by Mary Harrington
Monday, 24
May 2021
Idea
10:53

Welcome to post-democracy

Politics has become a game for institutional power players, not the voting public
by Mary Harrington

The Left has long recognised the importance of ‘the long march through the institutions’. It’s only comparatively recently that the Tories seem to have grasped the disadvantages of having every non-governmental body in the country run by people who hate you.

In response to this belated insight, the Johnson government has begun appointing less virulently anti-Tory leaders to key ‘independent’ bodies. The new BBC Director-General and chairman of the BBC are a former Tory councillor and Tory donor (and Rishi Sunak’s ex-boss) respectively.

This has in turn prompted outrage from notionally independent quangocrats. The recent appointment to the UK’s equality watchdog of David Goodhart, a journalist and researcher who has expressed centre-Right views on issues such as immigration, caused a furore in the heart of Big Diversity. And the chair of Royal Greenwich Museums recently resigned in protest at the Government’s refusal to reappoint as trustee Aminul Hoque, a prominent advocate of ‘decolonising’ the curriculum.

Like the Tories, the general public has also clocked that there’s precious little ‘independence’ to be found in ‘independent’ bodies. Recent years have witnessed a mushrooming of grassroots groups dedicated to contesting power on the field of NGOs.

At the cutting edge of this development has been those feminists and gay rights activists pushing back against the once seemingly-ineluctable encroachment of ‘gender identity’ as a replacement for biological sex.

For a long time, protest focused on public debate, and the related issue of free speech, in the hope that reasoned discussion would drive a sensible political settlement. But all the institutional structures still seemed skewed in favour of gender identity and for a while no one could work out why.

Over time it’s become apparent that many such changes emanate from activism by NGOs, via outreach that seeks to reshape school curricula, HR policies, census data design and other extra-legal social structures. With this revelation, the battlefield has shifted. While public debate in the media remains important, ‘gender critical’ activism has refocused on trench warfare within institutions and NGOs, usually via crowdfunded court cases.

Such resistance is increasingly well-organised, and is focused with laser-like precision not on ‘the discourse’ but on meaningful institutional change. Last year, for example, detransitioner Keira Bell won her court case against the Tavistock gender clinic, for a judicial review on the clinic’s treatment regime for trans-identified young people.

A crowdfunded case in March forced the ONS to clarify guidelines on sex and gender identity for the current census. And barrister Allison Bailey has taken LGBT+ charity Stonewall to court to (as she puts it) ‘stop them policing free speech’ via its Diversity Champions scheme.

The takeaway from all this is that even the general public no longer believes in the short-lived post-Cold War dream of technocratic governance. Instead, it’s now widely recognised that significant areas of meaningful social policy are dominated by NGOs with little oversight and no democratic accountability. Political activism now focuses not on debate, or electoral politics, but on identifying and moving the levers of power that influence these bodies. Welcome to post-democracy.

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Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
1 year ago

I do not consider this to be ‘post-democracy’. Through the Brexit vote and the 2019 election the people have sent a democratic message, part of which is that they have indeed seen through the NGOs, charities and Quangos etc. The fact that a few of these organizations are now being run by people who reflect the opinions of most people is an example of democracy at work. Of course, this doesn’t alter the fact that most of these NGOs, charities and Quangos etc should not even exist in the first place. Or, at least, they should not be funded through taxation.

Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
1 year ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

I think we’re still in pre-democracy. The 2019 election result was a ‘Tory landslide’ for the 44% of the voters who voted Tory and an undemocratic outcome for the 56% who didn’t.
Bigger margin than Brexit.

Weyland Smith
Weyland Smith
1 year ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

Blair’s landslide of 1997 was with 43% of the voters who voted. 2001 41%, and 2005 35%. The ‘undemocratic outcomes’ thus being 57%, 59% and 65%.

Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
1 year ago
Reply to  Weyland Smith

I agree. My point wasn’t party political just pro-democracy.

Weyland Smith
Weyland Smith
1 year ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

What do you suggest – more referenda, PR? The problem as I see it is that the political parties / classes / elite, whatever you want to call them, really don’t want the demos to have any real say in anything.

Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
1 year ago
Reply to  Weyland Smith

I’d go for a form of PR.

Weyland Smith
Weyland Smith
1 year ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

It doesn’t solve the problem for me. People need to be asked to decide on specific things. Issues such as the EU, or mass immigration find soul mates split between parties. Within a party there’s not the critical mass to resolve the problem, yet given the opportunity people will participate in a vote when a promise is made to respect the decision and to treat it as an instruction. Farage could never make it to Westminster, but he was arguably the most influential politician for a generation or more.

