Whatever you think of her politics, Mrs Thatcher had a massive impact on Britain and around the world.
Her death today, peacefully, from a stroke marks the end of an era. For one thing, I was two when she became Prime Minister. Her union-crushing, cabinet-squashing, war-waging, handbag-wielding characteristics defined a way of being Prime Minister against which all of her predecessors have been judged, no matter how different the political circumstances in which they govern, even 34 years later.
For women, she was the first female Prime Minister. But while she used her femininity to her advantage especially when dealing with the private school and nanny brigade of men that formed her cabinets, she famously said that she owed nothing to feminism.
She promoted few women to the top ranks of politics, and did little to further the lot of women in society. Perhaps if you are the wife of a millionaire you see little need to help women balance their work and home lives if you chose not to.
But she is so totemic that she still inspires women of all political persuasions onto politics and any woman seeking to hold that top office will always be compared to her. And not just in the UK – Angela Merkel is forever described as Germany’s iron lady, and as a woman of the centre right the Thatcher comparison is apt.
It is interesting that Thatcher was sometimes misunderstood.
While she said that there was no such thing as society, the rest of the quote makes clear that she expected individuals and families to look after themselves rather than expect things to be handed to them, and then to look after their neighbours, not because the government said that society was to be structured so, but because her Christian upbringing and normal human decency meant this was the right and proper thing to do.
And on Europe, the much alluded to Bruges speech that set out her eurosceptic position looks positively pro-EU moderate compared with some of the language used today. She was after all the woman who agreed the Single European Act, the legislation that paved the way for the single market, which is one of the most far reaching and positively regard pieces of sovereignty pooling legislation ever agreed.
Mrs Thatcher made the role of Prime Minister presidential. In part this was because of her personal affinity for Ronald Reagan and the American way of doing things. In part, it was because she truly believed herself the most competent person for the job. But through her overshadowing of cabinet government (so brilliantly sent up in Spitting Image – Thatcher and the cabinet out to dinner “I’ll have the steak” “And the vegetables?” “They’ll have the steak too”), her embodiment of the nation on the world stage, holding her own alongside the USA in the cold war imagery… She set the tone for the cult of the leader and the televised Prime Ministerial election debates and the sound bite culture that is second nature for us now.
Thatcher was the most successful Prime Minister in terms of winning elections until Tony Blair. While we might talk of Prime Ministers of the future being the “heir to Blair”, we shouldn’t forget that Blair himself was keen to show himself to be as strong a leader as Thatcher had been, and ever Gordon Brown sought to bring a little authority and star dust to his premiership by wheeling out Mrs T to pose by the famous front door of No 10 Downing Street alongside him.
There is bound to be a load of comments about whether the world is a better or worse place after Thatcher, mourning and comments on the decline of the nation since in the right wing press and ding dong the witch is dead from the left wing commentators. I’m sure we’re about to get the state funeral debate.
But one thing is clear, she changed the political debate in Britain.
Life since Thatcher is different.
The cold war is over.
The “enemy”, the other, is much less easy to define.
The Falklands are still British.
The selective education system that enabled a middle class bright but poor girl like Thatcher to get to Oxford, get a good job and give her experience of work outside politics is reviled. Many politicians these days have not worked outside the political world.
The UK is still part of the EU although there is less consensus about what the EU is or should be and do than those simple days of rebate debates and ever closer union bicycles.
Britain retains its place at the world’s top tables, but the power balance in the world is shifting east, far east.
It is not possible to understand British politics today without knowing about Margaret Thatcher.
Not bad for a grammar school girl from Grantham.
That’s some legacy.
Today I was lucky enough to be part of a session at Ashford Borough Council on regenerating the town centre. I’m not going to use this blog to repeat everything said there’s indeed, although it wasn’t made clear what rules applied I’m fairly confident Chatham House rules would suffice – but attending the session got me thinking again about what I should want out of my home town.
Ashford’s situation has changed a bit in the time that we lived here. When we arrived, Ashford’s Future existed, with grandiose schemes for making Ashford truly Best Placed in Kent. But a change of government funding policy and the overall impact of the economic downturn has put paid to that.
