Parliamentary democracy was supposedly born in Britain. The “Westminster model” is a system promoted by the UK government around the world, mainly through soft power such as the Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD), an arm of the Foreign Office.
The stated objective of the WFD – which received £10-million in public funding last year – is to be “the most effective organisation sharing the UK democratic experience with partners in developing and transition countries,” from Venezuela to Ukraine.
But what does the Covid-19 crisis reveal about the British “democratic experience” being shared abroad?
The UK now has the world’s second-highest death toll from coronavirus. A major reason is that the government has prioritised economic growth over human lives, as demonstrated in its initial adoption of a “herd immunity” policy that could have resulted in a quarter of a million deaths.
Seven weeks before the UK went into lockdown, Prime Minister Boris Johnson addressed the issue of coronavirus in Greenwich, southeast London. Footage shows he warned against any “panic” or “unnecessary economic damage” and stressed the importance of “freedom of exchange” and the “right of populations and the earth to buy and sell freely”.
He also indicated that Britain would be the only country “ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged champion” of free trade.
This rhetoric of British exceptionalism suggests that Johnson’s preferred strategy was to let the virus spread through the population so that Britain would emerge the other side in an economically advantageous position compared to the countries which had imposed a long lockdown.
Downing Street’s brazen free market approach to the pandemic shocked many across the country, especially in ethnic minority communities whose members were some of the first to die. One study last month found that 27% of victims were from ethnic minorities.
The public’s response has been startling. Not only have they largely obeyed the lockdown but they have set up thousands of decentralised mutual aid groups to provide for those who are self-isolating.
In doing so, they have been in effect plugging the cracks left by a decade of government cuts in public spending which had already caused 120,000 preventable deaths, by some estimates. People are taking matters into their own hands when the state is shown to be unwilling to provide the services and care people need, exposing a huge democratic deficit.
Under the UK’s “Westminster model”, the public has in reality little say over how their country is run outside of elections. Political power is invested in 650 MPs who are meant to hold the government to account. Yet the coronavirus crisis illustrates how rarely this happens.
During a pandemic, parliament’s Health Select Committee should be among the most important institutions of democratic scrutiny, especially when the government’s scientific advice is being kept secret. However, select committee membership is weighted towards the ruling party, and so the Health Committee is chaired by Conservative MP Jeremy Hunt, who was the Health Secretary from 2012 to 2018.
This means that Hunt is now tasked with scrutinising the consequences of many policies which he was responsible for, such as cutting 15,000 beds in hospitals and rejecting a warning to stockpile personal protective equipment (PPE) in case a pandemic struck. Effectively, he is marking his own homework.
The farce of Westminster’s scrutiny system was exposed when the Health Committee quizzed Hunt’s successor, fellow Conservative Matt Hancock. The new Health Secretary was asked by a Labour MP if the reduction in the PPE pandemic stockpile by 40% in the last six years had “contributed to the problems that we have now?”
Hancock responded: “No, I think that was unfair. It is a tricky question for me to answer. This is the first time this has happened on the Select Committee, because that was before I was Secretary of State. I may have to defer to the chair [Hunt], but I asked officials to look into this, and they found that accusation not to be fair and not to be a reasonable accusation to level either at me or at my predecessor.”
As the Labour MP doubled down on his questioning, the chair, Hunt, interrupted and proceedings were steered away from an issue which exposed his own past failing as Health Secretary.
While MPs are reluctant to hold their colleagues to account, powerful corporations such as arms companies are busy influencing Parliament by donating money to MPs, lobbying for meetings with ministers and using the “revolving door” to put former civil servants on their payroll.
This results in government policies which tend overwhelmingly to prioritise the interests of corporations and unrestricted economic growth, and can blind ministers to the consequences of decisions that harm the public.
And although the electorate is able to vote for a new government at least every five years, British elections are, in effect, heavily managed affairs with corporate-owned media playing a disproportionate role.
Former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn – one of the few MPs who long opposed cuts to health spending – was unfairly denigrated in the mainstream media as either not credible or, worse, a threat to national security. The media also almost uniformly presented Labour under Corbyn as institutionally anti-Semitic and unable to deal with complaints and disciplinary procedures about that form of racism.
This hostility was most startling coming from the more “liberal” spectrum of journalists. The Guardian produced more misleading or inaccurate statements regarding the controversy in Labour over the definition of anti-Semitism than even the right-wing Daily Mail, according to a study by the Media Reform Coalition. The study also found that The Guardian was a “particular outlier” in terms of giving critical sources an entirely unchallenged platform.
Recently, a leaked Labour Party report revealed that senior staff in the UK’s main opposition party actively campaigned to lose the 2017 General Election, essentially using their positions to subvert the functioning of British democracy. Yet the report barely registered in the mainstream media.
The leaked document suggests that the party’s attempts to address anti-Semitism were deliberately hampered by disloyal right-wing staffers who were slow to process complaints in order to embarrass Corbyn and reduce the chances of a Labour victory on a left-wing manifesto. Money was secretly funnelled into campaigning in the seats occupied by right-wing allies such as then deputy Labour leader Tom Watson.
