Power from the people
John Kampfner on two new books that put expenses, parliament and democracy into perspective
20 Jun 09

The Life and Death of Democracy, by John Keane, Simon & Schuster, £30

Democracy: 1,000 Years in Pursuit of British Liberty, by Peter Kellner, Mainstream, £25

The other day, as I was waiting to meet someone in the House of Commons, an old-school MP accosted me. “Isn’t it terrible, all that’s going on?” His implication was that the expenses scandal had unjustly dragged this venerable institution into the mud. “No, it isn’t,” I replied. “It’s marvellous.” Horrified, he skulked away. I am not in the habit of making sweeping utterances such as these. Perhaps it was more than a dozen years of disdain for the Westminster village that had been reined in, and could now be unleashed as I no longer considered myself part of the club.

That club, which contains MPs, peers, political journalists, advisers, lobbyists and other assorted hangers-on in London SW1, had until recently operated under a strict but unspoken code of conduct. Criticise MPs and parties as much you like but do not call into question the magnificence and munificence of parliament. We may dodge and weave a bit; we may wage illegal wars from time to time, we may not be very adept at scrutinising our executive, but when it comes to those perfidious foreigners, what a great story we have to tell.

From the moment I returned after being a foreign correspondent in the mid 1990s and entered the world of men in strange clothes and old habits, I was dispirited by the state of our politics. Thus it was with some anticipation that I delved into two erudite works on the history of democracy one covering the world, the other the UK. John Keane’s global anthology is a gargantuan feat of erudition. He moves deftly from ancient Greece (not the great citadel it is held up to be, apparently), to Machiavelli, to America’s founding fathers, who, the author argues, were originally wary of introducing representative democracy. Keane quotes one delegate from New Haven, Connecticut, opposing “election by the people” because they lack information and are “constantly liable to be misled”.

The author is at his most persuasive in knocking down easy assumptions. He points out that consultative assemblies flourished in the Islamic world from the beginning of the 13th century until the demise of the Ottoman empire. These assemblies, called meshwerets, were highly effective. He states that, contrary to “some old-fashioned, devoutly British, accounts”, which assume British birthright for parliamentary democracy, the venue for the first working parliament was actually northern Spain. He tells the compelling story of King Alfonso IX, a man whose fits of epilepsy earned him the nickname “the dribbler”, and who came up against the determined opposition of the local nobility. He sought to go over their heads, to convene a larger group of “good men”. And so “it was in the walled, former Roman town of Leon, in March 1188 — a full generation before King John’s Magna Carta of 1215 — that Alfonso IX convened the first ever cortes, as contemporaries soon christened it.”

Keane’s particular contribution to the debate is to emphasise the global, rather than the narrowly Anglo-Saxon, roots of democracy. His grasp of the present and his prescriptions for the future are less sure-footed. He reminds us that “democracy is not the timeless fulfilment of our political destiny. It is not a way of doing politics that has always been with us, or that will be our companion for the rest of our history.” He coins the term “monitory democracy”, suggesting that political engagement and emancipation are now expressed far more widely than through elected chambers, through the Internet, direct action, NGOs, the media and other bodies. He argues that political liberties and economic prosperity have little in common, but he develops neither this thought nor the many other questions that the past two decades of globalised capitalism have thrown up. Just why have so many people around the world willingly given up certain liberties in return for the promise of prosperity or security?

Peter Kellner’s account is specifically British. As a long-time surveyor of the political scene, he has an uncanny ability to convey the complexities of politics to a wide audience. His book is more of a compendium of historical moments, in which speeches or documents highlighting the successes of, or perils facing, democracy, are listed. The study is compiled chronologically, stretching from Athelstan the Glorious (c. 930) to Paul Dacre (the editor of the Daily Mail, 1998). Students of politics may quibble over some of the choices made from particular years or eras, but Kellner’s selection is invariably apposite, charting the great debates from the emancipation of slaves, to the Corn Laws, to the Irish independence movement, and closer to home, from Roy Jenkins’s proposals on electoral reform to Margaret Thatcher’s myopic Bruges speech.

Yet underlying Kellner’s account is an idealised assumption that we should be proud of our institutions. “The evolution of liberty in Britain has been appallingly slow,” he writes. “But once basic principles have been established, they have tended to stay established.” Perhaps the very fact that Britain has faced so few ructions has instilled in us a complacency that has dulled our sense of the inadequacies of our political system.

That system is now rightly the object of public derision. Yet I fear that derision could lead to a further weakening of our representative democracy, discouraging people from standing for parliament, leading to a new crop of MPs even less talented than the present group. Pride of place in Kellner’s anthology should surely go to Oliver Cromwell and his speech on 19 April 1653 dissolving the rump parliament.

“Ye sordid prostitutes,” he begins. “Have you not defil’d this sacred place, and turn’d the Lord’s temple into a den of thieves, by your immoral principles and wicked practices? Ye are grown intolerably odious to the whole nation; you were deputed here by the people to get grievances redress’d, are yourselves become the greatest grievance.”

As I write, in the week after the European election results, I marvel at the protector’s prescience.

This article was originally published in the Guardian