Are we now living in an anocracy?

“Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you?”, the late Tony Hancock famously asked, “Did she die in vain?” It’s a few centuries (over eight to be precise) since King John put his mark on that famous Charter at Runnymede and I’m just wondering whether it was all worth it.

Joking aside, I really am in despair as to the direction of travel that western ‘democracy’ appears to be taking. In particular I refer to our own Anglo Saxon ‘democracy’ on both sides of the Atlantic, although the situation in many parts of western and eastern Europe does not fill me with joy either.

I suppose that a few LDV readers may not be familiar with the word ‘anocracy’. To be honest, neither was I until recently and, every time I type the word into a text, my rather ancient iPad doesn’t recognise it, insisting on underlining it in red. Well, it’s apparently a form of government, which Wikipedia tells me “mixes democratic with autocratic features”. As Teresa May  famously asked; “Sounds familiar?”

In both the USA and the United Kingdom our ‘democratic’ institutions have moved little since the 18th century. In the former, its much vaunted written constitution, designed when the country was still a collection of small colonies clustered on the eastern seaboard of the continent, is now struggling to accommodate the aspirations of the changing population of a superpower. In the latter the parliamentary system, which may have worked on a severely limited franchise, when Britannia ruled the waves, is now failing to cope with the UK’s demise as a world power and its inability to find a modus vivendi with its near neighbours let alone with the rest of the world. The judgement of the late Dean Acheson is as valid today as it was back in the 1960s.

Both countries have something else in common. Both are in grave danger of becoming an anocracy, where compromise and bipartisanship are becoming impossible and could continue to prove a fertile ground for populism and those who profit from it. The fact that such characters as Donald Trump and Boris Johnson could ever have achieved high office is surely an illustration of this worrying tendency. That both politicians still enjoy loyal support from a large section of voters and that their respective parties appear afraid to distance themselves from them does not give me confidence that the kind of democracy I favour will be able to push back against the demagogy that continues to hold sway in places like Beijing and Moscow.

I shall be watching with great interest to see how true democracy fares across the channel in the next few months. There would appear to be several states, including Hungary, Poland, Italy and France, where it would seem to be on trial. As for us over here, let’s see whether Johnson, to save his neck, continues to scatter policies about rather like the Labour Party did daily in the run up to the 2019 General Election. Defund the BBC? Militarise our coastal waters? Redraw our parliamentary constituency boundaries? Make voting harder? Ban any form of protest? What next? The ‘big dog’ is still barking. When are we, or rather perhaps his handlers, going to put him out of his misery?

* John Marriott is a former Liberal Democrat councillor from Lincolnshire.

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24 Comments

  • Peter Martin 20th Jan '22 - 2:38pm

    “……the United Kingdom our ‘democratic’ institutions have moved little since the 18th century.”

    This isn’t really true. Big changes came in the 19th century, starting with the Great Reform Act of 1832. 1887 and 1884 saw further improvements in the system. Then in the early 20th century there was the not so unimportant matter of votes for women.

    The power of the House of Lords has declined since the 18th century and the power of the Commons has risen!

    I could go on but I’m sure I don’t need to.

  • William Francis 20th Jan '22 - 3:03pm

    I’d argue our political problems have more recent origins. The 1960s and 1970s produced a massive interest political participation and a romantic revolt against post war corporatism. After all, how could ordinary people participate in the elitist world of aggregate demand management, or have a meaningful vote when parliament was just a rubber stamp of the executive. The small firms lost out to big business in economic planning and shop stewards were not going to take government imposed wage restraints via the TUC without a fight.

    Rather than broaden political participation, through empowering local government, promoting some form of industrial democracy and voting reform the UK tried to resolve these issues by outsourcing state activities to the private sector whilst doing nothing about the decline in traditional forms for social organisation (party and union membership particular), in the hope of buying off a chunk of the population with cheap equity in ex-SOEs, high house prices and low direct taxes.

    Once that wore off we were faced with same desire for participation but limited ways to constructively express discontent.

  • Paul Barker 20th Jan '22 - 3:48pm

    Compared to Germany neither Britain or The USA count as more than semi-democracies but that is as much because standards have improved in the former as because of decline in the latter, we & the Yanks simply haven’t caught up yet.

    The Bar of what constitutes Democracy has mostly been gradually raised. Nowadays One Vote for every Adult is seen as the absolute lowest possible test but until 1993 no Country on Earth would have passed that. Britain has has thought of itself as a Democracy for Centuries but up till the 1920s that meant only One in Ten had Votes. We didn’t scrap extra Votes for Posh people till the 1950s !