About 18 months ago, I was asked to speak at a Council awayday about my thoughts on Ashford 2030- the vision for the town in the next few years. While my thoughts remain in a similar vein now, I’m aware that nothing can really happen unless funding is available, and in a recession both the public and private sectors find this hard to come by.
Now, Ashford has achieved Portas Pilot status. This means funding is available for some things, and a snapshot of these shows that the priority areas are thought to be making the most of the market, connecting the designer outlet centre with the town so that the town can share in the estimated 5-7 million visits made there each year, and seeking arts-based development (something the neighbouring town of Folkestone seems to be doing successfully).
So I promised a few thoughts that flowed from all this…
1) Why come into town? Who is it for?
Today, rightly, the focus was on footfall. From my perspective, wrongly, it focused solely on footfall in the town centre rather than looking at the circumstances affecting that…a town centre accompanied by an outlet centre, an out of town park with restaurants and the cinema, ringed by the third biggest Sainsbury’s in the country, two Tesco extras, a Waitrose, an Asda… These things affect the High Street as much as what is actually here or not here because all of these things can be described as coming to Ashford but they are not complementary and do not feed each other.
By ignoring these factors, the towns similar to Ashford information generated felt wrong – it did not seen to bring up those with similar challenges (Swindon, Maidenhead, that sort of place) – just those with similar footfall.
More interesting is the demographics, information also potentially accessible via the 2011 census. Folkestone may well be prospering by matching its retail to its demographic- Primark, TK maxx, Peacocks. Ashford, it seems has a large, affluent, family-based group of consumers who are not being sufficiently catered for in the town. While I might feel that the fashion offering is generally either too young or too old for me, it seems the silver surfer generation feel that it is not for them either. And as the two social groups with most disposable income, this is not a healthy situation for a town.
Tenterden has many of the more upmarket retailers and those stores have indicated before that with a store there and another in Canterbury, they wouldn’t also be looking to have one in Ashford. So simply increasing market share of available consumers is not a simple matter.
Everyone always talks about pop up shops, but while they are OK if you already have regular shoppers, I can’t see how they attract new visitors or, more importantly, attract long term investment in an area. Similarly the trend for street food has not yet reached Ashford, but while street food vendors have lower overheads than hospitaIity units in permanent buildings,that lack of permanency means no long term legacy when they decide to move on.
And as for hospitality in Ashford, independents seem to keep disappearing but while there are pubs and coffee shops, I’ve found little for the mums and kids beyond fast food. I like the occasional McDonalds as much as the next woman, but what if you want to have hummus in preference to chicken nuggets?
The “nice” restaurants are outside the town centre, in Kennington, Tenterden, Mersham-le-hatch, Mersham, Bodsham… But if you’ve got to travel anyway (all of these are car journeys from Ashford) it is also in Wye, Canterbury and Folkestone’s regenerated harbour – and all of those are on the same high-speed train line as Ashford. Destination food that might lead me to spend time in the place I get it from. That’s one thing Ashford is really missing.
2) Transport: a mixed blessing
In identifying competitor towns, the tendency is always to think local. Canterbury, Folkestone, Maidstone, and slightly further afield Sevenoaks and Tonbridge Wells might seem like the natural alternatives, but for a day out shopping many Ashfordians head to Bluewater (40 minutes by car, the same by train-and-bus combo), or to London.
While there have always been commuters in Ashford, the arrival of a 38 minute high-speed link to Stratford and St Pancras International means an influx of relatively affluent families looking to spend London wages in cheaper and more rural surroundings. Season tickets at over £6000 a year are such a chunk of income that many look to get their money’s worth. So weekend trips are effectively “free” and shopping at Westfield Stratford is only half an hour away with a massive food court.
Also, without retail at the station in Ashford, I often shop on the way home from London so my wages are gained by M&S food hall at St Pancras rather than in my home town. This is daft.
The problem though is also more local. I always laugh when monorails are mentioned, remembering the conman in The Simpsons, but seriously the 50p bus ride between the outlet and the town is not doing much to encourage interchange and a fifteen minute walk under a damp railway bridge is not really going to cut it either. So feature transportation might be a worthwhile investment – something that means the kids pester to be allowed to do it (a bus ride to the hospital yesterday was described by my son as a fun day out so this is not as ridiculous as it may initially sound). And a monorail might well do just that.
