure to implement it. Brexit also exposed deeper problems with our unwritten constitution: as journalist Adam Ramsay has written, “we have no idea where sovereignty really lies." In the years following the vote, a conflict was set up between the sovereignty of parliament – for most of my life a comfortable fiction, but one which suddenly began dictating events after the government lost its majority – and the sovereignty of ‘the people’. Boris Johnson’s great conjuring trick was to conflate this with the conflict between parliament and the executive – setting himself up as the defender of democracy while concentrating power in his own hands.

Johnson’s central pitch was that if voters handed him unfettered authority, he would end the stalemate and ‘get Brexit done’. The extent to which this appeal against politics resonated across the political spectrum – turning out 2 million new voters – should worry us all. On one level, the return to stable majority government means that normal service has been resumed. But the underlying damage to our system’s democratic legitimacy may yet prove fatal. The illusion is shattered: wherever you stand on Brexit, most can agree that our rare experiment with genuine parliamentary accountability was a disastrous failure. Parliament now lacks both practical and moral authority. Faced with the competing claims to legitimacy of their elected representatives and a maverick Prime Minister who lied to the Queen in order to suspend parliament, voters decisively chose the latter.

The road to Barnard Castle: The British state’s legitimacy crisis

For a brief moment at the start of 2020, democratic reform seemed to be creeping to the top of the left’s agenda. For instance, most of the Labour leadership candidates – although notably not Keir Starmer – had explicitly committed to at least exploring electoral reform. The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic shelved politics as usual and made these debates seem less urgent. At the same time, the pandemic has both exposed and worsened the fragility of our democracy.

There could scarcely have been a more flagrant confirmation that we now have no reliable means to hold the executive to account than the Cummings scandal. Boris Johnson’s chief adviser broke lockdown rules to drive the 260-mile trip from London to Durham, followed by the now infamous 60-mile round trip to Barnard Castle. After news of Cumming’s action broke, politicians, newspapers and commentators across the political spectrum agreed that his position was completely untenable – and yet, he stayed. So too did Robert Jenrick, despite being exposed as involved in obvious corruption designed to favour Tory donor and property developer Richard Desmond.

Many have been shocked by the sheer brazenness of this government’s contempt for democratic norms, its shameless graft and willingness to ride out the most extreme storms of public opinion. On the one hand, we might hope that this blunts the appeal of right-wing populism; its claim to be on the side of ‘the people’ against political elites has surely been exposed as a sham. On the other, when we recall the history of the 2019 election, we realise that an all-powerful, unaccountable executive was exactly what people voted for. Perhaps this helps to explain why, extraordinarily, Johnson’s government remains ahead in the polls.

Of course, it is clear that the Cummings scandal has done serious and lasting damage to the legitimacy and moral authority of the government’s public health strategy. Polls showed a calamitous collapse in public trust the week the scandal broke. But the political implications of this are much less clear. One of the lessons of the 2019 election campaign was that the cynicism generated by Johnson’s obvious lies, evasions and malfeasance did not ultimately damage him, or even benefit the left. On the contrary, it created a sort of ‘reverse halo’ effect which made people less likely to trust any promises made by politicians, of left or right. Many of us encountered this on the doorstep. It is consistent with research that found that anger against unaccountable or self-serving ‘elites’ can bleed into cynicism about the entire political class. Rather than specifically damaging the right or Johnson’s government, then, the Cummings affair may end up accelerating the decay of our democracy.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the political fence, an entire generation of young people enthused by Corbyn’s Labour – many of whom felt that politics had never had anything to offer them – are currently feeling battered, bruised and rejected. They thought they could build a brighter future via the ballot box; they were proved wrong in the most brutal way. Despite bemoaning young people’s ‘apathy’ for decades, the political establishment was never very interested in understanding the movement behind Corbyn, preferring to dismiss them as hard-left entryists or ‘cultists’. Now, the Starmer leadership appears laser-focussed on rebuilding credibility with swing voters and the mainstream media, and does not seem too worried about alienating those core voters and activists in the process. More generally, its strategy seems to be to offer a more credible managerialism, rather than building on the revival of grassroots democratic politics. The handling of incidents like the row over whether rents should be suspended, or Starmer’s notorious interview on Black Lives Matter, has sent these young people a clear signal that they are no longer important. Whether intended or not, the effects are real and significant; undoing them will require serious and sustained effort.

On the one hand, then, we have an older generation that already mistrusts the political establishment and whose preferred political leaders now openly exhibit their contempt for ordinary people. On the other hand, we have a younger generation whose shot at electoral change failed catastrophically, and who are now being systematically disenfranchised by the demands of our political system. The resulting cocktail of alienation and disillusionment could stretch the already frayed fabric of our democracy to breaking point.

