Are the Tories tightening the reins of power?
I was alerted to varying articles in the UK media about a recent Tory government plan to wrestle more control off the BBC. There are reports emerging suggesting that David Cameron is proposing to review the BBC charter every 5 years, as opposed to the current schedule of every 10 years. The plan also will replace the BBC’s self governance and see it supplanted with a 13 member strong unitary bond, with more than half being elected by the government. This newly formed non-independent group would have involvement in the daily running of the corporation, which would include news coverage. With other proposals on the white paper BBC executives are fearful that this could literally turn the BBC into a state-run broadcaster. The culture secretary John Whittingdale has already stated that the demise of the BBC is a tempting prospect. Although it’s impossible to deny that the BBC has had it’s fair share of problems over the years; if you consider the shambolic news coverage in the US, the BBC is generally well-respected worldwide and is considered a good thing. Knowing that the Tories couldn’t overtly dismantle the BBC, as this would be hugely unpopular, it would appear that they are attempting to gain control of the corporation by stealth.
So why is this potentially so dangerous? For a start, there is something deeply sinister and Orwellian, regarding a government who aims to control the flow and content of the news. No political party should ever have any say regarding what is reported in the national press of any medium. Furthermore, journalists should not be under any pressure to deliver anything other than impartial, well researched information. It’s imperative that we have a news service that asks difficult questions, that informs the recipient, that provides information so we can critically think through what is provided and draw our own conclusions. In the west we derided TASS during the Soviet days, now it’s the Chinese and North Korean media services that get the same negative attention. Is the UK a so-called democracy going down the same slippery slope of state control? This from the very party that so blatantly advocates the free market? Not surprisingly the media isn’t the only target for the current Tory government, who are piece by piece rigging the game with the sole purpose of increasing their chances of keeping control of the nation.
First up the Conservatives intend to make it much more difficult for an opposition to be elected. The Government support is much stronger in England than it is in the rest of the UK; so with this in mind in October 2015, they gave English MP’s greater voting rights introducing ‘English votes for English laws‘ or EVEL. George Osborne also proposed a cut of 19% of state funding for opposition parties, this initially was introduced by Edward Short in 1974 to compensate opposition parties who didn’t have access to Whitehall’s resources, hence its name ‘Short Money‘. Furthermore in August 2015, David Cameron magically created 26 Conservative peers in an attempt to make the at times rebellious House of Lords more Tory friendly. On top of this, he is also attempting to decrease the power of the Lords by reducing its ‘power of veto’.
Earlier in the year the Tory government confirmed that it would be pushing through the proposal of reducing the number of seats in the house of commons from 650 to 600. By altering the boundaries of certain electorates, it would increase the size of each constituency. It’s worth considering that Labour tend to have seats with fewer voters than Conservatives. As constituencies expand regarding the amount of voters, they will start to include voters in rural areas who traditionally vote Conservative. It is estimated that the majority of seats lost by this restructuring would be Labours’s and seats they did hold on to would become more marginal. In the US they would describe this as ‘gerrymandering’, there is no doubt in my mind that this is exactly what is taking place. Turning their attention to the unions, in July the Conservative party introduced the ‘Trade Union Bill‘. This was an ideological decision designed to weaken union support and to ultimately make them less effective in supporting workers rights. The bill makes it harder for unions to call a strike by increasing the threshold to 40% of all members, criminalizing pickets, forcing unions to give 14 days notice before commencement of a strike (therefore allowing employers to use agencies) and making it more ambiguous, therefore difficult for membership payments.
The government have cunningly ushered in the Lobbying Act which prevents unions, charities and third sector organization’s from criticising the government on the run up to an election. These third sector entities include voluntary and community organisations (both registered charities and other organisations such as associations, self-help groups and community groups), social enterprises, mutuals and co-operatives. The government is also trying to allow ministers more rights to veto requests for information, under the Freedom of Information Act. This is the very act that helped journalists uncover the expenses scandal and the Health Minister Jeremy Hunt’s lies about the NHS. Is it starting to feel like the dice are loaded against the minions and the noose is tightening? All these precise seemingly benign manoeuvres taken individually may appear a little concerning, but relatively innocuous. This is of course until you start to examine the bigger picture and the whole thing feels decidedly scary. In 2015 the Tories surprised themselves by winning the general election. The voting percentage was heralded as a bumper year by the Telegraph with 66.1% bothering to vote, however, this is the 4th lowest turnout since 1918 and ranks the UK 76th in world regarding turnout. My suggestion is that the attendance for the election strongly reflects how the UK public feel about their democracy. Historically figures trended steadily downward following the neoliberal hi-jack in 1979 to a low of 59.4% in 2001, since then it has slowly started to creep back up. A triumph of political engagement and democracy, as the Telegraph would have you believe, it certainly wasn’t.