3) On foot, on street parking or online?
If I need something quickly, I’ll pop into town. Particularly if I have to have something in my hand that day.
But it depends what I want. So while apparently there’s no reason why a town Ashford’s size should be sustain a music store, if there’s no hmv there anymore for that last minute birthday present, I don’t go elsewhere, I hop onto Amazon and get it delivered to the recipient’s door. Even if it does mean I won’t have it immediately.
If the small retail units in town mean that what I need (maternity clothes, big bras) are not stocked, then I’ll go online. Some retailers in town now offer to do this for me (hats off to Debenhams) which at least guarantees them the sale and I’m no worse off as delivery to home is free and only takes the same time as ordering it from their website at home would take.
Internet shopping is after all simply a glorified form of mail order, but with access to a range of products no high street could reasonably be expected to stock. But it is a threat to the high street.
I don’t think about driving into Ashford – I live within five minutes of one part of the town centre, but many people cite parking charges as prohibitively high. The lesson from Swindon seems to be to ignore the clamour to raise revenue through high parking charges and recognise that an unattractive offer becomes even less attractive if you are charged excessively to experience it.
4) Ashford is a European town
When we look for ideas we so often look to America. Some of the idea as concerning alternative rent and rate models are certainly US in origin. But the nearest non-London provisional centre to Ashford isn’t Southampton (as the Meridian TV region would have us believe). It is Lille. And getting there takes less time than you might think from Ashford, given our transport links.
No self-respecting French town would dream of talking itself down. There are syndicates d’initiative everywhere, and everywhere boosts its heritage and local produce.
Ashford is uniquely placed to take a similar approach. We should embrace the railway heritage, mediaeval buildings, 760 year market charter…
We should have an artisan farmers’ market selling local produce – the sort of thing the sadly departed Rachel’s deli sold and Evegate has a bit of. Quality is key if you want to attract regular shoppers.
The classic problem with Ashford is that to get it right it would be better not to be starting from here. There is a leisure park where the commercial sector should be, empty buildings and a planned commercial quarter where that leisure park should have been linking the station to the town. A new much welcome and needed John Lewis at home is going into a greenfield site outside the town rather than the vacant space between the town centre and the railway.
There’s so much space that could be used for retail but hard to know which stores are intending to fill them. And Ashford has 50% more occupation of retail by the charity sector than ought to be expected in a medium town with this population.
But we are where we are.
I think we are finally asking the right questions.
But this is a complex problem, and we need to make sure we are not reaching for simple answers just because they don’t cost as much as really investigating what can done and taking some calculated risks.
Who knows, it could make this medium sized market town really a lovely place to live.
Quick one this… I just read about what it really meant to be a shepherd in the first century. Our impression of shepherds has been a bit corrupted by too many Victorian pastoral scenes and Marie Antoinette. This fantastic post http://kinnon.tv/2008/06/so-you-wanna-be.html explains it better than I can, but it made my brain buzz. That’s a whole different image of God.
I’ve reached 40,000 of my novel now, and was thinking about how to make the places I describe as real as possible.
The answer came to me while watching “Horrible Histories” with my son. It’s smells. The world was a much smellier place in the past than in Western Europe today.
Yes even more smelly than French drains.
So last night found me Googling “What does Chennai smell like?” The answer, apparently, is chai, coffee, too much jasmine, burning plastic and petrol from the motorised Rickshaws, sewage and the sea…
What about first century Jerusalem? Reading a lot of books set there (history and fiction) I gather it is spices, olive oil, animal and human poo, body odour and the metallic tang of blood near the placed of execution.
But I need to know what smells sum up a market town in decline – the modern day setting for the book. Any thoughts?
(Image copyright J Hayes)
Cards on table, the author is one of my good friends – we’ve known each other about 20 years, and at one point started writing together. Of the two of us, she is the one who wins things when entering short story competitions. I admire her writing and wish I had her turn of phrase. You may have read some of her stuff too – if nothing else, she wrote a guest post for this blog a couple of years back “Don’t put your daughter on a pole, Mrs Worthington“.
Her writing sits in different genres to mine, and her newly published book “Looking for Buttons” is… intelligent chick lit.
