Democracy in the literal direct sense does not exist in the modern world, indeed for practical reasons cannot exist in a state of any size. What we have is what political scientists call elective oligarchy, a political system whereby the electorate is offered a choice ever few years between competing parts of a society’s elite.
That paints a dismal picture for the masses. However, even within an elective oligarchy, they can exercise considerable control given the right circumstances. What the masses can do and have done for most of the past century and a half in Britain is exert an ever increasing control over the elite through representative institutions. But they have only been able to do this because the representative institutions have operated within the context of the national state. Elites as groups have been forced to take heed of the masses because they relied upon their votes to be re-elected and the system worked by and large because the major political parties offered a meaningful alternative on the most of the great issues.
In the past thirty years our political circumstances have changed dramatically. Two things have happened. The freedom of action of the Government and Parliament has been greatly reduced and the political parties have become ideologically aligned.
Entanglement in the EU has resulted in a majority of British legislation ultimately originating not in Parliament but within the European Commission, while various treaties have removed whole swathes of political choice from the electorate, ranging from proper control over foreign policy and border control to the pursuit of a national economic policy. Most profoundly the European single market agreement and the GATT treaty arrangements and membership of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) have left British parties with no choice of economic policy, for as things stand they have to support the notions of free markets and free trade. Any party wishing to offer protectionism and state intervention in the economy cannot do it unless they commit themselves to withdraw from the EU and WTO.
The consequence of the our membership of the EU and our other treaties is that our politicians in practice can offer very little difference in policy to the electorate. And, of course, our politicians find it convenient to use our EU membership and other treaty obligations to excuse themselves from responsibility for unpopular measures or as justification for forcing through vast amounts of detailed legislation which Parliament, let alone the electorate, is barely aware is being passed into law.
The position is worsened by the careerism of the modern politician. This has always existed to a degree, but what we have now is of a different order of magnitude. The really depressing thing about the House of Commons now is the sheer narrowness of experience of the members, many of whom have never had a career other than their political one. Hence, once on the political career bandwagon they cannot afford to get off. The current bandwagon is the internationalist one.
Internationalism dissolves national sovereignty. The left may cheer this but they are discovering by the day just how restrictive international treaties and membership of supranational groups can be. As things stand, through our membership of the EU and the World Trade Organisation treaties, no British government could introduce new socialist measures because they cannot nationalise companies, protect their own commerce and industry or even ensure that taxpayers’ money is spent in Britain with British firms. As far as economics is concerned, a British government can have any economic system they like provided it is largely free trade, free enterprise.
The Right are suffering the same sickness with different symptoms. They find that they are no longer masters in their own house. They cannot meaningfully appeal to traditional national interests because treaties and EU membership make that impossible. Control of national borders has gone.
A reversion to nationalism need not be a party political matter in Britain, but the modern British left are unfortunately conditioned to believe that the national state is at best outmoded and at worst xenophobic, racist even. This ignores both the history of the mainstream British left and mistakes form for content.
The Labour Party for almost all of its existence has been strongly protectionist and hence de facto in favour of the nation state. Indeed, Blair in the late 1980s was still an economic nationalist. Moreover, for most of the time Labour has been consciously in favour of the nation state and of Britain’s independence – few could give the likes of Attlee and Bevin lessons in patriotism.
As for mistaking form for content, it is simply a matter of empirical fact that the nation state does not produce a uniform behaviour – take Switzerland and Iraq from the present day as examples of that. The idea that nation state equals aggressive, xenophobic, badly behaved warmonger is a literal nonsense. In particular, there is good empirical evidence that where there is significant democratic control within a nation state, this makes aggressive war much less likely than where a dictatorship exists.
It is also true that supranational bodies are not noticeably better behaved than nation states. Worse, they have a large element of the sham in them, being invariably dominated by the more powerful component states, for example, the UN being heavily manipulated by the USA and the EU broadly controlled by its major members. Supranational bodies are not simply vehicles for the normal process of power-mongering, but, in practice, that is their prime function. That they give a spurious appearance of international agreement and legitimacy adds to the ability of the dominating states within them to exercise control over weaker states by direct threats, the withholding of money and, most insidiously, the development of bureaucracies which carry forward the policies forced on the supranational bodies by the most powerful members. (It is often said that the UN has no power. This is utterly mistaken. It may not have an army but there is a vast web of agencies which allow a great deal of control and influence to be exercised over states which seek their assistance. Some such as the IMF and World Bank control client countries from the outside, while others such as UNHCR permit direct internal interference on the ground.)