Do we live in a democracy? You may well ask. An unelected adviser seems to exercise more power than the prime minister, and appears unanswerable to people or parliament. Boris Johnson makes reckless public health decisions that could put thousands of lives at risk, apparently to dig himself out of a political hole. Parliament is truncated, as the government arbitrarily decides that MPs can no longer take part in votes remotely. As the government blunders from one disaster to the next, there seem to be no effective ways of holding it to account.
Established power in this country is surrounded by a series of defensive rings. As soon as you begin to name them, you see that the UK is a democracy only in the weakest and shallowest sense.
Let’s begin with political funding. Our system permits billionaires and corporations to outspend and outmuscle the electorate. The great majority of money for the Conservative party comes from a small number of very rich people. Just five hedge fund managers have given it £18m over the past 10 years. The secretive Leader’s Group grants big donors special access to the prime minister and his frontbenchers in return for their money. Courting and cultivating rich people to win elections corrupts our politics, replacing democracy with plutocracy.
This grossly unfair system is supplemented by outright cheating, such as breaching spending limits and secretly funding mendacious online ads. The Electoral Commission, which is supposed to regulate the system, has deliberately been kept powerless. The maximum fine for winning an election (or a referendum) by fraud is £20,000 per offence. Democracy is cheap in this country.
Despite such assistance, the Conservatives still failed to win a majority of votes at the last election. But, thanks to our preposterous, outdated first-past-the-post electoral system, the 43.6% of the vote they won granted them a crushing majority. With proportional representation, we would have a hung parliament. Five years of unassailable power for Johnson’s Conservatives, even as popular support collapses, would have been impossible.
The structure and symbolism of parliament, with its preposterous rituals and incomprehensible procedures, could scarcely be better designed to alienate people, or to favour former public schoolboys, educated in a similar environment. Even its official emblem tells us we are shut out. It’s a portcullis: the means by which people are excluded from the fortress of power. The portcullis is topped by a crown, reminding us that power is still vested symbolically in an unelected head of state. Many of her actual powers have been assumed, in the absence of a codified constitution, by the prime minister.
These powers are routinely abused, by all governments. Prime ministers bypass parliament, governing through special advisers like Dominic Cummings. When they make catastrophic mistakes, they have the power to decide whether or not there should be a public inquiry, and, if there should, what its terms and who its chair should be. It’s as if a defendant in a criminal trial were allowed to decide whether the trial goes ahead and, if so, what the charges should be and who the judge and jury are.
Even when an investigation does take place, the prime minister can suppress its conclusions, as Johnson has done with the report on Russian interference in the British political system, which remains unpublished. Does it contain details of unlawful donations to the Conservative party? Or of Conservative Friends of Russia, whose launch party was attended by Cummings? A key figure in this group was a man who has subsequently come under suspicion of being a Russian spy. He has been photographed with Johnson, whom he described as a “good friend”. What was going on? Without parliament’s intelligence and security committee’s report, we can only guess.
The same inordinate powers enabled Johnson to suspend parliament last autumn, until his decision was struck down by the supreme court, and to terminate remote access for MPs this week, preventing many of them from representing us. He is, in effect, a monarch with a five-year term and a council of advisers we call parliament.
The House of Lords is a further defensive ring within this ring. Some of its seats are reserved for hereditary aristocrats. Some are reserved for bishops, making this the world’s only country, other than Iran, in which religious leaders have an automatic right to sit. The rest are grace and favour appointments, keeping power within existing circles. Many of them are granted to major political donors, reinforcing the power of money. In any other country, they would call it corruption.
Despite a vast array of new democratic techniques, pioneered in other countries, there has been a total failure to balance our supposedly representative system with participatory democracy. This failure grants the winning party a scarcely challenged power, on the grounds of presumed consent, to do as it pleases, for five years at a time. Even when public trust and consent collapse, as they have now done amid the coronavirus pandemic, there are no effective channels through which we can affect the decisions government makes.
These formal rings of power are supported by further defences beyond government, such as the print media, most of which is owned by billionaires or multimillionaires living offshore, and the network of opaquely funded thinktanks, that formulate and test the policies later adopted by government. Their personnel circulate in and out of the prime minister’s office.
Our political system has the outward appearance of democracy, but it is largely controlled by undemocratic forces. We find ourselves on the wrong side of the portcullis, watching helplessly as crucial decisions are taken about us, without us. If there’s one thing the coronavirus fiascos show, it’s the need for radical change.
• George Monbiot is a Guardian columnist