Picture credit: Fotovoyager
Artillery Row

Cosmetic democracy

Britain’s new system of government

Once upon a time, different institutions believed in different things.

Take universities. We had Royalist Oxford and Parliamentarian Cambridge; later came UCL, the “Godless college of Gower Street”; King’s College London was the Tory response. As 2023 began, our graduates received their new-year alumni magazines, featuring refreshingly identical opinions on sustainability, migration, decolonisation. 

Like in early East Germany, private companies still exist, but they increasingly understand that their role is to support the state and its ideology. The chief executive of KLM airlines asks people to take fewer flights for the sake of Net Zero; a new label on Nescafé jars reminds instant-coffee drinkers to celebrate “gender diversity”. 

Politics permanent and circumambient 

Every major institution in this country now has virtually the same opinion, a groupthink so ubiquitous that we forget how recent the development is: in AJP Taylor’s refrain, “until August 1914 a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state beyond the post office and the policeman”. 

Lenin understood that a totalitarian society required the politicisation of everything. In his book Koba the Dread, Martin Amis recounts how a political opponent said of Vladimir Ilyich that he could not deal with a man “who, even in his sleep, dreams of nothing but revolution.” Amis observed: “that is what they want, [the] steely ones… the politicisation of sleep… They want politics to be permanent and circumambient.” They will never leave you alone. 

The odd thing is that the post-1960s liberal settlement was supposed to be about maximising freedoms of all kinds. But in his book Conservatism: A Rediscovery, Yoram Hazony described a “dance of liberalism and Marxism”. Liberalism fundamentally lacks the language to resist Marxist demands. So the liberal is asked, if all are free and equal, why can’t anyone migrate to this country? The answer depends on recourse to conservative terms liberals discarded — nation, borders, common sense

So, embarrassed by unfreedom and inequality, liberals keep caving-in to Marxist demands. This year, the Marxists came calling at the Wellcome Trust, previously the world’s leading biomedical research foundation, which has discovered its true purpose is in fact woke campaigning against its own collections. What words did the liberals in charge have with which to resist? Tradition? Duty? Gone. Across the Anglosphere, left-liberalism turns out to be the Marxist gateway-drug. 

Liberalism as totalitarianism  

Sir Roger Scruton saw that “[t]he contradictory nature of the socialist utopias is one explanation of the violence involved in the attempt to impose them: it takes infinite force to make people do what is impossible.” As the demands of left-liberalism itself, like open borders, become divorced from reality, the imposition of the programme on a restive population must become draconian. 

So, although the Prevent programme was established to address the threat of Islamist terrorism, some left-liberal bureaucrats seem to have realised that drawing attention to the results of mass migration was not in their political interests. 

Instead, the extremism the programme was established to prevent turned out to include failure to subscribe to left-liberal beliefs. It is now public knowledge that, like some absurdist Poundland Stasi, Prevent “monitor[ed] a cohort of social media users it termed “Actively Patriotic and Proud”, and put Jacob Rees-Mogg on a list. This is a direct attack on democracy. 

A country that suppresses people who are proud of it, leaving space only for those who traduce it, will not last long. So my daughter’s primary school replaces Guy Fawkes with “autumn fireworks night”: despite, and partly in reaction to Brexit, an historic severing of a people from its traditions is underway. The bureaucracy targets social traditions which, as Scruton put it, “exist because they enable a society to reproduce itself.” Conservatives stand for its preservation. 

What is certain is that this left-liberal settlement will fail: we must ensure that it is replaced by a return to the goodness of our traditions, not a continued descent into the dark. It is the job of conservatives to return to the light of that heritage.

Conservatism as drift

Today, though, British Conservatism in power is merely a brand of liberalism, known in practice as drift. While the institutions of the new consensus — like open borders — have failed, and are producing growing fear, the institutions that have helped preserve our goodness and moderation – Parliament, common law, Monarchy, the sovereign nation – are ancient and rooted in Judaeo-Christian thought. 

The good news is that Anglosphere conservatism has been renewed before. At American independence, Jefferson’s Articles of Confederation mandated all powers be vested in a single assembly, a “rational” break from British tradition that pushed America towards chaos. At the Constitutional Convention eleven years later, Washington and Hamilton returned the nation to traditional English principles: common law, jury trial, a bicameral legislature. 

Britons need now to go through our own process of rediscovery. We have restored our sovereignty through Brexit but not yet our constitution or traditional freedoms — including to speak — and on which Britain’s achievements depended. 

The decisions of the bureaucrats behind Prevent suggest Scruton was right when he said: “Left-wing politics has discarded the revolutionary paradigm advanced by the New Left, in favour of bureaucratic routines… promoted by legislation, committees and government commissions”. 

So, an observation: over the last generation, British democracy has become removed from the control of the electorate — the demos — with decision-making ability taken from the people they elect and placed in the hands of so-called “experts” — largely civil servants and quangocrats who have, in turn, developed the means never to have to answer to the people’s elected representatives for their actions. 

The system that is replacing democracy in our country is, I suggest, best called “Cosmetic Democracy”. In this system, the people are permitted to elect leaders, but the blob intends these leaders only to serve as performing frontmen, expected to style the policies that emerge as “conservative”. This is what I mean by conservatism as drift.  

Elected ministers are, I can assure you, treated by the civil service as merely one of a number of advisory “stakeholder groups”, whose opinions need to be taken into account. This has been achieved through a succession of so-called reforms which have cemented a vast informational advantage, prevented any substantive control by elected ministers over which civil servants work for them, and normalised the “sock-puppet” funding by the state of left-wing NGOs whose purpose is to campaign against the policies of the very ministers they serve. 

This creates what Amis senior, Kingsley, called the “relativist echo chamber” of modern public life. But it does something more dangerous. It will begin to tell the British people that democracy is a fool’s errand. When this is pointed out, the protest is always that conservatives wish to “politicise” the civil service, but this is untrue. Conservatives wish to live in a functioning democracy — one that might involve the demos.  

I suggest that the lesson of the last five years is that when the British people “pull the lever” of the machine in an election they find that it is broken. And when they object to being deprived of their democratic birth-right they are accused of base populism: they are now also monitored by government programmes: they are put on lists. The left has ensured that whatever the election result, it retains power. Reform is possible, and it will happen, but conservatives must first recognise the condition. 

The Restoration: conservatism as traditionalism   

So Brexit must be a revolution in the true, Burkeian, sense: to revolve, to restore the good that has been lost. We have restored our sovereignty: we must now restore our democracy. 

The belief has settled on Conservatives that they are trapped in a sterile duel between Heathite paternalism or dislocated libertarianism. There is an ancient conservative tradition, the source of our culture’s goodness, that we have ignored for too long. It will now be the job of conservatives to be a light in dark places, if other lights go out. 

Because Britain, too, has renewed itself before. In Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke defended his tradition against upheaval and destruction in his time. He drew on Sir John Fortescue, who, 1471, compared England, where the king was bound by law and part of a “body politic”, with the “evil things” of France. There, the king’s will was law and the people lived in great poverty, despite the land’s abundance. 

Now is our turn to renew our tradition, and we shall. National conservatism is the route to the restoration of democracy, and it is the opposite of authoritarianism. There is no surer way to defend our freedoms than by renewing that conservatism.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover