Tuesday 26 September 2023

Whittling away at Democracy



During this parliament the Tories have introduced  the requirement for electors to identify themselves with photo ID before they can vote.  This is a blatant attempt to  make it more difficult for groups more likely to vote progressively, such as the young ,  to exercise their democratic rights.  We elderly (more likely to vote Tory, alas) have little difficulty as most of us have bus passes with our photos on them, which, unlike young people’s travel cards, are acceptable.

Happily the Liberal Democrats have adopted the policy to scrap the system when we get the chance. If you can identify yourself by your name and address you can vote.  The Labour Party’s policy is feeble by comparison: they will extend the range of acceptable identification documents, but not abolish the requirement to have one.

In an article in today’s Guardian  Polly Toynbee helpfully  reminds us of several other measures the Tories taken to whittle away at our democracy:

·       Universities can no longer add their student to the electoral register automatically:   each student must register individually

·       Households can no longer  be registered collectively: each member must register individually

·       The Electoral Commission, which supervises the proper conduct of elections, can no longer act  independently to investigate  breaches of the rules but must wait for ministerial instructions

·       The Supplementary Vote (given in case no candidate gained an over-all majority) in the election of executive mayors has been abolished. It’s back to “first past the post.”

Ms Toynbee doesn’t mention it, but the Fixed Term Parliament Act, introduced during the Coalition by the Liberal Democrats, has been repealed: we’re back to allowing the prime minister to fire the starting gun for general elections when he/she thinks his/her party has the best chance of winning.

When I taught history I tended to accept, perhaps too uncritically, the “Whig View” that, by and large, on the whole, and in the main, things we getting gradually better. 

That certainly seemed to be true of the development of our democracy, from the sorting-out of the constituencies in the Great Reform Bill of 1832, through the Secret Ballot Act and the gradual extension of the right to vote until we had Universal Adult Suffrage, first at age 21, then 18.  Each reform seemed to be a step forward.  Not any more. 



Wednesday 20 September 2023

Fixing broken Britain


With our crippled health services, inadequate care services,  local authorities in or approaching bankruptcy, crumbling schools and other public buildings, overflowing prisons. pothole-pitted roads, inadequate housing, overcrowded roads, failing public transport, falling pound, reducing  life expectancy and declining international standing it is difficult to describe the UK as anything other than failing.

 It is tempting to see this failure as a result of the shambles of the Johnson and post-Johnson governments, or maybe the  policy of public sector austerity since 2020.

However, if believe the real causes go much further back, at least to 1945

 They can be categorised under five headings.


Our part in the victory (alone and unaided?) in the Second World War generated, the delusion of British exceptionalism: we were somehow a super-clever people and the world should learn from us rather than for us to learn from them. We have consequently  failed  to subject our institutions to critical examination  and to look to other countries for examples of how to do things better (Why should we? Our systems are the best in the wold and the envy of the world).

Our “winner takes all” electoral system

We have clung on to the dysfunctional First Past the Post system for electing MPs, which, after all but one post-war election, has handed virtually unfettered power to governments supported by only a minority of the electorate, and with few checks on their enthusiasms. Constructive argument has been avoided and elections fought on slogans and presentation rather than reason. The campaigns have become increasingly less truthful.

Neo-liberal economics

The wholesale adoption of the neo-liberal economic policies of privatisation and deregulation by the Thatcher government elected in 1979, and pursued even more damagingly since.


Political power is concentrated in Westminster  and Whitehall with little devolution or fund-raising powers to the nations, regions and local government. What autonomy local government had in the  Victorian era has been gradually whittled away

Money and the press

Finally, public opinion has been and continues to be hugely distorted by inadequate limits on financial contributions to political parties and ownership of the press, which has led to one party having unjustifiable dominance over the media.

There is no sign that either of the two major parties are likely to alter any of the above.  The Tories love them, and Labour lacks the courage to do other than tinker with the system.  An infusion of Liberal Democrat and Green MPs might just “break the mould (remember that?)

