One problem with the democratic process is that politicians can use an issue identified as defining — for example, “it’s the economy, stupid” — to get into power, and then impose a whole raft of unpopular measures on the public without effective opposition. What’s more, they will maintain power at the next election if they can keep the “feelgood factor” alive — or even if they can’t, if they can somehow tilt the playing field to their advantage.
Rulers have tilted the playing field from well before the birth of modern democracy. It is apparent from many ancient writings that people used to regard extermination of their enemies as the normal thing to do, on the lines of gardeners who know that unless they eradicate weeds completely they will regrow.
Here are some examples — even if they aren’t historically accurate they do show how people used to think. In the Iliad, the Greeks are recorded as having put to death the baby Trojan prince Astyanax for fear that if allowed to grow up he would take vengeance. The Bible has the Israelites exterminate some of the tribes in the Promised Land. The Romans exterminated Carthage.
Move the clock forward. A few centuries ago, many native tribes in the Americas and Australasia were crushed. While diseases such as smallpox were partly responsible, in some cases infection was deliberate. It wasn’t always Europeans who were to blame: there is a story that the explorer Alexander von Humboldt was told about a tribe which had recently been exterminated by one of its neighbours, with the result that the only record of its language came from parrots which had learnt to imitate some of its words.
How attitudes have changed was brought home to me when I read the science fiction book “Time’s Eye”, by the late Sir Arthur Clarke and Stephen Baxter, which depicts a world in which different regions are shifted in time with respect to one another. In one episode, people of the near future are recorded as being sickened when they witness Genghis Khan exterminating a 19th century village. And, in fact, none of the (alas too many) genocides of modern times has been so complete as to wipe out a culture completely.
Instead, conquerors turned to religious and cultural domination. Both the Greeks and the Romans imposed their culture on the peoples they conquered, and much of the Bible records the attempts of the Jews to retain their own religion and culture in a hostile environment. Both the Christians and Muslims went in for religious conversion on a large scale, and right now the Chinese are repressing the Tibetan religion and culture.
In modern western society, the influence of religion has considerably waned, and culture has become much more international, but politicians are still tilting the playing field. Not all of them — by and large, both the main parties played fair between 1945 and 1979, as did New Labour. As mentioned earlier, they tended to stay in power as long as they could maintain a feelgood factor — but Labour succumbed in 1951 to postwar austerity, in 1979 to industrial relations, and in 2010 to the banking and expenses crises, and the Tories to industrial relations in 1974 and European monetary policy in 1997.
There are two basic ways of tilting the playing field – rig the voting system or try to change people’s ideology.
The most notorious example of the former was the US Republicans’ suppression of black votes in 2000 – though not holding the presidency, they did have the power base at state level that enabled them to do this. Not only in 2000, but also in 2004, this probably won them the presidency. See the writings of investigative journalist Greg Palast. It looks as if our Tories, too, are following this route, by basing new constituency boundaries on an electoral register known to be incomplete, in such a way as to disadvantage Labour held areas.
Then there’s ideological repression. Thatcher, Major and Cameron have all vigorously tried to suppress the culture of cooperation in local government, the trade unions and other power bases, and move us towards a highly individualistic society based on the pursuit of personal wealth. To their discredit, the Lib Dems as coalition partners did far too little to resist this during the 2010-5 parliament.
Perhaps the clearest sign that our politics wasn’t working occurred in 1992 when Rupert Murdoch’s media openly boasted how they had won the general election for the Tories. My impression is that, despite the efforts of groups such as Compass, no subsequent Labour leader (except possibly for John Smith) has shown much prospect of successfully resisting the pernicious doctrine of neoliberalism – none of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown or Ed Miliband did so, and I’m not convinced that Jeremy Corbyn is on the right road to achieving power, though hopefully it’s early days.
In a follow up article I intend to focus on one of the most successful examples of ideological repression – the development of the “great car economy” with considerable adverse effects on our environment, and the decline of public transport (surely a prime example of cooperation in action), which has, with very little media attention, deprived many non-drivers of the basic human right of freedom of movement (see Article 2 of Protocol 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights, alas unratified by the UK).