Observing the chart above, what is striking is that non-voters obtained 9 percentage points higher than the people who are now running the country. I think it’s fair to say the effectiveness of the government and indeed democracy as a whole has declined during neoliberal times. This is the result when you offer the public no real choice regarding political direction from a credible party. Cameron’s austerity driven Conservative party was opposed by Labour, led by Ed Milliband who were as a party effectively austerity light. When you propose a choice consisting of two heads of a hydra, you are asking people to choose the lesser of two evils, which in fairness to the voting public isn’t terribly appealing.
So in reality only 25% of the UK actually voted for the Tories. The Conservatives maybe, cold, unempathic, entitled, out of touch androids, but they’re not stupid. Hence why they are changing the rules, for that potential moment in time when the UK may actually awake from their politically vacant slumber and realise it wasn’t all a dream. That the ruling elite are taking your hard-earned cash, giving it to the rich, whilst kicking you in the balls as a thank you. Like any good illusionist they use misdirection and sleight of hand to keep the masses occupied while they give their corporate buddies tax breaks, simultaneously overseeing crippling austerity measures for the rest of the peasants. All you have to do is peruse the Express, the Daily Mail or the Telegraph, and read misleading fairytales of immigrants taking jobs, potential terrorists pretending to be refugees, or classic stories about welfare queens fleecing the country of millions. Whilst you’ve got your head in these propaganda journals, the plutocracy will be setting up mates rates tax payment schemes, whilst settling on a vacation destination for their hard earned tax-free cash, such as the Cayman Islands, Bermuda or if your money gets air sick try Jersey. We all managed to sneak a tiny glimpse of how the 1% live from the information provided in the Panama Papers and I expect more of these leaks to follow. As the great comedian George Carlin once stated “it’s a big club and you ain’t in it”.
So why do we vote for these people? Well as stated before, we don’t have a huge choice. Most reformers who nobly embark on politics barely seem to make a dent, generally due to the neoliberal machine grinding them into dust before they can established themselves. Other politicians are there because they’ve wanted power from an early age, as highlighted by the many establishment MP’s graduating with formulaic PPE degrees from Oxford. Unsurprisingly this isn’t a Conservative phenomenon, Labour MP’s from the ‘Blairite’ wing of the party are equally engaged in this rite of passage. There are currently 35 MP’s in parliament that have completed this one course, that so dominates the upper end of our democracy. Here’s a list of some of the country’s most loved (or not) MP’s who attended the aforementioned checkpoint of political power that is Oxford University:
David Cameron, Boris Johnson, William Hague, Theresa May, Jeremy Hunt, Ed Davey, Danny Alexander. Matthew Hancock, Ed Miliband, David Miliband, Ed Balls, Yvette Cooper, Angela Eagle, Maria Eagle, Rachel Reeves and Stuart Wood.
What is abundantly obvious is the distinct lack of working class MP’s, as of 2010 91% of members attended university and a third of those attended Oxbridge. These stats confirm that a large proportion of our politicians have a very narrow set of life experiences, coupled with a severe lack of social diversity. This myopia is problematic when approaching issues and is regularly reflected in policy decisions. I am not denigrating university education in any way, however, a wide variety of people from differing educational and societal backgrounds would help to ensure a more rounded view when making challenging decisions.
Above is a ‘rogues gallery’ of some of the leading characters the public have entrusted with running the UK. So let’s have a brief look at these guardians of freedom starting with George Osborne and we will suitably conclude with the current Prime Minister David Cameron.
George Osborne: Current Chancellor of the Exchequer and a leading proponent of austerity. Son of Sir Peter Osborne, he had a self-professed privileged background, educated in ‘independent’ schools, graduated from Oxford University with degree in modern history and a former member of the now infamous Bullingdon Club.