Last but not least, the legitimacy of the United Kingdom as a political entity is facing a serious and ever-growing threat. The disastrous failure of the government’s covid strategy has been, to a large extent, an English failure: devolved governments have made full use of their powers to diverge from the most reckless and irresponsible decisions. This reached its symbolic peak when the Westminster government accidentally created a border around England, hastily lifting travel restrictions in the wake of the Cummings scandal when the Scottish and Welsh governments were not yet prepared to do the same. Its sheer incompetence and venality has been reflected in growing support for Scottish independence (recently reaching a record high of 55%), and Welsh independence (albeit from a much lower base, rising to 25% in June). English politics increasingly looks to most outside observers like a basket case. Indeed, I can’t help wondering if history will record the first wave of the pandemic, along with Brexit, as one more milestone on the inexorable road towards the break-up of Britain. At the same time, the Black Lives Matter movement has repoliticised the legacy of empire – a legacy that has too often been buried or ignored, even as it profoundly shapes our politics and our national discourse. This reignites a whole series of questions about the legitimacy of the British nation-state, from its overseas territories to the treatment of its own black citizens by the police and criminal justice system.

Put bluntly, Britain is now veering towards failed state territory. The British state has quite literally failed in its most basic duty, the foundation of the Hobbesian bargain by which we supposedly give up our freedom: to protect its citizens’ physical safety. It hoards power at the centre, yet has often seemed unable or unwilling to use that power effectively whether by virtue of weak and incompetent leadership, a bureaucracy hollowed out by decades of austerity and outsourcing, or both. Corruption and cronyism are increasingly open and routine. The legitimacy and moral authority of both the executive and the legislature is shredded. The consent of the nations of the UK to being governed from Westminster is fraying, and for good reason. All in all, the British nation-state’s vital signs are not looking good.

The limits of coercive authority: Covid and our relationship with the state

If change is needed, what have we learnt during the pandemic about the kind of state and the kind of democracy we need? First, the crisis has shown that the state is essential. We need its ability to intervene swiftly and at scale – both to protect public health and to protect people from economic disruption. Notwithstanding the exceptional nature of the pandemic, the same truths hold for the longer-term challenges we face, not least climate change.

Indeed, it’s now clear that Johnson’s instinctive libertarian dislike of the ‘nanny state’ influenced the initial reluctance to lock down, costing many lives. The likes of Johnson and Trump are often understood as right-wing authoritarian leaders, embodying a new phase of world politics marking the end of neoliberalism. But the course of the pandemic suggests that it is more complicated than that. Yes, both leaders are authoritarian in the sense of seeking to concentrate power in their own hands and subvert democracy. But once acquired, they seem curiously reluctant to actually use this power – or certainly to use it for anything that might interfere with the process of capital accumulation. Above all, theirs is a politics of empty narcissism. It is power without a purpose. But there is also a strong vein of continuity with ‘actually existing neoliberalism’, which has always been to varying degrees a hybrid of authoritarian centralism with laissez-faire libertarianism.

But there are lessons for the left in the way this drama unfolded. Faced with a crisis, the left ‘common sense’ itself defaulted to a kind of authoritarian centralism, urging ever-stronger restrictions on daily life. Hence the bizarre spectacle in March of the UK left clamouring for Johnson to introduce a police state. We were right that lockdown was necessary, but the events of the pandemic raise deeper questions about centralised state authority as a vehicle for achieving our goals. The fallout from the Cummings scandal revealed that it was the state’s moral authority, not its legal authority, that had underpinned widespread observance of lockdown rules. By and large, people were following the rules because they believed it was necessary, not because they feared falling foul of the police. Post-Cummings, that trust evaporated, and compliance along with it. More than anything, it was a sense of citizenship and common endeavour that got us through lockdown, not the power of a coercive state.

This matters, most urgently and obviously, because of the structural inequalities embedded in that coercive power. We now know that young men of colour were twice as likely as their white counterparts to be fined for breaking lockdown rules, with the Metropolitan Police doubling the use of its racialised stop and search powers. More generally, the focus on policing of individual behaviour ended up policing the wrong things and the wrong people. This is how we ended up with a spate of finger-pointing about ‘covidiots’ hanging out in parks, while there was no such outcry about the factories and warehouses continuing to operate without social distancing. Even at the height of the pandemic – when individuals could be fined for leaving their homes – no new powers were introduced to prevent employers from forcing non-essential workers to come into work. Notwithstanding some brilliant reporting by openDemocracy, this fact barely registered in the public discourse about lockdown.