I don’t normally “do” chick lit. There’s something deeply unsatisfying for me about the heroines who stumble through life, beautiful, slim, but so… stupid. Modern ones tend to drink too much and sleep around. They never make the decisions that I’d make.
This book is different…. Here’s my Amazon review:
Lucie Parish’s debut novel is a gem. Very funny, bittersweet, fantastically paced, I devoured it in a day. Mostly while in a doctor’s waiting room where laughing out loud seemed very inappropriate.
Burnt out unemployed archaeologist Kate pines with unrequited love for ex-classmate turned film star Charlie Latimer to an extent where sometimes I wanted to slap her and tell her to get on with her life (a trait I seem to share with her mother who finds her a cleaning job). Kate has an intelligent, genuine voice as she stumbles through her messy life – which apparently even her talent for cleaning can’t resolve. Ms Parish’s wit lifts this unlikely heroine making her someone you really root for.
A fully realised supporting cast bursts out of the page, from Dob the tangoing grandmother to frenemy yummy mummy Poppy, platonic best mate Fergus, silver fox Richard and of course Prince Charming himself – Charlie. But does any woman really need Prince Charming? What if she’s really looking for Buttons?
The style reminds me of the early Jilly Cooper romances (Bella, Octavia etc.)which means that not only is Looking for Buttons perfect holiday reading, it is also intelligent and you’ll find yourself pondering Kate’s situation when you don’t expect it. I know I’ll be rereading this one.
Must find an occasion to buy my own alibi lamp…
Photo by Ashley Rose courtesy of Flickr under Creative Commons License
The Archbishop of Canterbury resigns.
Equal civil marriage hits the headlines and the Catholic Archbishop speaks out against it.
Sunday trading for the Olympics sparks fears of Sunday no longer being special.
It’s been a bit of a big week for the state church in England, you might say.
And I don’t often get a chance to legitimately use the word antidisestalishmentarianism in a blogpost, so it was too good an opportunity to miss to post something.
So I’m a member of the Church of England. Not clergy, not even local church leadership team. My Sunday role comes down to supporting the occasional Sunday school class, making the coffees, singing loudly, praying with my home groups, doing some of the readings and the intercessional prayers. But I write this blog. As you may have read, I’ve met Rowan Williams, thought a bit about women bishops and whether faith and feminism can fit together, and posted various other Christian-themed articles. It’s my little outlet for sharing thoughts and ideas and engaging with others in faith, about faith.
Why does faith matter?
Even though “CofE” has a sort of tepid, bucktoothed spinsters, old men in dresses and rebuild-the-church-roof-by-holding-a-fair-on-the-village-green reputation, taking an interest in your faith is not just a question of the social side, that is performing rituals and going to the services.
It’s also about actually doing things for others, supporting each other emotionally, being a community, giving to the foodbank – the religion for atheists stuff that Alain de Botton talks about. But it is not just that either.
Because if Christianity is true – if Jesus was who he claimed to be and did what those who witnessed it claimed he did – then this stuff really matters and explaining about Jesus to others, serving others and trying to live as if you are actually forgiven and part of God’s kingdom becomes the most important thing that anyone can do.
In brief, this stuff matters for every single one of us.
To put that into some context, Jesus said he came to fulfill the Law, that is, the rules for living given by God to the Jewish people. He explained that we could never live up to God’s standards, but with his help we do and we’re good for God. Not withstanding this, we can – and should- try to be the best that we can.
So that’s why stuff that seems pointless to people on the outside is the stuff of such intense debate inside the church: women leaders? Divorce? Gay relationships? Euthanasia? Abortion? Stem cell harvesting?
Suddenly, if viewed through a prism of what is perfect in the eyes of someone that is the arbiter of what is good, it’s vitally important to try to get it right if we can.
Of the establishment, but not in control
At the moment the CofE is not making this case coherently.
It may not be in a place to do so – because it is the state church. It has to deal with not being able to be the radical voice of good because it is also part of the voice of the establishment.
But I would say it is of the establishment, but it is not the establishment.
Not any more.
