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Opinion

Whose democracy is it anyway?

03 Mar 2024 7 minute read
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak giving a press conference in Downing Street on Friday evening. Photo James Manning/PA Wire

John Geraint

As those who know me will attest, like many people brought up in the Valleys, I have some strong political convictions.

But, because for forty years and more I’ve had the privilege of making programmes for public broadcasters, I’ve made it my practice not to comment publicly on current affairs or topical party-political controversies. It was never appropriate. I had a duty of impartiality.

The Prime Minister’s speech in Downing Street last Friday night worries me so deeply that I’m breaking my self-denying ordinance.

I pass over two ironies. That of a hastily arranged statement informing us that “our democracy” is under threat prompted by Mr Sunak’s ‘alarm’ over the result of a democratic election – the vote in Rochdale.

And that of a speech championing the democratic process from a Prime Minister who two days before – with his MPs baying angrily behind him, very like an unruly mob – branded a former Director of Public Prosecutions as devoid of principles, shouting across the Despatch Box that Sir Keir Starmer was “spineless, hopeless and utterly shameless”. So much for decent, tolerant respect for politicians and opposing views.

All that, I suppose, is something we’ve learned to expect from the ‘rough-and-tumble’ of Westminster.

What really concerns me is Mr Sunak’s underlying argument about what we as citizens are now expected to sign up to in order to be allowed into “membership of our society” in Britain.

Atrocity

For the avoidance of doubt, I think what Hamas visited on the people of Israel on October 7 was an appalling atrocity. I also believe that the Israeli government’s response, self-described as ‘mighty vengeance’, needs to be investigated as potentially in breach of international law.

And – like most people in Britain – I want an immediate ceasefire, and I’m outraged by the shenanigans (in which Mr Sunak’s government was at least complicit) which have frustrated proper parliamentary debate about this.

The suffering and death in Gaza is what is uppermost in all our minds right now. But what Mr Sunak argued from his podium outside No. 10 has – potentially – long-term implications for the state we live in, and our rights to dissent from the establishment’s view of what that state’s “basic values” are.

It may seem like a small pedantic point, but for me the Prime Minister gave the game away when he spoke of Britain’s “great achievements and enduring values” being “all underpinned by… our established Christian church.”

Wales has not had an established church since 1920, precisely because the Anglican church didn’t reflect the beliefs of the majority of our people. Scotland’s established church is of a different denomination and tradition to England’s. Northern Ireland is another matter again.

Extremism 

What Mr Sunak’s address was really preparing the ground for was the UK Government’s plan to “implement a new robust framework for how it deals with” what it regards as extremism. Downing Street, we are told, will set out more details on the new policy in the coming week.

Extremism is already defined in the 2011 Prevent strategy as ‘vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy [and] the rule of law…’ How this will presumably be made more “robust” will be interesting, to put it mildly.

If opposition to democracy and the rule of law is extremist, what about the Conservative government (Mr Sunak was a member) which illegally prorogued Parliament to shut down debate in 2019? Were they ‘extremists’?

Let’s take the argument to logical absurdity: are those in favour of a hereditary monarchy (still the majority of British citizens, I believe) and an unelected House of Lords – neither of which is exactly democratic – now to be classed as ‘extremists’ too?

Determining what constitutes ‘our basic values’ is tricky, contested ground. Asking the police to act on such ground is more than problematic; it’s potentially dangerous.

In his speech Mr Sunak takes aim at “Islamist extremists and far right groups” who “are spreading a poison, that poison is extremism… When these groups claim that Britain is and has been on the wrong side of history, we should reject it, and reject it again.”

Well, there are many people who belong to neither group who believe that Britain hasn’t always been on the right side of history. I am one of them.

Mr Sunak demands that we as decent British people should believe that – contrary to the views espoused by “these groups” who stress that race and religion are factors – “what will determine your success [is] just your own hard work and endeavour.”

Now, I don’t believe that your background determines your fate in life. Many people do ‘rise’ above the circumstances of their birth. But, equally, the differentials in wealth and health outcomes correlating to ethnicity and class cannot be denied.

If “membership of our society is contingent” upon agreeing with the notion that if you didn’t prosper it was because you didn’t try hard enough, or that billionaires got their wealth because they worked a billion times harder than my grandparents – then, please, count me out.

Peaceful protest

Mr Sunak was careful to say that peaceful protest remains a fundamental democratic right. We can, it seems, “march and protest with passion.” We “can demand the protection of civilian life.” Such magnanimity!

Respect for the rule of law means respecting that the police are “operationally independent” of government (something Mr Sunak gave a nod to). But it also, surely, means respecting the independence of the judiciary – which some Tory politicians and newspapers seem to find unpalatable.

And legislating, for instance, that there can be no legal challenge to the proposition that Rwanda is a safe country for asylum seekers, irrespective of facts in the real world – is that respect for the rule of law?

I don’t believe that we live in a police state or under an authoritarian regime. But I can’t help thinking that Mr Sunak’s speech may have brought us one small step closer.

What I found sinister in it is the underlying assertion that “our values” are coterminous with the establishment’s belief in Britain’s ‘greatness’, and that those who dissent from this are beyond the pale.

Democracy is best defended by reasoned argument and persuasion, not by fiat. By behavioural example, not by shouting at opponents or knee-jerk reactions to election results. As Michelle Obama says, “when they go low, we go high.”

