Republic versus BNP
Dave Craig calls for a republican convention of the left
The Queen is “deeply troubled” by the revelations over MPs’ expenses, according to the Mail on Sunday (May 17). There was a “candid exchange of views” when she met Gordon Brown in their weekly royal audience. Discussion between monarch and prime minister are usually confidential; but when necessary “well placed sources” let us know when she is not amused.
Of course, the Queen has her own expenses to worry about and palaces to be furnished from the public purse. She receives £7.9 million from the civil list. Over the last 10 years she has made £35.3 million profit out of taxpayer’s money. She spends £4.7 million to pay courtiers and her administrators, £320,000 on private travel and £423,000 on garden parties. Compare the Queen’s expenses with those of MPs. It is no contest.
The Mail on Sunday was told by those “sources” that the Queen has “expressed ‘disappointment’ at the expenses disclosure”. It is one thing to have her moats cleaned at the public expense, but when Tory MPs do it there is no telling where it might end. The Queen is therefore “deeply troubled” and well aware that “the public feel repulsed by this sort of thing”. But expenses, royal or parliamentary, are symptom of a deeper malaise - the tip of a very large iceberg.
Parliament is largely a decorative institution, part of the make-believe of constitutional monarchist politics. The current system does not and cannot serve the people. The more useless it is, the more we have to ‘believe’ it. Trusting the system is all we have left. That has been blown out of the water. Among those with the greatest illusions in parliament is the most profound anger and alienation. This is what makes the current situation both an opportunity and a threat.
The issue is not simply about MPs with hands in the till or snouts in the trough. There is the deep and widespread popular disillusionment with parliament. Tory MP Nicholas Soames, friend of Prince Charles, says: “This business has done grave damage to the standing of parliament and it will take a long time for it to recover trust and confidence” (ibid). A loss of public confidence in MPs is spreading to parliament and may undermine the constitution itself. Then this system may never recover.
The sovereignty of the queen-in-parliament is our own Humpty Dumpty. If it has fallen off the wall, we know how serious that can be. The best efforts of all the king’s horses and all the king’s men will not be able to put it back together again. The problems of parliamentary democracy cannot be mended by MPs saying sorry and paying back the money. By sacking the speaker and marching round with his head on a pole, MPs have had their own ‘revolution’. Will the people accept this and go back to minding their own business? Or will they organise for more radical change?
Crown, parliament and people
In 1988 a campaign called Charter 88 was launched complaining about the failure of our unwritten constitution. It said that “we have been brought up in Britain to believe that we are free: that our parliament is the mother of democracy; that our liberty is the envy of the world”. Now “today such beliefs are increasingly implausible … The gap between reality and the received ideas of Britain’s ‘unwritten constitution’ has widened to a degree that many find hard to endure.”
It went on to warn that “a process is underway which endangers many of the freedoms we have had … the government has eroded a number of important civil freedoms: for example, the universal rights to habeas corpus, to peaceful assembly, to freedom of information, to freedom of expression, to membership of a trade union, to local government, to freedom of movement, even to the birthright itself.” Twenty years later nothing is resolved.
In 2006 the Power Commission, chaired by Baroness Helena Kennedy, produced a report called Power to the people. It was described in The Independent as “a plan to revive Britain’s dying democracy” (February 27 2006). It warned that “democracy faces a meltdown in Britain, as the public rejects an outdated political system which has centralised more authority than ever in a tiny ruling elite”. It pointed to the feeble and supine nature of parliament, which failed to carry out a serious investigation into the Iraq war or extract details about the cost of identity cards.
In the UK, government is conducted by the executive in the name of the crown. However, the report, stated: “The executive in Britain is more powerful than it probably has been since the time of Walpole” (Robert Walpole was first minister from 1721 to 1742). The report paints a picture of the massive gap between the government and the governed. People feel voting brings no influence over decisions that affect them. It concludes: “There is an overwhelming desire for change among the British people.”
Crisis of democracy
In 2003 Iraq brought on the ‘crisis of democracy’. I argued at the time that “The constitutional monarchy system has outlived its useful life. It is unreformable. Attempts at reform merely store up further problems. It is like a rickety old wooden house, rotten with woodworm, and attempts to shore it up threaten to cause the whole structure to crumble to dust. This situation is as dangerous for a working class tied to the parliamentary monarchy through the institutions of Labourism as it is ideal for the BNP.
“The parliamentary fish is rotting from the head. The stench is infecting the whole body politic. The loss of respect for the political system shows itself in poor turnouts in elections. The stench is very pungent in places like Burnley, where poverty and alienation are breeding grounds for racism and the growth of the British National Party. Many people are voting BNP because it causes obvious discomfort to the bourgeois parties responsible for the mess. But, the more obvious the bankruptcy and degeneration of the so-called democratic system becomes, the larger will be the pool of people prepared to vote for the BNP” (Weekly Worker October 1 2003).
A couple of years later I came back to this theme: “We are living through a slow-motion constitutional crisis. Whether our political laws and institutions of government should be likened to a rickety old wooden house, dry stone wall, inverted pyramid or a rotten Christmas tree with a fading fairy on top makes little difference. They all point in one direction. Radical reform is as necessary as it is impossible. We are stuck in a never-ending paralysis” (Weekly Worker March 1 2006).
The British system of government is in crisis, but neither Brown, Cameron nor Clegg or their parties are capable of bringing about radical democratic change: “Of course, they are capable of tinkering. They have to be seen to be doing something. Yet, far from sorting matters out, tinkering only makes the mess more complex. All we can expect from the current situation are a range of well-meaning plans, serious and concerned reports and promises of jam tomorrow” (ibid).
This situation remains dangerous. I refer to my own previous arguments for two reasons. First, why reinvent the wheel? The same words are relevant now, perhaps more so than in 2003 or 2006. Second, we need to remember that a minority of socialists, including myself and comrades from the Weekly Worker, have been agitating for the left to wake up to the crisis of democracy. We have been putting forward democratic republican demands and slogans to address it. Nobody took much notice of these arguments then. It is getting harder to ignore them now.
The current situation is therefore entirely predictable, not in the timing or the detail, but in the generality. A broken democracy and outdated constitution may continue for years or decades. We do not know nor can we predict what will bring matters to a head and trigger a ‘revolution’ to resolve its contradictions. It might have been the Iraq war. It might be the expenses crisis. But we do know a political ‘revolution’ is waiting to happen. How quickly it arrives and how deeply it goes will depend on the actions of the masses, especially the working class, and role of class-based parties.
The answer to this crisis will come from forces outside parliament: “This brings us back to the working class, who are the key to political progress. Change will not come from reports, pronouncements, policy papers or promises. It can only come from the class struggle of the democratic class. The only class capable of breaking the deadlock and forcing through radical democratic change is the working class. The working class will either end the ‘crisis of democracy’ or become a victim of it. The longer this epoch of paralysis continues, the more dangerous the situation becomes” (ibid).
The present situation is thus a crisis in motion. The present parliamentary monarchy is as close to bankruptcy as the banks were just before the credit crunch. By sacrificing the speaker, the MPs hope to put off the day of reckoning. Yet all they have done is signal to the people that change must come.
What are the alternatives to the present system? On one side is a move in a more authoritarian, rightwing populist or even neo-fascist direction. At the other extreme is an advanced secular republican democracy.
Many will think either option is too extreme. But we cannot remain where we are. It comes down to this struggle of parties and classes. What should be obvious is that the BNP has established itself in the public mind. The crisis of capitalism and democracy puts it in pole position to harvest what it has sown. On the other hand there is no republican party. There is nothing to indicate any growing republican sentiment or provide the necessary class-based political leadership.
Republican socialist party
There could not be more favourable conditions to make a case for republican socialism. First, capitalism goes into crisis, the banks go bust and the market loses credibility. Second, the constitution goes into crisis, triggered by the MPs’ expenses scandal and the removal of the speaker. For the majority who believe in capitalism and constitutional monarchy, it is enough to make you spit blood.
But a good case will count for nothing unless it is organised into a class-based party. The absence of a republican socialist party is the fatal weakness. Our anger should be directed against those left sectarians in the socialist movement who have fought against the unity of socialists into one party. We do not need another Labour Party or another Trotskyist, Stalinist or national Marxist party. The working class urgently needs its republican socialist party.
The main enemies of a republican socialist workers party have been and remain the Socialist Workers Party and the Socialist Party. The CPGB belongs in the same camp, using different arguments for the same outcome. All in their different ways defend the ideas of Labourism, either by supporting the Labour Party or defending non-republican or anti-republican socialism. Of course, the CPGB promotes republicanism, but then opposes a working class-based republican party.
The left in England is a long way from where we need to be. We are currently lining up with the Rail, Maritime and Transport workers union’s No2EU campaign or wondering what to do about it. Shall we destroy it or jump on board? In March the Weekly Worker said: “No support for Bob Crow’s stunt” (March 12). Now “the CPGB will … recommend a No2EU vote”, providing the top candidates in a given region come out for internationalism (No to Fortress Britain and Fortress Europe) and for republican democracy in the UK (May 14).
No2EU is a ‘temporary workers’ party’ based on working class and socialist organisations. We should argue for it to become a permanent, democratically organised, membership-based party. The ideas and policies of republican democracy and internationalism should be prominent, as proposed by the CPGB. In other words, it should become a republican socialist party. It is encouraging that the CPGB is not demanding that No2EU becomes a national Marxist Party.
Yes to democracy
A European republic is a democratic and internationalist demand consistent with the demands of the CPGB. It raises the republican argument both for the UK and for the EU. The Socialist Alliance put forward ‘Yes to a European republic’ as a criticism of the ambiguities of the ‘Yes to democracy’ slogan. It enables republican socialists and communists to put forward democratic and internationalist arguments through the medium of this slogan.
The crisis of democracy growing under our feet makes the slogan ‘Yes to democracy’ more inadequate and out of date. The left and No2EU should give no credence to the existing corrupt system or the reforms designed to keep it going. ‘Yes to a democratic republic’ is a clear way to say this openly and publicly. The crisis of democracy makes propaganda for a European republic less significant than practical agitation in the UK.
What should we do?
1. We should call on the RMT and its allies (SP, Communist Party of Britain, Alliance for Green Socialism, and SA) to hold a conference in June open to all its supporting organisations and individuals to discuss how the take further steps to a new workers’ party.
2. We should call for a democratic ‘convention of the left’ in June, to be sponsored by the RMT and its allies, the Convention of the Left, the Left Unity Liaison Committee, Respect, the SWP, the Scottish Socialist Party, the Green Left, and the Labour Representation Committee, to discuss the crisis of democracy and decide a democratic republican programme around which we can all unite.