N Millington
N Millington
1 year ago
Reply to  Weyland Smith

I’d settle for an actual debate on the issues, which given the quality of discussion on both sides devolves down to a battle between “I HEARD 50 MILLION ROMANIANS ARE ON FLIGHTS TO THE UK” and “ALL WHITE MEN ARE EVIL” is unlikely to happen.
Farage was of the former. He was a court jester, a yes man who said whatever he could to earn a penny. We now have a yes man in power in Johnson.
Spin doctors neuter everyone else.

Paul Goodman
Paul Goodman
1 year ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

PR is a stitch up as Nick Cleg will testify. All those votes against student fees used for exactly the opposite purpose. Electoral theft really.

Last edited 1 year ago by Paul Goodman
John Standing
John Standing
1 year ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

But you are an anti-white racist. You do not believe in the will of the people.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
1 year ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

What dis you say when Blair won

Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
1 year ago

I supported PR and thought it should be Labour Policy.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
1 year ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

At least under a democracy perhaps half the people are more or less content with, or accepting of, the government. In the type of Stalinist society that you consistently seem to hanker for, only the top 1% is happy.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
1 year ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

68% didn’t vote Labour, 88% didn’t vote LD and 97% didn’t vote Green, so a pretty resounding rejection of leftism.

Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
1 year ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

50.3% voted either Green, SNP, Lib Dem or Labour. 45.6% voted Tory or Brexit. In Northern Ireland the Nationalist Parties won more votes than the Unionists. How do you square that with a defeat for leftism in terms of the popular vote?

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
1 year ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

I’m doing what you did. I’m tallying all the people who didn’t vote a certain way and showing that even more voted against the individual smithereens of the left than “against” the Conservatives.
This debunks the student politics point that x% “voted against Fatcha”. You have no idea what people voted for or against. None at all.

Gary Cole
Gary Cole
1 year ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

Perhaps there are far too many competing parties on the left, but this only exemplifies the division that left-wing politics brings to society. Pretty resounding result that between them a centre-right and a tiny right-centre party can get 45.6% of the vote of those who voted given that those on the left are likely to be more politically motivated generally.

Last edited 1 year ago by Gary Cole
Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
1 year ago
Reply to  Gary Cole

That’s a fair point. But you’d have to balance it with the fact that most of the mainstream media (in terms of print) supports the centre right party and the broadcast media still takes it’s lead from the print media in terms of what stories to cover and the context in which they are reported. (‘What the papers say’ is a daily staple of broadcast media)
Not sure the division left wing politics brings to society is necessarily a bad thing. You could call it debate, discussion or disagreement. There’s not a whole lot of difference between Greens, SNP or Labour really, apart from emphasis. When politics doesn’t involve division (debate, discussion or disagreement) it becomes neither right nor left but authoritarian.
Generally things probably are 50/50 ish between those wanting change and those wanting continuity (conservatives v progressives, if you like). The difference is the conservatives have the upper hand by having previously won the battles (going back to the Normans!) giving them the upper hand – particularly in the UK which hasn’t had any revolutionary resets.
First past the post reinforces that continuity upper hand which is what I mean when I say we are probably nearer pre-democracy than post-democracy.
Whether democracy (as in governance reflecting the wishes of the majority) is a good or bad thing is another question.

Weyland Smith
Weyland Smith
1 year ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

I agree that the referndum sent a democratic message, and the message was received loud and clear – never risk such a thing again.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
1 year ago
Reply to  Weyland Smith

I think we should have many more referendums. The Swiss have them all the time on all manner of things and it works very well.

Weyland Smith
Weyland Smith
1 year ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Totally agree – I can’t see any party offering that option, even though I suspect it might be very popular.

Jeff Carr
Jeff Carr
1 year ago
Reply to  Weyland Smith

I do not think the ‘message’ was received loud and clear. The BBC, SKY, C4, MP’s, the media, the judiciary and the NGO’s all doubled down on their opinion and resisted the democratic decision of the referendum. It took the 2019 General Election to reinforce democracy.

Last edited 1 year ago by Jeff Carr
Weyland Smith
Weyland Smith
1 year ago
Reply to  Jeff Carr

Sorry, I didn’t express myself clearly. The message that they received loud and clear was that genuinely asking the people for instruction is a dangerous thing to do – as Peter Green said “don’t ask me what I think of you, I might not give the answer that you want me to” – , and the lesson they learned was never to make the mistake of asking again – for all the reasons you cite.