The pro-Sunak spin on his speech was that it was “sobering warning of the fragility of democracy”. Opponents sensed the desperation of a politician far behind in the polls, and dismissed it as ineffective. I heard it as something much more worrying than either of those assessments.

We may be a long way from fascism yet. But I have to say it: “First, they came for the ‘extremists’…”

John Geraint is one of Wales’ most experienced documentary film-makers and author of ‘Up The Rhondda!’ published by Y Lolfa and ‘The Great Welsh Auntie Novel’ published by Cambria.


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Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
1 month ago

Sunak should be the last arbiter of Democracy, hopefully democracy will see this charlatan off before the end of the year…

Evan Aled Bayton
Evan Aled Bayton
1 month ago

Some good discussion points. The best defence of democracy is to use your right to vote which sadly many do not. The issues are too complex for a short response but Mr Sunak has a point – we are in a difficult place at the moment. There are elements such as the Far Right, Far Left and Islamic Fundamentalism which are not signed up to the society in which we live. There is instability mainly because the economy is so poor that we are struggling to maintain local and central government services especially the NHS which is now unaffordable for… Read more »

Padi Phillips
Padi Phillips
1 month ago

We’re in a ‘difficult place’ precisely because of people like Mr Sunak who have, collectively and gradually hollowed out our society. The NHS and education are in the plight they are in again because of the actions of people like Mr Sunak who have consistently underfunded them. The NHS would be far from unaffordable if the government decided to tax the very rich and the global corporations properly, and still have plenty left over to fix all the other stuff that needs fixing, taking rail and utilities, communications into state control and funding them well so that they can be… Read more »

aw savill
aw savill
1 month ago

Erthygl gwych

Annibendod
Annibendod
1 month ago

The UK is the very epitome of a “Democratic Dictatorship”. This is thanks to a constitution that is founded in an Anglo-imperialist world view masquerading as British Nationalism masquerading as a reasonable centrist political “Unionism” – which it is very far from being. Sunak and the Tories are the primary beneficiaries of this constitutional cawlach – Labour are the wanabee pretenders. The purpose behind my desire to dismantle the UK is to dismantle this bigoted anti-democratic world view. I yearn to establish Democratic Statehood for each of the British Nations precisely because I want us to exercise our democratic faculties… Read more »

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
1 month ago

The day boy with his head in a bubble, a stranger in a strange land, straight out of the US finance fiction genre…how must we thank those who gave us Truss and Rishi Ji…

Tim Hartley
Tim Hartley
1 month ago

Thanks for helping make sense of Sunak’s shameless attempt to divert attention from the real issues John. We don’t live in an authoritarian state – yet. But if privilege, class interest and private wealth are ever seriously threatened, the powers that be will have no compunction in making it so. Rhetoric like this will be part of the justification.

Jeff
Jeff
1 month ago

The speech, though we can laugh at it, had very chilling connotations. Look at the way the GOP are going in the US, that is scary, they have inroads to the UK. Already disenfranchised many thousands not to vote with ID, they will have useful tools in the think tanks stoking the “why bother” not voting. They get in next election because people look to “punish” Labour, who are not in power, then it is game over for the UK. Only one vote matters at the next election, removing Conservative from power so comprehensively they cannot resurface as they are… Read more »

Padi Phillips
Padi Phillips
1 month ago
Reply to  Jeff

How much difference is a Labour government under Starmer likely to be? Just more of the same old crap, and a government unwilling to do what needs to be done and tax the wealth of the richest and the global corporations so that there is enough finance to fix what needs to be fixed and bring back into state control that which should be owned publicly.

Jeff
Jeff
1 month ago
Reply to  Padi Phillips

We don’t know. I know the look is not good by by heck I am not voting to allow the Cons back in. It is fascinating to see the way this appears to be played. Don’t vote for them but don’t vote for them either, leaving the ones that have done real damage in power. Next election will never be about wales getting indy. It ain’t perfect, but it is what we have. This election, a protest vote against Labour is a dead cert shooting ones foot (unless there is a better option in your area to remove the Tory… Read more »

Dai Ponty
Dai Ponty
1 month ago

With the screaming and shouting from the Scum party at Keir Starmer when he was trying to speak in P M question time on Wednesday and the comments coming from Tories Braverman Anderson Truss who was there when the right wing nut job was called a British Hero by a far right Yank where Truss was there

Richard Davies
Richard Davies
1 month ago

Anyone claiming the uk is a democracy is lying, not when (at the time) it managed to obtain an 80 seat majority when only 29.86% of the eligible electorate voted for them in 2019. This has enabled them to enact legislation limiting the right to strike (further than it already had been), limiting the right to protest, increasing the powers of the police, ignore/break international law… Add to the mix the language used and the company they keep, I would say we already do indeed have an authoritarian fascist government (that would go even further at the drop of a… Read more »

Steve Duggan
Steve Duggan
1 month ago

Sunak addressing the nation, outside No 10 (where normally these sort of things occur for far more concerning issues), when he fully knows why Galloway won, plus the fact he’ll probably lose the seat later in the year, just smacks of desperation. However, there is something very sinister about the Conservative party at the moment, Sunak talks about an attack on democracy but really it’s now his party that has become the biggest threat to our democracy. It may not be an issue at the moment but with England being so conservative in 2029 we may well find ourselves faced… Read more »

Pen
Pen
1 month ago

“Whose democracy is it anyway?”

So we’ve had a thousand years of English colonialism dominating Britain and you think that democracy has ever been yours? 🤣😁👍

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