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.

Join the discussion


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

  • 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.

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