Everyone knows the origins of the Church of England if they know their British history – Henry VIII wanted to divorce his wife who had not produced a male heir and could not do so as a Catholic. In establishing himself as Head of the Church, as well as head of the State in a pre-democratic age, he linked the church and the state in a way that has continued (even despite the English revolution). This is about as establishment as you can get.
But it is clear that the world is changing.
I suspect that it is neither the issue of same sex civil marriage nor Sunday opening that will ultimately change the role of the Church of England as a part of the establishment.
It is not really With our Queen as the head for sixty years, this has been maintainable. But Prince Charles, the heir to the throne, has said he doesn’t want to be known as Defender of the Faith (the title taken by the Head of the Church of England) but as Defender of Faith. Does that mean he doesn’t intend to be Head of the Church of England? And is it a requirement that the titular Head of the Church is a person of strong faith? What if they were not? And if these things happen, is it disestablishment by default? There are almost certainly answers to these things being thought out in the church and by constitutional experts, but sometimes, as a member of the church, it’d be nice to know a bit more about where the hierarchy is leading us.
While some people seem to want to make the continued existence of faith schools the totemic issue (seemingly without really asking themselves why parents are happy to send their children to these schools and fight to do so rather than campaign against them), if the church was really such a strong voice in determining policy from the House of Lords, surely there would be no abortion act, no concept of civil marriage (the people not the church apparently owns that concept).
In fact, while it has been pooh-poohed in the press and I’ve found the comments of Lord Carey and others a bit too strident at times, it does seem to be getting harder to be a Christian in the UK. Not because of the government – check out the warm words mentioned on Left Foot Forward‘s article on being a Christian country.
But more widely the stories making the press are those of Christians being told that it is not a requirement of their faith that they must wear crosses under their uniforms at work (it isn’t, but although there is undoubtedly something I don’t know about the case, replace this with turban or headscarf and think again about implication of the outcome of the ruling), that it is not a necessary part of the Christian faith to go to church on a Sunday (um, more tricky but thousands of years of practice suggest that this is as near to a requirement as we get in Christianity).
There is a careful balancing act going on in society, balancing the freedom of expression in the practice of one’s faith with the freedom to access goods and services without discrimination and it’s the evangelical Christian foster parents, the B&B owners that are finding out where the new boundaries are. But recognising that it is about finding out what sort of society we are and how we want to treat each other, it is difficult to see people who are sincere in their belief that something is wrong, being held automatically held up as bigots if they are not immediately comfortable with the new normality.
So even though there are prayers at the beginning of the parliamentary day (although not now in Bideford (Devon)’s town council’s meetings) are 26 bishops eligible to sit in the House of Lords (Lord Spiritual) by right, there are also representatives of other faiths and people of no faith in the House of Lords appointed by the government of the day. , Britain is really no theocracy. Far from it.
A public voice for faith
There are three complexities for the Church of England in acting as a public voice for faith in the UK.
Firstly, there is no unified Christian view of all the issues on which the gentle moral guidance of a faith which sees every individual as a valued child of God could legitimately play a role. We shouldn’t worry about this – debate has always been part of faith (I recommend “God’s Philosphers“, a book on scientific thought in the middle ages and a brilliant explanation of how the world really was to anyone who thinks it was all brutal Papal suppression of thought and inquisition) and careful intellectual consideration of difficult subjects has actually been something that the outgoing Archbishop encouraged.
And in the twenty-first century, Christianity is not the only faith group with a view and a wish for a voice – if you can’t guarantee a single Christian view on an issue, imagine trying to get a view representing all people of faith.
The third problem is that, just when an inspired, calm and positive engagement is needed with the issues of the day there is a serious public debate in this country about whether religion should have a voice at all in the public sphere.
Richard Dawkins tried to define what being Christian meant, and claimed that as people in Britain didn’t live up to his definition, they shouldn’t self-identify as Christian and more importantly shouldn’t be taken into account when making public policy.
A view that Britain should be secular is presented as if this is a neutral position, that having faith communities involved is indulging publicly and unnecessarily favorably something that should only be part of private life.
But as I’ve set out above, if you believe it is true, then faith is who you are, it is how you live your life, it is part of being in the world not an add-on.