 One way we might achieve it is to insist on the setting up of Citizens’ Assembles to hammer out the fundamental root and branch reforms we need if we are to stop the rot of our gradual exit from the ranks of competent and effective developed democracies.

Monday 11 September 2023

Land of crumbling concrete


I have mixed feelings about the “Last Night of the Proms.”  I enjoy the fun and games, love the music and greatly admire the skill of the musicians, even when they are playing the fool.  However, although most people participating and listening probably recognise  that the  excessive patriotism of some of the words belongs to another age, the fact that they continue to feature in this semi-official “national” celebration legitimises right wing fantasies that the outdated sentiments are still relevant.

Thus the former Tory MP Harvey Procter “tweets” that  the flaunting of an alleged preponderance or EU flags is “disgraceful . . misguided  . . .utterly vulgar and wrong.”

 We no longer need the parodies of  Sir Tufton Bufton.

 Happily a music festival is an ideal platform on which to demonstrate that our music is European, be it Byrd, Purcell, Bach, Mozart, Arne, Elgar or the Beatles.  Thanks to the “Thank EU or the Music” for encouraging and enabling participants to point it out.

The audience made another  political point.  The BBC Singers were singled out by the conductor for special appreciation, and the applause they received was prolonged well beyond the normal: a clear demonstration of support after the Governments/Arts Council’s attempt to disband them.

There’s a story that, when  at some farewell event for Lord Beaverbrook, sometime owner of the Daily Express which famously carried a drawing of an Empire Crusader on its masthead, attendees were invited to sing “Land of Hope and Glory,” most of them knew only the parodied version:


“Land of hope and glory, Mother of the free,

Keep on voting Tory till eternity.”

(allegedly written by R A Butler, generally regarded as the best Tory prime mInister we never had.)

 Were I still teaching I would offer to the editors of the school magazine the opening line:

“Land of crumbing concrete* . .”

to see what they would come up with.

Or maybe that would be too “woke” in today’s climate

 *A friend who reads The Times - but only on Saturdays – tells me that finance for the “rolling programme” of the repair and maintenance of schools  was cut from £7.6bn per year to £3.4bn during the period of Tory rule.   Mr Sunak, former Chancellor and now Prime Minister,  denies responsibility.  Maybe he was looking the other way.

Friday 8 September 2023

Back-pedalling on Brexit


Back Pedalling on Brexit


Earlier this week (4th September) a  Guardian editorial  https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2023/sep/03/the-guardian-view-on-brexit-borders-a-slow-dawning-of-economic-reality) helpfully listed four issue on which the government has back-pedalled from implementing its much lauded Brexit “advantages.”  They are:


1.    1. Checks on goods entering the UK from the EU, after several postponements, will not now  happen before 2024.*

2.    2. Provisions, inherited from our EU membership, which ensure equal pay for workers from a “common source” who do equal work will not now be scrapped.

3.    3.Other ”social protection “ laws will not now be automatically expunged from the statue book at the end of the year because “investors” prefer continuity of the existing rules.

4.    4. The European quality assurance mark CE will continue to be used rather than replaced by a “British” UKCA mark.

Later in the week we hear that the UK will, after all, rejoin the European Horizon joint scheme for co-operative scientific research.  This is yet another area in which the UK used to play a leading role (“a” not “the” as some reports boastfully claim: we really need to grow out of that.).  Scientists are delighted. British universities have lost out in both money on scientific opportunities in our years of absence from the scheme.

 Neither the Conservative government nor Labour, the largest opposition party, have the courage to admit that Brexit is a terrible mistake, but in practice we are slowly edging back towards “alignment” if not actual membership.

 As Simon Jenkins concludes his article in today’s Guardian, “We must hope a hundred Horizons lie ahead.”

 *        It’s worth noting that ,unlike the UK, the EU was actually ready to implement the post-Brexit system, and checks on UK exports to the EU (still our largest trading partner) already take place and are a serious and costly impediment to our manufacturers.