    Electoral Reform in Britain certainly seems a lot more likely now than it did even 6 Months ago, lets not give in to despair.

  • Paul Barker 20th Jan '22 - 3:50pm

    Ooops !
    For 1993 read 1893.

  • Barry Lofty 20th Jan '22 - 4:30pm

    In my blunt and honest opinion Boris Johnson is a disgrace to the high office he holds in our country, his decisions over lockdown party’s is only the latest in a long list of appalling, arrogant self serving judgements made in his career, whether or not this is his final act, who knows, but I hope he is at least feeling a great deal of pressure. Not a very educated opinion I know,but I have had enough of him!!!

  • John Marriott 20th Jan '22 - 6:30pm

    @Peter Martin
    I’m surprised that, as a professed socialist, you appear to be so content with the present situation. Of course we now have universal franchise; but how many of us are exercising our right to vote?

    Perhaps many of us aren’t that fussed either way who is ‘running’ the country, because we reckon that “all politicians are the same”. Many just want to be left alone to get on with their lives. German Lutheran Pastor, Martin Niemöller (1892-1984) wrote about the rise of totalitarianism, “First they came for the Socialists”. Better watch out then.

  • In answer to the title question – yes, or something rather like it. IMO the reason is that we haven’t had a functional opposition since 1979.

    In Britain, early Thatcherism morphed gradually into what is now generally called neoliberalism some of whose pathologies are listed by William Francis. For a while Blair provided the same with better welfare but didn’t make any meaningful change.

    In the US, since the Supreme Court held in the Citizens United v FEC in 2010 (see Wikipedia) case that, in effect, dollars have votes, the two main parties – already close at the time – have both become sub-brands of the Wall Street Party producing election theatre but no change.

    So, in both countries, absent any push-back, plutocrats steadily moved the Overton Window to their advantage. And, like the proverbial ‘gently warmed frogs’ that don’t move until it’s too late, a kleptocratic plutocracy is gradually being normalised.

    All this is happening in plain sight, yet the combined forces of the opposition have no answer. They remain wedded to their favourite but outdated orthodoxies, so they are looking in the wrong places and can’t sustain the diversity necessary to respond to the threat. That needs to change – and soon!

  • Brad Barrows 20th Jan '22 - 6:54pm

    Surely we do not judge the strength of a democracy by the people that voters choose to elect or the policies being proposed by successful candidates….

  • Simon McGrath 20th Jan '22 - 6:55pm

    Some interesting points here but redrawing constituency boundary are done by an independent body – nothing to do with the Govt

  • Andrew Melmoth 20th Jan '22 - 7:59pm

    @Simon McGrath

    But that’s not the whole story. The government can set the redistribution rules in an effort to tilt the system in their favour. For instance in 2011 the Tories legislated to reduce the number of MP’s because at that time the distribution of their support was too lumpy to maximise their vote share to seat ratio. Reducing the number of seats partially addressed this. Of course this idea was dropped as the demographics of their support shifted and became more efficiently distributed. I never understood why Clegg was prepared to sign up to electoral rule changes which favoured the Tories at the expense of the Lib Dems.

  • James Fowler 21st Jan '22 - 7:47am

    Good summary from William Francis. Have you read Keith Middlemass’s series? They’re a bit dated, but very interesting.

  • Steve Trevethan 21st Jan '22 - 8:57am

    Might a necessary factor in considering the quality of a democracy be equity of wealth?
    How real is our democracy when 31% of our children go hungry, week after week?

  • John Marriott 21st Jan '22 - 10:46am

    @Simon McGrath
    You are, of course, right about those boundaries. However, Sod’s Law means that it favours the Tories.

    I must be on a roll at the moment – two letters published in The Guardian in the space of a couple of months. The latest, today, is banging on about reforming and restructuring local and regional government in England and creating a federal U.K., a topic to which I keep returning, whose day may come. That might just be a way not only of enlivening democracy but also of avoiding the slide into an anocracy of the kind I outlined in my article.

  • David Goble 21st Jan '22 - 1:29pm

    @ Barry Lofty. As usual, you express my feelings only too well. I feel that the current problems are due, primarily, to the fact that our Prime Minister’s only priority is that he is popular and loved by the populace (or, at least, his backbenchers)! We have to remember that he was elected by a huge majority in 2019, not least because of the poor standard of the Opposition. This means, I think, that the Prime Minister now feels empowered to do as he wishes, preferably without too much Parliamentary scrutiny.

    How is this to be overcome? We firstly have to identify the problem; to my mind it is the First Past the Post system and I feel that the sooner we move to a PR system, the better.
    I agree that this will probably mean hung Parliaments on a regular basis. However, this would mean that Parties would have to communicate with one another and should do away with the risk of a Party adopting an extremist programme once they get into power.