Some countries, like France, seem to manage to keep faith and state separate. And yet, in a country with as determinedly a secular constitution as the USA and which has had serious court cases to uphold this (e.g. to ban prayer and Bible reading in schools in 1963), no one has yet become President without professing their faith. Winning the Tea Party/ Conservative Christian Evangelical/ Southern Baptist vote looks to be a big challenge for the (Mormon) likely Republican Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney. Even when you separate state and religion, it has a way of making itself known.
What’s the future for the CofE?
As you may have gathered, I don’t think that gay civil marriage will directly lead to disestablishment of the Church of England. After all, while marriage in the sense of a love match in front of God and the communmay be a Christian concept, the joining together of two individuals in law has long pre-existed this in England (although these days there’s fewer dowries and daughters used as peace tributes). And I don’t think that extended Sunday opening during the Olympics will be the end of the church either – indeed, I think that the CofE’s line on this should have been about safeguarding the right to go to church on a Sunday morning rather than necessarily about questioning the 24 hour society that we’ve become.
But what about finding a new Archbishop? I think Rowan Williams has been a good and subtle leader. But then opinion on Rowan Williams seems to fall into three camps:
- he is a weak leader unable to contain the woolly Western liberals or the ardent Africans;
- he is a wise diplomat maintaining the broadness of the Anglican church and whose legacy is the ordination of women bishops some time in the next twenty years; or
- he is a wonderful thinker and theologian but that’s not the same as being a great manager of a big organisation.
Being head of the world wide Anglican community, a role that does not claim to be God’s representative on earth by right, the leadership of the church is a real challenge. I hope that they find the right man for the job. And in twenty years…
But it is important to have someone speaking with the authority of scripture and the common sense to communicate in a way that is heard and respected. So much wrong has been done in the name of God that now, more than ever, getting it right matters.
Finally, the pray for Fabrice Muamba campaign is one of those rare opportunities for the press to put faith in a positive light. To collapse at his age, in his seemingly amazing physical condition, on the pitch in front of all the fans was shocking.
If you have time, and there are of course many things that need prayer in this world, spare a prayer for him. In so many different ways, I wouldn’t want this to be the prayer that failed…
Way back in November, I went on strike for the first time in my life. But I didn’t just spend the day watching TV. I already belong to my local community forum and an active church, so I could have gone out and volunteered. I know some better people than me that did.
But I decided to try something a bit different.
I used my own time (not leave, not time that I should’ve been using to look after my son as his nursery was open) to do something I enjoy- writing.
The result was a half hour screenplay “I can make you famous”, aimed at a YA audience raised on MI High, Merlin and The Sarah Jane Adventures.
I wrote it to test out my skills at dialogue, plot, and some of the rules I’m applying in the world of my novel. Rules? I better explain.
I realised a while back that while I loved the literary fiction book I was writing, I’d literally lost the plot.
Oren will end up with Charlotte, Titch will die, but getting from where I’d got to to that resolution needs more time and care than I felt able to give it when I was realising that the genre I really enjoy reading and writing is actually YA aimed at boys!
So I started a new novel, reaching about 20000 words after NaNoWriMo. My hero is a teenage boy who ends up time travelling. But it’s easy to have a hero who is really a wizard, who is the son of a god, a prince, who suddenly discovers they’ve got amazing sword skills and where a magic potion heals all injuries within 24 hours.
In my book world, I decided to have real world rules apply. My hero plays rugby so he can run and he’s tough, but if he gets hurt, he stays hurt. There’s consequences to decisions and actions. The only “magic” is the time travel. But the question is why do things happen the way they do? And if you had the chance to change things could you resist doing so?
Writing my screenplay gave me the chance to see if real world rules can work in a fantasy/ sci fi situation. I think they can. So back to the novel…
Hello again! It’s been a while, but I’ve had a lot going on that have taken me away from the online world. If you think the blog has been underused, then my Twitter silence will have come as no surprise…
So what’s new for 2012:
- I’ve tried and failed as yet to get excited about the forthcoming London Olympics. It might be the greatest show on earth but for me it’s a few months of transport hell;
- My newest novel attempt has reached 28,000 words. Please ask me more about this!
- We have a whole bundle of health issues going on chez Rose22joh, and are praying for a swift and happy resolution;
- I can blog about the EU again if I feel the need – and there’s a lot going on that could do with some reflection.
