A new Union of Democratic Control?

It may be a mistake, but in my idiosyncratic way, I tend to approach the present – and the future – through the past.

So I feel the need to point out at this time, that in 1914 during the earliest days of the First World War, there arose within the British Left a movement called the ‘Union of Democratic Control’, one of whose prime movers was a Liberal Radical journalist called ED Morel. (He had already led a very interesting life, and went to have a short but even more interesting life subsequently, including both imprisonment and beating Winston Churchill as a candidate in a General Election).

The UDC initially had three aims: to subject to scrutiny in the House of Commons the secret pacts and war aims agreed between the UK and its allies as pan-European war broke out; to push for a negotiated settlement to prevent conflict escalating into mass loss of life, and to investigate the influence of the arms trade upon UK politicians.

Needless to say, in the short term, their campaign was not successful and was regarded with suspicion and official opposition.
But their guiding principle – that the nation had a right to have its foreign policy and strategy debated by its democratic parliament for its moral and ethical worth – was fundamentally right.

And as it was then, with war, so it is now, with Brexit.

We have voted to leave the EU – but what is it we have voted for? In the coming months of negotiation and political flux, how much will the public be allowed into the process of exit? ‘Leave’ campaigners such as Chris Grayling have dangled the possibility of fast trade deals with other countries – but with whom and how? Where is the devil in their detail? Which lobbyists will surround our new ministers; who is pulling their strings?

Now is the time for a common understanding between parties, politicians and NGOs, extending beyond those who voted to for Remain, that pushes back at those who called for us to leave on the basis of democracy, and calls on them to justify their claims with real action. The UK must not bid final farewell to the principles of ethical politics, when it leaves the EU.

Such a movement would be broad-based, non-blaming and non-partisan, embodying the spirit shown by those such as the late Jo Cox MP, who see that all must pull together to pull the nation together.

A modern Union of Democratic Control, at this time, would be in essence a cross-party compact with four main aims:

To make Parliament the forum for full scrutiny of all negotiations proposed on our behalf in the months to come, both for European exit and for new migration and trade agreements, and prevent any government from truncating debate or operating behind closed doors.
To maintain in British law the fundamental principles of human rights, resisting those who will urge us to remake our own laws to serve the powerful and not the powerless.

To push for a more responsive and pluralist democratic system, where the representative principle is upheld – that we vote for individuals, not parties – but realising that the pre-existing democratic deficit added rage to the combination that took us out of the EU.

To argue forcibly that if we must remake our relationships with the world – in trade, in banking, in whatever other fields we must – we do so prioritising democratic nations who fight corruption. There must be no quick deals with dodgy dictatorships.

We have seen how ‘politics as usual’ – winner-takes-all voting, partisan mudslinging, mass democracy reduced to a middle-class hobby – has walked us to the brink of an almighty crisis. ‘Politics as usual’ will not get the nation out of this crisis.

Can we yet forge the cross-party and cross-national unity that is needed to change the times?

* Matthew Campbell is a member of Bristol LibDems, lives in South Bristol and works for a local authority in the South West of England. He also posts on this site as Matt (Bristol).

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  • John Minard 25th Jun '16 - 1:15pm

    that’s a really good idea – otherwise it becomes a bun fight between Boris and Farage over the spoils on the severity of immigration controls and perhaps even promoting deportation especially if the economy tanks, and then the worry of other isolationist moves maybe even on NATO.

  • On the face of it I’m quite sympathetic to this notion – though the difference is that in August, 1914 the then Liberal Government declared war with the authority an initial Cabinet decision (minus three ministerial resignations) and the overwhelming support of Parliament. Now, however, there has been a (small majority of the popular vote of electors.

    In reality my hunch of the future is that Scotland will indeed break away from Little England and stay in Europe. There are some of us who voted against independence last time who may well have a different view next time. We already have a PR system at Holyrood with a much more broad based progressive left of centre consensus across the political divide. It should be perfectly possible in future for a Scottish Lib Dem/Green merger plus various coalition permutations that would exclude the Tories.

    No doubt the likes of Sheffield Hallam where they campaigned (according to Councillor Joe Otten) on the fantasy of a Miliband/SNP Coalition (‘Operation fear the Jocks’ on behalf of the then party leader) might be unhappy about this Sadly, having put in power one of the biggest walking disasters of a Prime Minister back in 2010 they shouldn’t be too surprised.

  • PS. I fear for the future of England under a Johnson Government. The man who has turned mumbling and making it up as he goes along into a comedy art form doesn’t do detail – but then neither did Cameron and the last 2010 Coalition Government.

    PPS Those who are trying to blame Corbyn for the Cameron own goal penalty shoot out should give more thought to his message about inequality and the venal goings on of big business. Putting his “charisma issue” on one side he has at least put his finger on why so many expressed their disillusion with establishment politics.

  • Matt (Bristol) 25th Jun '16 - 7:22pm

    David – I felt it was complicating things too much to pull the Scottish (and indeed Northern Irish) complications in to the mix, and I do feel strongly that a loose alliance needs a broad base — too much detailed points, and I’d be trying to impose my agenda on a) the LibDems and b) everyone else.

    But yes, from the outside it has seemed to me for a while that the potential for a non-nationalist centre-left alliance is already there in Scotland – and there is little left to lose.

    John Minard – yes. The fight now is not to go back in. It is to prevent the radical right redefining the core values of our country. We have little time to lose, in my opinion.

  • This is a good idea Matthew, whilst we deal with the here and now of the UK Leave situation, it would be beneficial, for a new ‘UDC’ to focus on the longer-term drawing out lessons learnt and providing some key guiding principles for moving forward. Because as you note Parliament needs to learn from its mistakes of recent decades which lead to this referendum and the result that was obtained.

  • Matt (Bristol) 27th Jun '16 - 12:48pm

    Thanks, Roland.

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