How democratic is the United States?

The United States portrays itself as a beacon of democratic purity, a forward-thinking model of perfection to be mimicked and, if necessary, exported around the world. This has become so engrained in western culture that we no longer think to question its legitimacy. There is just one problem: American democracy is far from perfect.

Simon Schama, the popular historian, recently tweeted his view:

This is certainly one of the more densely packed 140 characters you’re likely to see, but Schama’s point is a good one. After the wars of independence, the newly formed United States was the antithesis of everything British. It was a republic, it was secular and it detested colonialism. Their democracy was the envy of the world and the US Constitution is undoubtedly one of the most important documents ever written.

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The Supreme Court

The Constitution outlines the national framework of government and, above all else, defends the individual freedoms of the American people. In practice, however, it is not so clear cut as the power of interpretation is granted to the Supreme Court. This is necessary with a constantly changing political landscape but it has also allowed the current political establishment to veer from the original intentions of the Founding Fathers.

The 2010 US Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United case effectively means that corporations are treated as people by US law. It lifted all restrictions on donations to political parties and fundamentally left the balance of power with the rich. This is what Schama means by ‘democracy of the chequebook’: Washington is rife with lobby groups acting on behalf of corporations, side-lining the politics of the people. In any democracy there will be conspiracy theories but the potential for corporate gain taking priority over the public’s interest is greater in the United States than in any other western democracy.

The ‘Move to Amend’ campaign rejects the Citizens United ruling. Their aim is to establish that: “money is not speech and that human beings, not corporations, are persons entitled to constitutional rights.” This debate raises serious doubts over the legitimacy of American democracy. It leads you to wonder whether political power can be bought and if the political agenda can be changed by those with a bigger chequebook. It is a frightening thought that a country with such diplomatic and military power could have such fragile democratic foundations.

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President Obama during his inauguration ceremony

The Founding Fathers separated church and state powers and thereby established a truly secular system. Again, in contrast to their British counterparts. In Britain, the Queen is head of state and head of the church meaning that, constitutionally speaking, the two institutions are intimately linked. Yet, in practice, they are not. Even the most adamant British atheist would agree that religion plays a much smaller role in our political system than in the United States. It is an irony of modern times that, despite the enshrined separation of church and state power in US politics, religion is of the utmost importance.

There is only one openly atheist member of the United States Congress. Considering the combined total of the Senate and the House of Representatives surpasses 500, this is almost a statistical impossibility. The truth is simple: a declared atheist stands little chance of election in the US. Even the Presidents declare ‘so help me God’ during their inauguration ceremonies. Religion is everywhere. Thomas Jefferson, the revolutionary hero, would be appalled at the authority of the Church in modern day America. Another irony, Jefferson, the man who placed such importance on a secular society, is a hero of the tea-party movement, a group with the religious right at its very core.

filepicker-GxgiR53AQdSux1El9YNJ_132nra-949x1024.jpgThe oligarchy that Schama refers to is thus the American political establishment. It is a group balancing the interests of powerful corporations, the religious right and, if they have time, their people. Often you are gripped with the impression that President Obama has his hands tied due to the strength of big-business and powerful lobby groups. Just look how hard the Democrats had to fight for their healthcare reform bill and, even then, the final bill was an extremely watered-down version of the original plan. More upsetting is the impossibility of bringing reform to US gun laws. Despite the heart-breaking and frequent stories of school shootings, the NRA gun lobby is far too powerful for anything to be changed. In a nutshell, American politics is a mess.

Schama’s comparison of today’s America with eighteenth century Britain no longer seems so absurd. The enshrined values of the Constitution could be mirrored the world over. However, the problem with the current US political system is the difference between theory and practice. In this case, theory is perfection, practice is far from it.

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Despite appearing final, Scotland’s ‘no’ vote poses more questions than answers.

The Scottish referendum saw a level of political participation unrivalled in recent years. The population was energised not just in Scotland but throughout the United Kingdom and it has sparked an unanticipated constitutional debate.

