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Why it matters

If Anthony Barnett, founder of can do it, I can too. He reposted my comment on Gordon Brown’s proposed constitutional reforms as an article:

Why it matters, Guy Lodge asks: the withering of democracy in Britain reflects deep change in our society. For the last half century we have seen ourselves more and more as individuals with careers, income and appetites, and less and less as neighbours and citizens. Politics has become about service delivery; our responsibilities to each other have shrunk to paying the taxes that fund them. We have made a profound retreat into private life; and reduced public life to the assertion of rights. We have lost not just democratic vigour but the institutions of dissent (in the 20th century, the trade unions and the Labour party), local shops and Jubilee street parties; and for broadly similar reasons.In contrast my emigré colleague in rural Switzerland pays a third of his income tax to his local commune. Roads and schools are paid for and voted on within an area he can survey from his home. No democratic deficit there, no worries about a generation of alienated teenagers, and the first person I asked in his valley was able to direct me to Simon’s house.

In disintermediated (is this worse than hollowed out?) British politics Blair appealed directly to voters through the media, and brought New Labour power. Tony Blair was a national brand. No other power – not the Cabinet, Parliament, the Labour party, nor the trade unions – moderated his. The hallmark of our political system since the Revolution has been the increasing restraint of executive power – royal, land-owning, commercial – by law. The last three decades have reversed much of that by concentrating power at N°10. It is not an unthinkable leap from the apparently well-meaning a-and sincere despot Tony Blair of 2002, who alone can rouse voters, to the Strong Man who alone can pilot his country: think Mussolini, Hitler and Saddam Hussein, whose ignoble ranks Blair joined by invading Iraq.

Certainly, Blair has been discredited; our system eventually, painfully, sluggishly ejected him. We need to do better. Think, not of Blair’s culpability but of ours. Power is not taken but granted. We gave this man the means to pursue an illegal war that has killed over half a million people. We are not victims in this. It was our blood, our guns, our treasure. Many objected, but we are not absolved by protest. We failed to stop him.

No constitutional reforms such as Brown proposes can prevent us electing despots, but they are a useful restraint. The hopeful part of this is that Brown evidently means to reverse the accumulation of power at N°10, and moreover sees this as the first issue he should raise in his new job. Just maybe, this might mark the beginning of a revival of British public life.

We have too many neighbours we don’t know. (No, this is not metaphor.) On Sunday we’ll have some of them round for a garden party.

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