Jeff Carr
Jeff Carr
1 year ago
Reply to  Weyland Smith

Apologies. My misunderstanding. Like the philosophical elevation of Peter Green

Last edited 1 year ago by Jeff Carr
N Millington
N Millington
1 year ago
Reply to  Jeff Carr

This is a comical rewriting of history. Throughout the referendum we had talking head after talking head reinforcing that all we were doing was improving Britain’s standing in the world, and that “no one” was discussing leaving any of the institutions on which British imports and exports relied.
After the referendum ‘victory’ (the narrowest of margins) you and those like you took those goal posts and ran with them, until a result that resembled literally nothing that was promised.
Are you surprised that the 48% of the country who resisted even the slightest change to the status quo were suddenly up in arms about you and yours literally calling us treasonous?
Disgusting.
We don’t see ourselves in Britain anymore. You vote for idiots and pseuds to lead you, pretentious public school boys quoting Latin and acting like a rowdy six form common room. Five years of constant abuse for having the foresight to realise that leaving the world’s largest single market with nowhere else to go wasn’t necessarily a good idea.
There will be a reckoning. Come the next recession, don’t be surprised if that 48% plus some change vote to join the Euro and finally humble the Brexiteer contingent, forever. You and those like you are voted repeatedly to damage this country simply to own the libs, but you don’t have the faintest idea of what we will do when we get power back.

Last edited 1 year ago by N Millington
kathleen carr
kathleen carr
1 year ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

I read Mary Harrington’s article about the Alison Bailey case , but isn’t it just the old guard left wing unhappy with being replaced by the new left wing? Anyone who has received a university education in the last 50 years will have had a left wing lecturer and probably been taught a left wing social sciences course. The original students were placed in the various institutions, NGO’s charities etc & will now be coming up for retirement, with 2 generations of successors . Where are these students with alternate views to come from? National trust members are trying to vote out the new lot with ‘woke’ ideas , but anyone who replaces them will be 70 + in age.

Alex Delszsen
Alex Delszsen
1 year ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Every pseudo-educated young person I have met believes that NGOs are automatically good, because they are “not government.” Our voters, bless.

Kremlington Swan
Kremlington Swan
1 year ago

Post truth, not just post democracy.
I think it has become fairly common for activists to have no truck with the truth at all, and instead to favour establishing the dominant narrative by fair means or foul.
People – too many people, anyway – would rather have a comfortable lie than an uncomfortable truth.

If you make it very uncomfortable for people to tell the truth, but love-bomb them when they repeat your lie, you win, but in winning you create a genuine dystopia. I think that is where we are now.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
1 year ago

Instead, it’s now widely recognised that significant areas of meaningful social policy are dominated by NGOs with little oversight and no democratic accountability.
It’s also becoming recognized that the concept of public service has been replaced by self-service, as witnessed by another piece here that speaks to “the populists'” rise. People have recognized that not only do professional politicians seldom have the answers, they barely bother with the questions and often make things worse.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
1 year ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

It was all a cunning Blairite plan: set up lots of “arms-length” bodies so Ministers don’t get the flak when things go wrong, but populate them with “our people” so we’re still in control.

J Bryant
J Bryant
1 year ago

Encouraging article. I hope the recent legal pushback against the engines of woke gains traction.

Andrew Raiment
Andrew Raiment
1 year ago

Good piece.

marksviljoen
marksviljoen
1 year ago

This nothing “new”, democracy, or rather the illusion of it offerd in the form of ignorant mass appeasement via the casting of One vote regarding ONE single campaign issue, to elect an official who will decide on thousands of matters during the term of they office is ludicrous to say the least! If logically, you reasonably cannot agree with EVERYTHING your lover, life partner or best friend thinks, how the hell can you agree with EVERYTHING that elected official will do over say four years in office????

Alex Delszsen
Alex Delszsen
1 year ago

Really, yes!
Basically I think we should all derive our happiness if the elite find advantage from their sport. They want peaceful, remunerative lives and need to appease their sponsors, like China, or else make promises for donations to their charities. Just pick a family and wish them well. Their happiness can be yours!
Please, please, butter their bread! Let them all work for Russian oil companies, or get great contracts for family members, or get that shuffling seat between government and Big Tech. Amen!

Last edited 1 year ago by Alex Delszsen