Boris Johnson: Former Mayor of London and potential future Prime Minister. Born into a lower-upper class family, Johnson is connected to King George II and is thought quite probably to be connected to most of the royal families in Europe. Educated at the prestigious Eton College, he graduated from Oxford University with a degree in ‘Classics’. Whilst studying, Boris Johnson was also a member of the Bullingdon Club.
Theresa May: Current Home Secretary, the daughter of a clergyman, May was grammar school educated and graduated from Oxford University, with a degree in geography. Theresa May is married to banker Philip May.
David Cameron: Current Prime Minister, son of a stockbroker, mother was a Justice of the Peace. Cameron was educated at Eton and graduated from Oxford with a degree in PPE. Member of the elitist Bullingdon Club whilst at Oxford. Cameron is married to Samantha Sheffield daughter of Sir Reginald Sheffield, 8th baronet, descendent from King Charles II.
You may read these biographies and suggest I am conducting some form of class warfare and in a way I am. My argument is the UK’s top jobs go to very similar people, who although they may appear to have very different background within their own realm, could only be described as ‘from another planet’ with regards to the general population. In 2014 42.3% of Oxford offers were made to independent school students and yet only 7% of children attend independent schools in the UK. In effect we are handing the reins of power to a very elite group of people, to the point that it could almost be described as incestual. We like to think that they have the country’s interest at heart, but observational evidence doesn’t confirm this hopeful hypothesis. The worry is that we are entrusting people who have a certain ideology based on their narrow experiences to run the nation. A simple example of pursuing an ideology is austerity. Crushing cuts have been made to public services throughout the country, whilst the government continue to pander to the banking sector as if nothing happened in 2008. George Osborne has indirectly stated that the working and middle class are supporting the financial sector for when the next economic disaster hits. Even the IMF, not the most Marxist of organisations has stated that austerity does not work, but still Osborne persists. Inequality continues to rise, climate issues are not addressed in any meaningful way and we continue to support the US in perpetual war. This is all done to appease their backers from big business in banking, fossil fuels and the arms industry, who hold western nations to ransom.
I look at these politicians and feel that for all their fancy titles, Oxbridge degrees and portfolios of financial success, they are not suitably qualified to represent the concerns of the nation. On the other hand they are ideal to serve their own kind, for which they have done a stirling job, to the detriment of the 99%. They are supposedly serving all of the people, however, they only seem to provide for themselves and their peers. This is not a democracy, here we have a small fraction of the nation’s population, an entitled plutocracy telling the masses what is good for them. This approach is not new and was advocated by Edward Bernays in his book propaganda, who stated;
The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.
It could be argued that what we are really witnessing in most western societies is fascism, especially if you read Benito Mussolini’s description;
“Fascism should more appropriately be called Corporatism because it is a merger of state and corporate power”.
The boundaries between the two factions of government and corporatism are blurry at best. It would be more accurate to suggest that their interests are completely aligned, as they serve one another’s interest to uphold power. They maintain the status quo by creating systems that serve the ruling elite, using mechanisms like bogus trade agreements such as TTIP and TPP to sustain their dominance indefinitely. In contrast the interests of the often forgotten, confused, manipulated masses are completely at odds with the ruling elite and the disconnect is rapidly growing. More worryingly is the absolute lack of interest of the plutocracy to reconnect with the population they allegedly serve.
Democracy shouldn’t be a spectator sport, where we sit and hope somebody will eventually make a rational decision on our behalf. This leads to a void, a chasm that will be exploited by people who are delighted to make these decisions and quite often these individuals crave power, not democracy as intended, but control. Narcissists and sociopaths who think they are more than capable in making these gigantic decisions, seem to rise to the surface, willing to send people to war, put people out of work and decimate whole societies. I understand sometimes big decisions need to be made, however, I would question myself 24 hours a day and never sleep faced with these dilemmas. These entrusted public servants in contrast float from one poorly made decision to the next; they put people in danger, whether that would be from endless war, the repercussions of imminent climate change or the total disregard of the importance of life and the potential of every human being. Democracy is everyone’s responsibility, if you shun such a precious fundamental action, you are literally giving away your power to people who are not worthy of it