Amber Warnings – What might be the signals that all is not well in a democracy?

Amber Warnings – What might be the signals that all is not well in a democracy?

How much should we be concerned about extremism?

Just as it is easy to be complacent about a country’s immunity to extremism (“If it didn’t happen before, it won’t happen now”), it is all too easy for any suggested change to the existing constitutional or political set up to be described as the first step towards whichever form of extremism most worries the commentator, especially if from a political opponent. 

This focus on who is behind a proposal – rather than on what it is – is itself an example of a worrying personalisation of politics, as if the value of policies is only dependant on who supports them rather than on anything intrinsic. It is suggestive of a potentially dangerous flight from any sort of grounded principles against which ideas can be tested. If the only real test becomes “My side right, yours wrong” how can anything be sensibly judged? 

It is worth remembering that change, per se, is not a bad thing. If voters are dissatisfied, that dissatisfaction should be addressed, not ignored. Describing an attempt to respond to such concerns as populism, as if this were a complete answer, is lazy. Some level of popularity with the voting public is surely essential in a democracy. The concerns arise when other factors are present:-

  • People feeling that they are no longer top dog, as they should be, or are unnecessarily restricted in some way and seeking something or someone to blame.
  • Politicians promoting the “X is to blame” narrative rather than explaining what the causes are, why they may be a little more complicated and not so easily solved as voters – or politicians would like voters to – think.
  • A refusal to acknowledge the complexities of, or trade-offs required by, any solutions or, indeed, that there may be no easy, quick or cost-free solutions.
  • Impatience with any difficulties or restraints and a wish to remove obstacles. This can be admirable, indeed essential, inertia always being easier than action. It’s when it develops into a refusal to listen to any sort of advice or alternative views or even to admit to the possibility of compromise that it risks becoming dangerous. Developing a healthy balance between fresh thinking and a “can do” approach and listening to experience, advice and knowledge is one of the hardest tasks for governments. When talk turns to “traitors”, “quislings”, “saboteurs”, “Enemies of the People or “enemies within” that balance has been lost.
  • A tendency to fetishise “The People”, their “Willthe “People’s Government”. Or to see one party as their one and only true representative, a tendency going back to the 1994 Labour manifesto describing Labour as “the political arm of none other than the British people as a whole”.
  • It is often accompanied by admiration for a strong decisive leader, whose record, instincts or behaviours (however doubtful) must not be questioned. It is an understandable reaction to weak leadership. Even so, the indispensability of individual leaders – as opposed to good leadership – is overrated.
  • An unwillingness to tolerate any sort of dissent or divergence of view, either within parties or more widely. Diversity – at least of opinion and perspective (in truth, the only kind worth valuing) – is not valued at all in reality.  

Crucially, there seems much more willingness to believe that the end justifies the means. Look at the way there is a blind eye to behaviour from the side a politician/commentator/voter supports that would be severely criticised were it done by – or even alleged against – a political opponent. See, for instance, the different reactions to bullying allegations against John Bercow and Priti Patel. The one step which might shed some light on matters – investigation – is all but ignored. Culpability or otherwise is less important than the level of support a politician has and the importance of the work they are doing. Indispensability not integrity matters. Principles or any over-arching moral framework thus become expendable or endlessly elastic.

The best – and most alarming example of this – was the manner in which Labour succumbed to the virus of anti-semitism in a very short time frame, despite – or perhaps because of – its conviction that it was a moral, anti-racist and therefore “good” party. Having satisfied itself of its impeccably anti-racist position, it felt no need to ask itself any questions about the leader it elected, the people he attracted, those he made his closest advisors and why, despite his repeated claims to be doing so, he was unable to deal with the issue. The default instinct was to attack those who pointed this out, describe the concerns as smears and generally behave like an aggrieved victim. Corbyn is on his way out but his time as leader is an example of how easily apparently important and long-held principles can be abandoned, especially when hatred and defeat of some Other (the Tories, in this case) is all that matters. 

This is not just a lesson for Labour. It is a lesson for voters too. Over 10 million of them rationalised away any queasiness they may have felt and voted for a party which shares the unenviable claim of being, like the neo-Nazi BNP, investigated by the EHRC for anti-semitism and institutional racism. This was not a deal-breaker. 

If this can happen to a party of government, it can happen to the country. We cannot say with confidence that Britain has some sort of innate antipathy to extremism or hatred of minorities. And note one other lesson: when the EHRC inquiry was announced, some in Labour questioned whether the EHRC’s role should be reviewed. How telling. Attack the very concept of being judged by an independent body. How like the response of the government to court judgments which limited what it can do. The reaction was not to reflect on why they were in such a position but to attack any body which dared question their behaviour. Judges ruling on the law, the sole purpose of a judge, was repurposed as “judicial activism”, sounding altogether more sinister and therefore to be stopped or limited. 

It is time to be wary when those in power – or wanting it – seek to restrict any sort of external scrutiny, whether by the press or the people through the courts. If governments cannot be trusted to obey the law or think they should be above it or make it practically more difficult to challenge them, it is worth asking why they are doing this and what it means for us and our rights. How will these be protected? And by whom?


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