Strictly Dumb Democracy
In showing such contempt for the popular will, those dance judges were only taking their lead from ministers and officials in the UK and EU.
Now that the national feeding frenzy appears to have passed, is it safe to admit that I didn’t care whether or not former BBC newsman John Sergeant stayed or went from the celebrity ballroom circus, Strictly Come Dancing? I do, however, think that in displaying such a contemptuous attitude towards the popular vote, the dance show’s pompous judges were only taking their lead from the attitudes which prevail in high places on rather more important issues today. And yet the anti-democratic actions of our politicians and officials often seem to provoke considerably less controversy in the media than the fate of a two-left-footed waltzing TV journalist.
Part of the reason so many people enjoyed the John Sergeant business was that it involved sticking a finger up to authority. Every week, the expert judges declared, apparently with some justification, that he was by far the worst dancer on the show, if not on the planet, and demanded that he be ousted. Every week, the public refused to do as they were told and paid their hard-earned money to keep him in there via the phone vote.
The mounting fury and frustration among the judges at this display of public insubordination got funnier each week. Meanwhile, something similar was happening over on ITV’s The X-Factor, where people kept defying the mighty Simon Cowell and voting for a thirty-something singer described as a Ricky Gervais lookalike karaoke act. Eventually Sergeant walked out, saying that the joke had gone too far and he was afraid that he might win. Cue the furore that gripped every corner of the media, from qualities to rags, last week.
All good entertainment for many, no doubt. But the question that occurred to me was: wherever could these ridiculous TV judges have got the idea that they knew so much better than the millions of punters whose votes paid their wages? Perhaps it was from the government ministers and officials in the UK and Europe who seem to take an even more high-handed view of public voting on political issues of major importance, viewing it all as Strictly Dumb Democracy.
Take, for example, the debate in Manchester about whether the city should introduce some pioneering form of road pricing, to make drivers pay a mileage charge for using their cars at busier times. There is a public referendum taking place, with votes due in by 11 December, and an ongoing debate between the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ camps.
In the midst of this debate, New Labour’s transport secretary Geoff Hoon piped up in the role of a TV show judge, to tell the Manchester public that they better vote the ‘right’ way, or else. There is a plan to upgrade the tram, train and bus systems in Manchester, using £1.3billion from the new congestion charging system and £1.5billion from the government’s Transport Innovation Fund. Hoon has now made it clear that if the Manchester public choose to reject road pricing, he will withdraw all new money for public transport in Manchester. ‘If the vote is “No”’, he declared, ‘there will be no central government funding’. Unsurprisingly, opponents have described this as blackmail.
On the same day that the Manchester ballot boxes close next month, European Union leaders are due to meet in a summit to find a ‘solution’ to what they describe as the ‘Irish problem’. Earlier this year, Irish voters refused to do as they were told and voted to reject the proposed EU treaty. That treaty is itself an attempt by our rulers to override popular opinion. It began life as a grandiose EU constitution, which had to be formally scrapped after the voters of France and the Netherlands rejected it in referendums. The EU leaders then sought to sneak most of their plans back through in the form of a treaty which governments could sign without asking the electorate. Unfortunately for them, the Irish constitution requires all such measures to be put to a referendum. As the only section of the Euro-electorate asked what they thought of the EU constitution-in-drag, the Irish people spoke on behalf of many others and rejected it decisively.
Ever since, the Euro-bureaucrats and governments have been searching for a way to press on with their plans regardless, either by making the Irish vote again until they get the ‘correct’ result (a tactic they used the last time Ireland rejected a Euro treaty), or by simply pretending the democratic defeat of the treaty never really happened. The December summit marks the latest stage in the attempt by the EU to abolish democracy.
Back in Britain, meanwhile, the inflated fuss about the British National Party (BNP) has brought out the anti-democratic instincts of our leaders once more, as they unite to tell people that it is evil to vote for the BNP – trying to defeat the far right not by political argument, but by emotional blackmail.
So while the media has been working itself up into a royal funk about John Sergeant, there are arguably even more important examples of contempt for the popular will that are not making so many headlines. Whatever our views might be on road pricing or Europe or immigration, it is important to take a stand for democracy on all of these issues, to counter the further drift of control away from the people and towards an isolated political class exercising power without authority.
Real democracy has to mean more than voting, of course; it must also involve genuine choices. They are thin on the ground today. In the UK, there has been much talk of a new great political divide in the UK over chancellor Alastair Darling’s pre-budget proposals. Yet the fact that a temporary trimming of VAT and a small future income tax increase for the well-off can be spoken about in such historic terms only confirms how narrow the terms of political debate have really become. There remains no debate of substance about the future direction of our society. Meanwhile in Manchester, people are faced with a referendum question that does not even mention the key issue of road pricing, instead asking cryptically ‘Do you agree with the Transportation Innovation Fund proposal?’ – which sounds rather like another way of saying: ‘Don’t bother your little heads about it, leave the big stuff to us.’
We need democracy, not diktat, and we need real choice, not contempt, before any notion of popular control in politics dances off into the sunset along with John Sergeant.
Mick Hume is spiked‘s editor-at-large.
Mick Hme said democracy is not New Labour’s to command. Angus Kennedy saw petitions as a shrunken view of democracy.Frank Furedi urged those believe in Europe to reject the EU Treaty. Wendy Earle asked W=why kids’ online antics are seen as the key to reviving democracy. Or read more at spiked issue British politics.
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