- I’m TIRED!
So voila: this year’s offerings are likely to be on writing, politics, parenting, faith and of course feminism. Probably.
And the fact that my New Year post is up before February? I’m counting that as a win!
Last night I watched “Yes Prime Minister” at the Guilgud theatre in London. Hilariously funny, morally complex, EU focused, one particular element really stood out. In the prime minister’s Civil Service Bill, it proposes that the arts educated generalist civil servants be replaced by professionals e.g. teachers in the department of education, doctors at health (they didn’t mention bankers at the treasury but I assume that’s because the writers wanted to imply that this was a fundamentally good idea…).
In a related issue, the Eurozone crisis raises interesting questions for politics students, and not just because they wonder if they’ll ever get a job after all their study to repay the cost of doing so.
Democracy, said Churchill, is the worst form of government excepting all others.
In my post a few months ago, I tried to explain how – once the political system of a country is propped up through the financial support of others – democracy becomes not just an issue for the voters of the country being propped up but for the proppers too.
Why is it thought to be fair and legitimate for the voters of one country to demand international subsidy but expect the voters of other countries to give it without comment or expectation?
This is globalisation in its real sense.
This is not just about multinational firms moving jobs around for the comany’s benefit – to take the most negative view of it.
Nor is it just about increased prosperity for all through the breaking down of trade barriers – to take the most positive view of it.
No, we need to realise that globalisation has already affected all of us, we are interconnected to a degree that we perhaps did not realise. Our sovereign debt is owned internationally, and as such our obligations as global citizens to honour the promises made in our names to get the money that is now owed.
If we feel that this financial system and arrangements were made without our knowledge and consent, then there is an issue here.
What did we feel we were voting for at the elections we voted in? If we didn’t vote at all, do we think we perhaps should have done?
Perhaps some people feel that those standing as candidates to represent us are only a limited selection, that everyone’s centered around a general acceptance of the way the world should be? Well, that seems to be the guiding principle behind the Occupy protests, but within a democratic system, the proper way to secure change is to stand for election and get a popular mandate. Otherwise you are also just unelected, unrepresentative self-appointed people who believe you are right.
Part of the question we have to ask ourselves is whether our democratic capitalist system is in fact corporate capitalism and whether we’re happier with that than with all the other types of capitalism available.
So how should we feel about the installation of Mario Monti in Italy?
The thing is democracy comes in lots of different forms. The list system used in Italy’s national elections allows the maximum party control and voters little- UK voters have some experience of this with the party list system chosen for use in the European parliament elections here. It is always possible to argue that the version of democracy used where you are or over there is insufficient or somehow less “pure” than the version you prefer. That’s why people are always able to insist that a referendum is better than representative democracy, or similar.
Mario Monti’s government is not designed to be long term, nor democratic. It is a government of specialists: a banker at the finance ministry, lawyers, professors, and (to Jim Hacker’s fictional horror) yes, civil servants. Because if you need to know where the levers of power are, you could do worse than use the skills of those who know. What his cabinet does not have is elected politicians.
As Papandreou showed in Greece, the problem that elected politicians have is two-fold. They feel beholden to the people that have elected them. They also frankly want to stay in power. These two factors must surely have been behind the odd decision to put to a referendum a decision taken at a Eurozone meeting. The point about representative democracy is that elected representatives sometimes have to take decisions that are unpopular, and the brave ones take them even when warned that doing so might put them out of power for a generation.
In Italy and in Greece, we are seeing the rise of the technocrats (albeit that the ones in Greece are elected). Without public accountability, you have to hope for benevolent dictatorship, putting your trust in experts. Experts can be amazingly blind to real world consequences – as “Yes Prime Minister” puts it- putting your trust in experts’ computer models is a risky business. And with so many EU countries only a generation or so from not so benevolent dictatorship, this must all feel very uncomfortable indeed.
And with the unfortunate comments from the German CDU parliamentary leader about the whole of Europe now speaking German… all I can say is while intellectually I endorse the need for strong leadership to keep the Euro and its economies from total collapse there needs to be a very limited time for this alternative.
So Churchill has it right. Democracy, in all its forms, is the least worst option. Let’s hope the technocrats include a few with a real understanding of political theory.