Who Really Runs the UK?

In an earlier post, I questioned whether the UK is really a democracy, from a constitutional point of view, and said that I suspect that Britain is an oligarchy with a veneer of democracy. I would like to expand on that, partly by looking at the situation in the USA.

There are some people who believe in an a gigantic conspiracy, perhaps with an occult element, by the rich and powerful to impose an authoritarian world government, the New World Order. I am not one of them. However, it is undeniable that there are a small number of people who have acquired almost unimaginable wealth, and wealth inevitably brings power with it.

It has been said that the personality traits which make someone likely to be particularly successful in business are much the same as those which characterise sociopaths. It is reasonable to assume that someone who has acquired vast personal wealth, or gained control of some multinational corporation, is likely to be greedy, selfish, ruthless and amoral, although there are no doubt exceptions. The very characteristics which may have helped such people to achieve their goals are ones which, in an ideal world, should mean that they should not be entrusted with power, although perhaps something similar could be said in connection with certain politicians. Let us not be fooled by the fact that some of the mega-rich give some of their money for charitable purposes, to gain the description of ‘philanthropist’; Andrew Carnegie gave some of his money to good causes, but he had become extremely wealthy by ruthlessly exploiting his workers.

In America, there is a rather secretive organisation called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) which pushes for right-wing, neo-liberal, pro-business legislation. Its members are mostly conservative state legislators and representatives of the private sectors, although the actual membership list is secret. It produces draft bills which members can customize and introduce for debate in their own state legislatures, generally without any mention of the connection to ALEC. One of these is the basis for the “ag-gag” laws in a number of states, which make it a crime to carry out clandestine photography or filming to expose mistreatment of animals by agricultural businesses; others are apparently designed to ensure that privatised prisons are kept full. Some of its funding has been provided by the multi-billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch.

The Atlantic Bridge, a conservative atlanticist organisation in the United Kingdom and the United States set up and partly funded by ALEC, included several leading Tory politicians on its UK executive board. It was dissolved after its charitable status was questioned. In such ways the influence of American billionaires reaches into the UK political system.

In America, the first requirement for a politician is money to pay for campaigning. Those who are not themselves rich need to attract donations, leaving them with an obligation to their rich backers. In 2010, the United States Supreme Court ruled (in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission) that the Government cannot impose any limit on political donations by companies, potentially increasing the importance of campaign funding. There is a saying that America has the best politicians that money can buy, and it is certainly arguable that politicians who are dependent on large donations from wealthy individuals or corporations are well and truly bought, even if there are no cash-filled envelopes changing hands.

There is probably no New World Order conspiracy, but there is perhaps no need for an actual conspiracy. Rich people and multinational corporations will tend to have similar interests; they do not need some grand conspiracy to pull in much the same direction, which is to the right. Globalisation and free trade agreements weaken governments; some free trade agreements limit the right of governments to pass legislation which will adversely affect the profits of multinational corporations, even if the legislation is intended to protect the public or the environment. The people who would be part of the New World Order conspiracy, if it existed, have no need of their own World Government if they are stronger than national governments.

In Britain, there is a vaguely defined Establishment, associated with wealth and privilege. A couple of hundred years ago, this consisted largely of the hereditary aristocracy and wealthy merchants, industrialists and bankers who were able to buy estates, and sometimes even titles, as evidence of their status. These people were largely able to control who would be elected to the House of Commons, through their influence or even by bribing some of the few people entitled to vote; many of them sat in the House of Lords. Thus they controlled Britain. Since then the importance of the aristocracy has declined, and the importance of career politicians and senior civil servants has increased, but the Establishment persists, with a high proportion of people from wealthy backgrounds, educated at fee-paying schools and then either Oxford or Cambridge.

In Britain, money is much less of a factor in political campaigns than it is in America, because here campaign expenditure is limited by law. However, political parties still need to raise funds, and membership fees can never be sufficient. Wealthy donors making large donations may be suspected of seeking to influence policy, and it would be interesting to know how much is being spent by companies on political lobbying.

It would be nice if corruption amongst politicians was something that was only known in other countries, but scandals such as “cash for questions” show that not to be the case. If one is cynical (as I certainly am), one might suspect that such reported incidents are merely the small tip of a large proverbial iceberg. When a retired politician is given a directorship in a company, or paid £10,000 or more for a single speech, is this because the company expects to benefit from the politician’s contacts and influence, or is it payment for services already rendered?

America and the UK are similar in that their politics are dominated by two major parties which differ more in their rhetoric than in their policies when in power. For example, opinion polls show that in Britain there is strong public support for re-nationalisation of the railways, yet no major party offers it as a policy.  Such a policy would be anathema to the wealthy individuals who profit from the present setup, and so the electorate is denied the opportunity to make a choice. Labour have embraced, apparently enthusiastically, the Tory policies of cuts and austerity for all except the rich, who somehow just get richer still. The Tories are in favour of this; the best that can be said of New Labour is that they are not opposed to it.

The concentration of wealth in the hands of a few is also a concentration of power. It may be an exaggeration to say that the UK is an oligarchy, ruled by the rich, with Parliamentary democracy a pretence, serving merely to conceal its true nature, but I fear that it is much closer to the truth than the comforting fiction that we live in a true democracy.

Scottish independence is no panacea in this respect; there is no easy escape from the negative consequences of globalisation. But it will be a major shake-up of the system here, and it will bring government closer to the people. It could give us an opportunity to reduce the influence of the billionaires, American and otherwise, and look towards the Nordic countries where levels of financial inequality are much lower than in the UK and America. If we remain part of the UK, I am pessimistic about the outlook for democracy; with independence, I will be optimistic.


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