The West Lothian question asks why English MP’s should tolerate Scottish MP’s voting on English issues while they have no say on the same matters in Scotland. It is a historic questiunionflagon that dates back to the first Irish Home Rule bill in 1886 when William Gladstone argued:

“If Ireland is to have domestic legislation for Irish affairs they cannot come here for English or Scottish affairs.”

The same logic was not applied to Scotland and, in a constitutional sense, England has been under-represented ever since the devolution bills of 1997. The West Lothian question is no longer a question, it is an ignored reality. In the wake of a referendum deciding Scotland’s future, attention has shifted towards England.

There is one fundamental problem. The West Lothian question is easy to ask but it is another matter entirely to answer it. A separate English parliament seems unlikely due to the additional cost and bureaucracy yet change, it seems, is on its way and so is heated debate. The three main parties are already bickering about reform despite weeks of apparent unity during the referendum campaign.

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Federalism is one option. We could devolve powers to regional assemblies to vote on local issues, thereby answering the West Lothian question. The electorate could also vote for MPs to sit in the Westminster parliament in the same way that the Scottish are represented by MSPs and MPs. There are many options and the preferred system can be debated and perfected with time. The fact that we are having this debate at all is the important thing.

Alex Salmond, despite his obvious disappointment, gracefully accepted Scotland’s decision to reject independence. He is a divisive figure and will continue to be so as he looks to hold Westminster to its promises. However, as Tony Blair once said: “when you decide you divide and that’s just the way of it.” Salmond decided. It wouldn’t be surprising if he goes down in history for engineering more change than even he suspects.

The Scottish referendum campaign has prompted the British electorate to ask questions that have long been ignored. Constitutional change is overdue but it is on its way and in this climate of reform perhaps we can finally review the state of The House of Lords too. Whatever the outcome, it is wonderful to see these questions finally being raised and fascinating to anticipate the results. We are on the cusp of witnessing historic change. Thank you Alex Salmond, thank you Scotland.

Some thoughts ahead of the referendum deciding Scotland’s future.

On Thursday 18th September 2014, the people of Scotland will be asked “should Scotland be an independent country?” The result of this referendum will not only decide Scotland’s future relationship with the United Kingdom but it will also have a resounding impact on the European Union. Pardon the cliché but we are witnessing history in the making and it would be unwise to dismiss the Scottish debate for anything less than that.

So far the independence debate has been passionately contested on both sides and there is no doubt that the Scottish electorate has been energised by the campaign. Estimates suggest that turnout could be as high as 80% which would be a truly remarkable level of participation compared to recent election statistics. As an Englishman, I am reduced to the role of interested observer and rightly so, it is not for the English to decide whether Scotland remains part of the United Kingdom. However, part of me cannot help but dread September 18th simply because I do not want to see a successful yes vote.

England and Scotland are old enemies. We are nations divided by Hadrian’s Wall after the Roman conquests. We have lived through centuries of bitter warfare and rivalry while horrendous atrocities have been committed on both sides. However, the Acts of Union of 1707 can arguably be labelled the most spectacular peace treaties ever written. The Jacobite threat was undoubtedly significant but ultimately the union paved the way to a strong and wealthy nation. The newly formed United Kingdom was at the forefront of global commerce, scientific innovation and intellectual thought. Edinburgh, like Athens and Rome before it, was considered the global capital of intellectual thinking. Adam Smith and David Hume were both a part of the Scottish Enlightenment and are both studied today by economists and moral philosophers. At the height of empire, many English publications even joked of the Scots taking control of the world due to the disproportionately high number of Scots in the East India Company. There is no doubt that Britain as we see it today has a very Scottish stamp on it. The United Kingdom was and is an efficient working partnership that has not only bread friendship but untold success. In my view, the fact that England and Scotland were able to put aside old grievances for the benefit of the future was a fantastic achievement. I appreciate that this may be a very Anglo-centric opinion but as an Englishman I am immensely proud of the Acts of Union and would be deeply saddened to see them effectively nullified in the event of a yes vote. To vote yes would not only undermine the magnificence of the Acts of Union but it would be an unnecessary return to blind, old-fashioned nationalism.

