Discontent with democracy

Going shopping for clothes for Heather in France can be an interesting experience. Not only is there the consideration of what would suit her but, from the numerous items of different sizes picked from the rails, there is then the need to narrow down the choice by trying them on.  By Heather that is, not me. 
During these lengthy periods, there is usually a shop assistant standing by waiting for the verdict and, of course, ready to say how good it looks or, if that ploy is unsuccessful, to suggest alternatives. Standing with the assistant outside the changing room in silence during all of this is a little embarrassing, and so I generally try to engage in some sort of conversation.  It normally starts with something quite innocuous, but can then take various twists and turns.

And so this last week I have ended up discussing Brexit, which the French find completely incomprehensible, the pension reforms being imposed by the French government as compared to our system, the 35 hour week, where to buy the best fruit and vegetables (‘Le Grand Frais’ at Seynod) and which is the best cheese shop in town – confirmed to be the Fromagerie Gay.  The last shop we went to was a small boutique. The owner was quite keen to tell me that she failed to understand the benefit of Brexit, but then I mentioned the difficulties within the EU caused by countries such as Poland and Hungary, where the conditions for true democracy, particularly the rule of law, were under attack.  She told me that her daughter had been for a short break to Hungary and had been amazed to see black-shirted men marching in the streets and giving the Nazi salute and, she said, “no-one tried to do anything about it.”  Her daughter is not going back.

A research team, from the University of Cambridge's new Centre for the Future of Democracy, has produced a 60 page report full of statistics on how we see democracy.  I’ve read it so that you don’t need to. They say that the year 2019 "represents the highest level of democratic discontent on record". ‘On record’, means for almost 50 years for Western Europe and for the last 25 years for rest of the world. So then not a major retrospective analysis of democracy, but still very significant. And, overall, rather depressing. So what exactly does it say? The report says that dissatisfaction with democracy has risen over time, and is reaching an all-time global high. But the change in satisfaction is by no means the same for every country.

Let’s start with the good news. There is a group of countries, where contentment reigns supreme.  It consists of Switzerland, Austria, Denmark, Norway, Holland, Ireland and Luxembourg. Ireland stands out as not being comparable economically with the others, so maybe it’s just the Guinness. These countries only account, however, for 46 million people, or about 2% of the world’s democratic citizenry. 

The second group, which the report calls ‘cases of concern’ consists of 393 million people.  This group has more than a quarter, but less than a half of the population who are dissatisfied with the country’s institutions. It is headed by Botswana, Finland, Sweden, Zambia, New Zealand and Belgium. An apparently very disparate collection, but even more diverse when you consider that it also contains many of the new democracies of central Europe, along with Germany, Canada and Australia.  And, as you might expect, where some have seen satisfaction fall, others have seen it rise.  Interestingly, the ones on the rise are the former communist countries of the Eastern Bloc, many of which joined the EU in 2004 and 2007.  They have experienced an increase in faith in their new political systems.

Unsurprisingly, these former members of the communist bloc began from a very low base, with only a small minority of respondents – between a fifth and a third – expressing “satisfaction” during the difficult economic transition years of the 1990s. However, while the combination of economic progress and European Union accession might appear the most plausible explanations for rising democratic contentment, in fact, these show very little correlation with the trends in the data. By 2010, only Poland had seen a substantial recovery in political contentment, with other countries barely up from their 1990's levels. Bizarrely, only since the onset of the global financial crisis has satisfaction with democracy in post-communist Europe shown marked improvement – a period that is well after the completion of the accession process, and during which economic growth had slowed across that region, just like the rest of the continent.

But for countries – such as Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic – that period also marked the sweeping aside of the first generation of liberal post-communist politicians.  Instead, we saw the election to government of populist politicians and parties, often on a platform of nationalism, social welfare, and anti-immigration. The co-existence of populism and democratic satisfaction reminds us that satisfaction with democracy is not the same as a belief in liberal principles or values. It is down to popular sentiment being reflected in the attitudes expressed by the political class, or vice versa, whatever those sentiments may be.

Which brings us to the third category – those grouped under the heading ‘malaise’. These are democratic countries, accounting for 1.09 billion people, where a majority (though less than three quarters) feel dissatisfied with their democracy. It includes many of the large democracies of the world – the United States, Japan, the United Kingdom, Spain and France. Apart from France, these are all new entrants to this category, having formerly had majorities satisfied with their democratic institutions. There is a suggestion that where there are major differences of opinion between large groups amongst the electorate, then a first past the post system does not help to achieve any sort of reconciliation. Although not proof, this idea is supported by the fact that those with the highest levels of satisfaction do in fact have proportional representation systems. Towards the bottom of the group, however, there is usually a simpler explanation – corruption amongst the governing class and so not very democratic at all.

So where are we in the UK?  Well, we’re about half way down the malaise list. Astonishingly, we're actually one place below Italy and only just above Chile.  Not a comfortable place to be.  In fact though, from around the end of the 1970s to the early twenty-first century, average levels of satisfaction with democracy in the U.K. rose. The 1970s had marked a time of deep crisis for Britain - general strikes, power cuts, periods of unstable minority government, an embarrassing IMF bailout, and the start of “the troubles” in Northern Ireland. By the end of the 1990s, Tony Blair’s government had, mainly with the help of an American general, managed to persuade the warring parties to enter into the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland, devolved power to Scotland and Wales, and re-branded the country as “cool Britannia”. And so it seemed that “things could only get better”.

But this period in fact represented a high point for satisfaction with our  democracy. After dips following the Iraq War and the parliamentary expenses scandal, our satisfaction with democracy then plunged during the “Brexit” stalemate of 2016-19. That it happened so suddenly could be thought to mean that with the passing of the law confirming our exit from the EU, a recovery would follow just as swiftly.

Yet the reality is somewhat different. BoJ has already said that he will try to curtail the power of the Courts, something which would allow him to prorogue parliament when, and for as long, as he wishes. And only this week we have seen that we have a government which is trying to follow the model set by Trump of having favourites in the press, with the others excluded from press conferences. We have already had attacks on the BBC and Channel 4, but this week the lobby system by which all media organisations had equal access to government briefings has been abolished.  In addition we now also have a government openly saying that the economic effects of tariffs and non-tariff barriers resulting from a refusal to align ourselves in any way with EU regulations are to be ignored in favour of the wonders of complete ‘political freedom and independence’.  I’m afraid that I am not very optimistic about a quick return to satisfaction with our democracy.  And France is at least higher up the list than the UK, so maybe it’s time to emigrate.

4 February 2020

Paul Buckingham

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