The Westminster Fetish

This week's pile-on against Zarah Sultana over select committees demonstrates how our establishment sees democracy – as a set of rules and procedures to which they alone are gatekeepers.

This week, Zarah Sultana MP provoked the ire of establishment politicians by disrespecting that most hallowed and sacred of Westminster’s institutions: the select committee. Sultana uploaded a video of herself binning a leaflet handed to her by a Conservative contender for one of the committees with a caption stating how ridiculous it was to see a Conservative seeking the vote of a socialist like herself. 

Select Committees – introduced in 1979 – have been one of the more useful recent innovations to the Westminster model. Certain Commons committees have succeeded in at least forcing governments to acknowledge spending and policy issues of concern to the general public. They are understandably loved by MPs because sitting in committee meetings gives can make even the lowliest backbench MP feel useful. 

The former home secretary Jacqui Smith was quick to weigh in in defence of our helpless Parliamentary system, pointing out that each party had a certain number of places reserved on the committees so her gesture was at best a futile and childish statement of rebellion, and at worse an active refusal to engage with attempts to hold the government to account. Establishment politicians piled on to condemn Sultana, the strength of the reaction undoubtedly driven by the fact that she is a young woman of colour who should presumably be grateful even to step foot inside the House of Commons.

Sultana had committed a cardinal sin: she had refused to abide by the Westminster fetish.

This fetishisation of British democracy has a long and vaunted history. The processes of Westminster are shrouded in secrecy and layered with tradition, which serves both to accent their prestige and reinforce their inaccessibility. Bagehot, in his famous 1867 work The English Constitution, encouraged liberals obsessed with procedure and pomp to focus on where power in Britain really lay. Peek behind the façade and you would, he argued, find one of the most powerful executives in the modern world.

Westminster is not simply the seat of British democracy; it has lent its name to an entire system of governance. Political scientists have even investigated the relative success of the former British colonies and assorted other states that follow the Westminster Model. Some have concluded that – on a host of different metrics – the Westminster model is simply the best democratic system ever conceived.

Recently, however, the Westminster fetish has entered a new phase. Political commentators are more attuned than ever to the arcane procedures of parliament. In part, this is because the legislature has assumed an historically unusually important role over the last several years as a result of a succession of small majorities and hung Parliaments, which have constrained the usually unfettered power of the executive. The deadlock over Brexit has undoubtedly increased the political currency of constitutional experts. 

But this renewed attention to the traditions of Westminster is also being driven by the mounting discontent with our democratic institutions, and the failure of those institutions to contain it. The expenses scandal, the financial crisis, austerity – and now an ongoing national crisis over leaving the European Union – all of these events have eroded public trust in democracy to unprecedented lows, most would argue with good reason. 

Like Trump’s promise to ‘drain the swamp’, Johnson’s recent election campaign was based on a recognition of the lack of trust in British democracy. His success at the ballot box was based on a rejection of the legitimacy of parliament and a promise to hand power ‘back to the people’. Liberals have looked on in horror as the prime minister has trampled all over their Westminster fetish, without ever pausing to consider why such a campaign could be so successful – why our democratic institutions are held in such low regard. 

The furore over Sultana’s rejection of the select committee process has to be see in the light of the growing disconnect between the tiny elite who fetishise Westminster and the vast mass of the country who treat it with a thinly-veiled disdain. The shrinking legitimacy of the Westminster model demands that its proponents step up their propaganda campaign in a vain attempt to defend the status quo. 

Select committees are only useful in holding the government to account when the Westminster fetish is honoured. The government must cooperate with the process – it is forced to respond to the findings of select committees within sixty days, but whether that response has any substance is quite another matter – and people must pay attention. The media must take an interest in select committee reports, not tuck them into the back pages of the broadsheets. And the public must understand the process – and care about it. 

But most of these conditions no longer hold. The government has explicitly rejected the Westminster fetish, revealing the ongoing relevance of Bagehot’s timeless insight. The press is too busy stoking up hatred towards immigrants on the one hand and lamenting the madness into which the country has descended on the other to pay attention to the ins and outs of select committee meetings. 

More profoundly, most people simply do not understand the way our arcane democratic system works, and no government has shown much sign of wanting to change that. Why would they? Understanding Westminster is what delineates the elite from the masses. Even those who do have a basic understand the system have little faith in its capacity to represent their interests, hold the government to account or even the most basic goals such as stabilising the economy.  

In other words, liberals fetishise the institutions of Westminster not because of how well they work, but because of how deeply flawed they have become. They desperately plead with the general public to abide by the rules of the game because they know that our democratic processes have descended into mere charade. 

The only way to deal with this problem is to accept that British democracy barely deserves the name, and to introduce measures to radically democratise the British state. The House of Lords should be abolished, the Bank of England should be subjected to popular accountability and local government should be forced to engage citizens in decision making. Genuine power – including over taxation and spending – should be devolved to our nations and regions, and where suitable regional institutions do not yet exist, they should be created. 

Our political parties should be forced to democratise themselves to encourage mass engagement with the democratic process. The labour movement must be revived and the connection between union leaders and the rank and file restored to ensure democratic accountability within our workplaces. And people should be permitted – encouraged – to protest whenever and wherever they see fit. 

Liberals will refuse to accept the legitimacy of most of these demands and will fight for precisely none of them. They are astute enough to recognise one thing: real democracy does not support the status quo – it threatens it.