According to recent opinion polls, it appears that the independence referendum will be a very closely fought contest. This, in my view, is due to the failure of the “better together” campaign to appear in any way optimistic of Scotland’s future prosperity with or without the United Kingdom. Rather than stressing the benefits of Scotland remaining part of the UK, their emphasis appears to have been almost entirely based on what might go wrong in an independent Scotland. In the televised debates Alistair Darling attempted to discredit Alex Salmond and the yes campaign by highlighting the flaws in their proposals for independence. Darling was especially keen to impress upon the audience that an independent Scotland would be economically weak due to the uncertainty surrounding the newly independent state’s usage of the pound. Despite the fact that this is a sound argument in many respects, what Darling didn’t realise is that it isn’t remotely inspiring for prospective voters. The activists campaigning on behalf of the no campaign have come across as deeply conservative “nay sayers” while those campaigning for a yes vote come across as progressives looking to take Scotland forward. The yes campaign, for their part, have capitalised and campaigned admirably for their cause. Alex Salmond has invoked the spirit of Robert the Bruce very effectively and used circumstance to his advantage. One very impressive element of their campaign was to link the “better together” campaign with the Conservative Party. The impact of this is particularly telling when we consider that the “better together” campaign is actively supported by Ed Miliband’s Labour Party. More importantly, the Conservatives are unashamedly loathed throughout much of Scotland and their perceived link with the no campaign could shift swing voters to back the yes campaign. In essence, the “better together” campaign has blindly played directly into the hands of the SNP in a master-class of political ineptitude. 

As an Englishman I sincerely hope that Scotland votes to remain part of the United Kingdom. I feel that the union is something we should be proud of and to see it nullified would not only be a great shame but also, in my opinion, a mistake. Unfortunately I cannot help but feel that those campaigning for Scotland to remain part of the United Kingdom have not only underestimated the importance of their task but also failed to effectively articulate their argument. We should all be waiting for the result with baited breath and I for one will be hoping to wake up on Friday 19th September safe in the knowledge that the Scots remain part of this United Kingdom. Only time will tell.

Are we ever going to see the reform that British Politics so desperately needs?

On Thursday, the United Kingdom’s component of the 2014 European Parliament Election is scheduled to be held, coinciding with the Local Elections in England and Northern Ireland. In anticipation, the media has paid significant attention to the potential success of UKIP as the issue of EU membership once again dominates the political landscape. It seems that the mercurial rise of Nigel Farage as UKIP’s bullish leader will effectively polarize the British electorate. However, as interesting as it would be to discuss the rise of UKIP as the new major player in British politics, this piece attempts to shine a light on some of the wider issues within the British political system. The most significant problem we have today is the feeling of disillusionment felt towards the political establishment by a vast quantity of the electorate. Indeed, for me, a major factor behind UKIP’s recent success can be explained by the ability of Farage to tap into popular frustration with the political elite.

Having addressed the fact that we, as the British public, feel disillusioned with our politicians, it is now important to attempt to explain why. It almost seems too easy to say that our politicians are out of touch but on wider consideration, it is an unavoidable fact. The established system in Britain seems to be an immovable object. The House of Lords, for example, as Britain’s second chamber, has the power to make or block laws and challenge the actions of the Government. Yet, none of its members are elected! Lords are appointed and can even occupy positions in the Cabinet but are in no way answerable to the British electorate. This system has been in operation for centuries but the fact that it remains to exist in 2014 is frankly staggering. The Lords is in dire need of reform but the issue is often sidelined to maintain the status quo. For me, this puts into perspective just how much of a farce the 2011 Referendum on the Alternative Vote was. Why bother attempting to make the already democratic House of Commons more representative of the electorate when we have a second chamber entirely comprised of unelected peers? The AV referendum was simply a token gesture attempting to display a Government intent on reform. Yet, in reality, it was widely expected to fail and has been used since as a way of falsely suggesting that the British public is happy with the current state of affairs. We are not.