  • Peter Hirst 21st Jan '22 - 1:30pm

    The way to modernise our governance is via Citizens’ Assemblies. This type of deliberative democracy if well done helps to create a more informed and enthusiastic electorate. Then we can proceed to reform our democracy.

  • Barry Lofty 21st Jan '22 - 2:34pm

    As you say David, the First Past the Post electoral system is demonstrably flawed and now would be a good time to promote PR, obviously it would take some doing as the opposition to this change would bring up the usual hung parliaments, too complicated for the electorate to understand etc etc argument, never mind that other democracies use various systems of PR without too much difficulty, I am sure the British would soon adapt to the change??

  • @ Peter Hirst “The way to modernise our governance is via Citizens’ Assemblies”.

    Sorry, Peter, but no. That’s a bit like saying governance should be determined by whatever is in the latest opinion poll via selection by national lottery….. combined with completely no accountability of the individuals concerned.

    It almost ranks with Lloyd George’s 1909 description of the House of Lords : “Five hundred men, accidently chosen from among the ranks of the unemployed”.

  • John Burden 21st Jan '22 - 4:31pm

    So many people appear to be convinced that our Parliament, ‘constitution’ and electoral system is the pinnacle of democracy which we have ‘exported’ across the globe. Sadly the ‘mother of parliaments’ is showing several signs of age and dysfunction. In fact we lag behind so many democracies who have ditched or avoided using FPTP. Our out-moded system has led to the extreme right wing taking over the Con Party. Their bible is the Sovereign Individual, a half-baked treatise on the future by William, the elder Rees Mogg. Scary stuff so be afraid, be very afraid of what this situation can cook up. But don’t be too afraid not to take action against this philosophy – it threatens what democracy we have.

  • Christopher Haigh 21st Jan '22 - 9:38pm

    To be a true liberal democracy there must be proportional representation. The UK fits into the managed democracy category where we go through the motions of freely voting but the Tories always win ! Thanks for this interesting article John.

  • Christopher Haigh. Actually the Tories don’t always win. In my lifetime the score is Labour 8, Tories 11, coalition 1.
    That doesn’t mean we don’t need PR. I want STV as a precondition of any deal for government that may be necessary after the next GE. STV would make sure that any government had the support of a clear majority of voters and delivers fair results. No STV, no deal.

  • John Marriott 21st Jan '22 - 10:48pm

    While I accept that fair votes are important, indeed essential in the building back of democracy, it’s not all about PR. I wonder how many people consider the personality of the candidate rather than the colour of the rosette they are wearing when they vote, if they even bother to vote at all. How often do you hear people say when asked how they voted, for example “We voted for Boris”. Our politics, whether we like it or not, has become very presidential. This reliance on the individual – and I would cite the concept of the City and Regional Mayors – and let’s not forget outside the world of politics the CEO’s and Super Heads, to give just two examples – may be all well and good; but what if the person in whom you put your faith turns out to be less than effective or even downright corrupt. Where is the accountability then?

    Mick Taylor may be right about STV; but this flies in the face of what actually happens when many people go to cast their vote. Being a purist, I still believe naively that we elect a representative, who then, with their fellow representatives, elects a government. Now, that’s how it should be. If only it were.

  • John Burden stated earlier with regard to the powers the present government intends to arm itself with, that we should be very afraid for the future of democracy in our country,, how right he is to be worried!

  • Christopher Haigh 22nd Jan '22 - 12:24pm

    Mick Taylor Agreed. Since the end of ww2 Labour have won 9 elections and the Tories 12 ( including the coalition). This represents 30 years in power for Labour and 46 for the Tories. The 30 years of Labour includes the thirteen years of Tony Blair. He at the time).was considered more establishment than the strange case of John Major. The only Labour governments to seriously worry the establishment was that of Harold Wilson and maybe Clement Attlee (I’m not sure how he was treated by the contemporary press).

  • Trevor Smith 22nd Jan '22 - 8:27pm

    We are living in a mediocracy. Not only is our government mediocre, massive power is concentrated in the hands of a few media barons (and now tech company barons) who control almost all the news and information that people absorb, which in turn influences voters whether to vote or not and who to vote for. People have of course long bemoaned media influence, but we have now gone beyond swaying choices between the politicians of the day, to the point where we now are; A politician whose sole life experience is being a journalist/columnist – a long-term employee of one of the barons, who was known only for being a clownish, comedic figure on TV, and who won by adopting the Brexit aspirations of the barons, even though against his own views, despite no-one thinking of him as a serious politician a few years earlier.

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