A similar trap awaited on the economic front. At the start of the pandemic there was much disorientation about the Tories ‘stealing the left’s clothes,’ with unprecedented state spending on the furlough scheme and covid loans. But, as I and others argued at the time, the real issue was the way the state was intervening, exacerbating pre-existing inequalities of wealth and power. A decade of austerity has left a well-worn groove in the political debate, the divide between left and right often reduced to ‘big versus small state’. But the crisis shows us we need to move beyond this. Yes, we need the state to do more. But whether a given state intervention is progressive depends on how it affects the balance of power in society – including between labour and capital. Our task is not just to grow the state but to change the nature of the state as part of a wider project of democratising society and the economy.

This raises questions about how far power can or should be decentralised. It’s often assumed that highly centralised command-and-control systems are better able to respond swiftly to emergencies. But the events of the pandemic cast doubt on this. The most obvious example is the disastrous failure of the test and trace programme. For months, those on the ground have been calling for the system to be decentralised, allowing local public health teams to make use of their deep knowledge of local communities to trace contacts and respond to outbreaks more effectively. Information should then flow upwards from localities to the centre, enabling it to co-ordinate and redistribute resources accordingly. Instead, the government has persisted with a woefully inefficient privatised national system (recent claims that the system was being localised turned out not to be all they seemed).

Likewise, it relied on big commercial banks to distribute covid loans, and they failed abysmally. Far from being able to get money out the door quickly by virtue of their size and reach, they simply lacked the local relationship-lending capacity to assess small businesses’ loan applications. Of course, there is a story in both of these cases about the failings of for-profit private providers. But there is also a story about diseconomies of scale: how decentralised systems with deep local knowledge may actually be able to respond more quickly and effectively in a crisis, while rigid centralised structures flounder. We need the central state’s ability to mobilise resources and guarantee universal access to public goods, be they covid loans or covid tests. But the delivery of these things may best be served by pushing power closer to the ground.

Where decisions do need to be taken quickly from the top, it is crucial that those making them are accountable. There are countless examples where concentrated and unaccountable power during the pandemic has led to poor decisions. The most glaring is the group-think that prevailed both within SAGE and within government at the start of the crisis. As I’ve argued elsewhere, this episode also exposed the dangers of invoking ‘experts’ as authority figures to stifle democratic debate. Here once more we see the necessity of democratic scrutiny and accountability, especially in times of crisis, when a small group of people under immense pressure are taking life-or-death decisions, and especially when those decisions are rendered inaccessible by the technical nature of the evidence behind them. It also reminds us that big decisions never simply fall unproblematically out of ‘the science’. Expertise is always contested, and political decisions always involve trade-offs and value judgements.

We now need to take that dawning realisation and apply it to other areas of political life – most obviously economics, where technocratic arguments about opaque ‘expertise’ have long been used to shut down democratic debate. Yes, evidence should inform democratic deliberation, but it is not a substitute for it. More to the point, we need to broaden the kinds of knowledge we value. From the lack of PPE in hospitals to the brewing disaster in care homes, many mistakes could have been avoided during this pandemic if decisions had been informed by the knowledge of people on the frontline – who could see things that people in Whitehall offices couldn’t. As Hilary Wainwright has argued, the ‘tacit knowledge’ of those at the coal face is at least as important as the expert knowledge of academics.

Building a new democracy

In dangerous times, it’s easy to fall back on the idea that somebody needs to take charge and everybody else should fall in line. But ultimately, whether it’s SAGE, the police or the big banks, appeals to authority and centralised power during the pandemic have often proved gravely misplaced. In fact, the crisis has reinforced the need to deepen democracy: to build a state that is radically more participatory, more empowering, more decentralised and more accountable. This can and should go hand in hand with rebuilding the capacity of a state apparatus gutted by austerity, privatisation and outsourcing.

Such a future may seem a long way off. But starting now to build a politics based on these same principles may be the only way we can get there. A serious left response to the crisis of democracy must create experiences of participation and empowerment. As Adam Ramsay has argued, it must also have a strategy for contesting our sense of national identity, and in particular English identity – facing up to the legacy of imperialism and the many ways in which it continues to poison English politics. If the United Kingdom’s days are numbered, then this task will only become more urgent for those of us seeking a path to a progressive future in England.

In a time of deep suffering and pressing priorities, talking about remaking the state might seem like an indulgence or an irrelevant sideshow. It is not. If we want to build a new society from the ashes of this disaster, democracy must be at its heart.  

Filed under: covid-19