Perhaps it is unfair to suggest that our politicians are out of touch but it certainly would not be unfair to suggest that they have their priorities wrong. Modern politicians are obsessed with “the grey vote”. Just to make this point clear, there is nothing wrong with the Government providing for the elderly and I am not by any means suggesting otherwise. The problem arises when we consider why the Government are so keen to do so. It is actually very simple; the older you are, the more likely you are to vote. As an MP, it would make perfect sense to try to appeal to “the grey vote” because it would greatly increase your chances of re-election. When the Coalition was faced with the difficult decision of where to cut the national budget, cutting pensions was completely out of the question. Controversial as it was, increasing tuition fees was a far more viable option despite the fact that tuition accounts for a far smaller part of the budget. The Government was prepared to bite the bullet and take the criticism for raising tuition fees because the implications of losing popularity amongst young people would possibly not cost them re-election. Had the Government cut funding to the elderly, the chances of re-election would be very slim indeed. This may come across as cynical but it really is that simple. The obsession with re-election distorts everything. For example, HS2 has been billed as a great project set to modernize Britain. It has been used by several politicians as a way of displaying what an apparently magnificent job they are doing. However, the plans have seemingly been blocked at every corner through a combination of incompetence and nimbyism. Meanwhile, Britain’s existing railway system is on the brink of over-capacity and has been described as being decades behind Western Europe. Services in the North of England in particular are in dire need of investment. The priorities are all wrong, politicians do whatever necessary to gain re-election and nothing else matters.

When George Osborne read out his budget earlier this year he declared that it was a “budget for savers” while offering a package of help for pensioners. Upon hearing this, I was struck immediately by a sense of being ignored as a member of this society. Indeed, I find myself thoroughly uninspired by any of the major parties and sadly do not get the impression that this feeling is unique. This sentiment must surely be a major factor behind UKIP’s recent rise; the British public are fed up with the established political parties and have turned to a party on the fringe to express their frustration. This widely held sense of disillusionment is worrying. However, although we have recognized a significant problem here, it is a different question entirely to suggest what can be done about it. In fairness to politicians it is the system that is flawed; they simply operate within that system. Possible solutions I would suggest would be to reform the House of Lords into an elected second chamber and limit Members of Parliament to serving only one term. However, if it is the system that is flawed and politicians gain power and thrive within that system, are we really to expect Parliament to sign its own death warrant?

Is there anything we can do to “fix” British politics?

British politics is a mess and the political system seems to be flawed in several respects. Britain has no codified Constitution and House of Lords reform is, in my view, long overdue. The fact that members of the House of Lords, Britain’s second chamber, are unelected is quite frankly staggering when we consider that it is 2014. However, to me it seems as if the political system in this country is so well embedded that we take the approach of leaving it be. It is almost as if we accept the imperfect nature of British politics and continue to work within this system because we have done so for so long. Yet, Westminster politicians wonder why the public has, on the whole, become so widely disillusioned. Isn’t it obvious? The current state of affairs is depressingly unsatisfactory.

I have become completely fed up of watching “Question Time” on the BBC. Every week it is the same old story, we see a panel of politicians facing up to questions from the audience. Yet, they never address any of the questions head on, at every opportunity they choose to have a swipe at their political opponents in a pathetic attempt to divert attention or blame over as many issues as possible. I get the impression watching “Question Time” that politicians dread appearing on the show and that the worst possible result of their appearance is being forced to say something honest. More, a successful appearance on “Question Time” is to somehow discredit a member of another party.

It is pathetic and it depresses me, nobody seems to want to achieve anything meaningful. The art of being a modern politician is the art of survival; re-election is everything. It is because of this that “Question Time” is approached in such an incredibly small minded way by modern politicians. Consider this; we pass a law that bans re-election of Members of Parliament, i.e. once elected, an MP serves one term (five years) and at the end of those five years, their time is up. This would take away the obsession with re-election and make the “Question Time” panel one made up of politicians saying what they actually think rather than constantly trying to get one over on each other. It would also make the position of being an MP immensely less partisan, the knowledge that you would no longer be an MP in five years would nullify the threat of losing party support. Maybe, just maybe, politicians would set out their stall to achieve something meaningful within their five year term and actually do this country some good.