Labour lost the 2107 election by 2,227 votes, leading the party’s former Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell to lament that by now Britain would be facing coronavirus three years into a government whose manifesto promised massive investment in health and social care.
Promoting democracy abroad
Not only does Britain’s form of “democracy” suppress left-wing politicians domestically, the same Westminster model is exported around the world to countries which supposedly have less democratic experience.
The Westminster Foundation for Democracy is closely modelled on the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) in the US. The NED was created by President Reagan’s administration in 1983 to provide a more subtle means of foreign intervention than CIA coups.
The WFD is led by some influential figures within the UK’s system of managed democracy. One board member is Margaret Hodge, a prominent figure on the right wing of the Labour Party, who called Corbyn a “fucking racist and an anti-Semite”. As Daily Maverick revealed in a story last year (which The Guardian had refused to publish), Hodge’s family business had profited from apartheid South Africa.
Also on the WFD’s board until he stepped down as an MP in 2019 was Henry Bellingham, a non-executive chair of the mining company Pathfinder Minerals, which “is seeking to mine heavy mineral sands in Mozambique”.
In 2014 the Telegraph reported that – having built this contact with Pathfinder when he was Minister for Africa – Bellingham then proceeded to lobby the government of Mozambique on its behalf concerning lucrative mining contracts while working for the Foreign Office. In nine months with the company, Bellingham earned £28,000 (a rate of up to £1,300 per hour).
While a WFD board member, Bellingham was also a non-executive director of Developing Markets Associates Ltd, a consultancy firm established to “help money flow into the world’s emerging economies”.
Bellingham’s interests were declared in line with parliamentary rules and deemed above board. Being engaged in opening up new markets to corporations and moving between business, lobbying and Westminster appears to present no issues to the UK’s leading body promoting democracy abroad.
The WFD’s rhetoric and activities might seem persuasively vague: it works “to help make countries’ political systems fairer and more inclusive, accountable and transparent”. It also boasts of initiatives which “help to protect women from violence in the Middle East, making politics more inclusive in Africa, consolidating democratic institutions in Asia and building trust in democracy in the Balkans”.
Each of the UK’s political parties runs a WFD-funded programme to share experiences and build alliances with politically similar parties around the world. In 2019 the Conservatives received £958,497, Labour £878,859 and the Scottish National Party £192,245 from the WFD, which secures support for the organisation from across the political spectrum in Westminster.
This cross-party approach explains how, as Labour leader, Corbyn dutifully wrote a message of support for the WFD’s 2017-18 annual report.
But while the WFD sounds worthy, it appears to have scant self-awareness of the limitations of the model it is exporting. This lacuna is clear from a WFD report written by a former head of the Electoral Commission, Peter Wardle. The little-noticed report claims that a “problem in many countries is a lack of press freedom or independence, and under-developed journalistic standards.”
Yet Wardle ignores the point that the UK itself now has one of the lowest press freedom rankings in Western Europe in the World Press Freedom Index and lags behind several of its former colonies such as South Africa, Ghana and Jamaica. The Media Reform Coalition has shown that 60% of all print sales derive from papers owned by just two companies, DMG Media and News UK.
These titles often breach journalistic standards and have paid out millions in compensation to victims of the phone hacking scandal. But the main press regulator, IPSO, represents a form of industry self-regulation that rarely censures its own members.
Wardle also asserts that “the deeply-embedded principle of balance in public broadcasting has a strong influence”. Yet during the last two elections this “balance” was not in evidence. Researchers at Loughborough University studied the press and TV coverage of the first two weeks of the 2019 election and found that Labour received by far the most negative coverage of all the major political parties, while the Conservatives received the most positive.
One instance of this imbalance was when huge attention was paid across TV news coverage to Ian Austin, a Labour MP and former junior shadow minister, when he endorsed the Conservatives, in contrast to comparatively little coverage of Conservative grandee and former Chancellor Ken Clarke suggesting that he would not vote Tory.
A similar imbalance appeared in the coverage of the Institute for Fiscal Studies’ criticism of both parties’ manifestos: the response to Labour’s was covered 15 times in two days on the BBC while its response to the Tory manifesto was covered just once.
Covid-19’s spotlight on democracy
The British public has taken more decisive action than the government during the coronavirus crisis. Mutual aid groups sprung up faster than any institutional response to the need of those self-isolating for social care, food supplies, support and companionship. Masks, aprons and even visors have been made in people’s living rooms.
Pressure from below can work. It was recently revealed that the government only initiated the lockdown because of public pressure. Now it is nurses, threatening to strike over the lack of protective equipment, who might stop the government stalling over the provision of the protective equipment they need.
This crisis is exposing how British democracy is managed in ways which put our lives in danger in order to safeguard economic growth. But the experience of people taking matters into their own hands will be hard to forget when the crisis is over and attempts to re-impose “normality” are made.