The eclipse of Boris Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon, following Jeremy Corbyn, represents a successful restoration for the British establishment after years of populist challenge. This observation has, in the hands of the British press, quickly acquired the force of banality.
The Economist welcomes a 'great moderation'. Andrew Marr is even more emphatic: 'Parliamentary democracy is redeeming itself'. At the same time as 'a rule-breaking populism has been expelled' from Westminster, Holyrood 'is being purged by law'. This muscular re-assertion of British liberal democracy is 'the system. pushing back'.
This establishment narrative of recent events contains two interlocking conceits, repeated over and again in the press and official politics. Threats to democracy come from the populist extremes of left and right, and the answer to them is a self-righting system of parliamentary government, which is in the process of regeneration.
In response, socialists must assert the reality: the democratic system, such as it was, rotted from its core. Because the governing liberal centre is the source of this corruption, it cannot end the malaise. Any stabilisation of British politics is bound to unwind. To understand why turmoil has become endemic, it helps to examine developments in the British party system.
The UK no longer has mass political parties in the traditional sense. Labour and the Conservatives have been atrophying for decades, shedding members by the hundreds of thousands, degrading ties to civil society organisations like churches and trade unions, and losing their links with once distinctive class constituencies. The SNP is different only in adopting a mass membership later-after the 2014 independence referendum-and then liquidating it in a matter of years.
The hollowed-out parties have less need than ever for democracy. In fact, they all view members, voters, and the general public as a threat. For a generation, party conferences have been stage-managed, members ignored or patronised, and power centralised around leaders' offices, public relations professionals, and networks of elite patronage.
But the years since the Brexit interregnum have seen this process intensify, as the cartel parties have fought to squeeze out the last vestiges of independent, democratic life. The shock of the convergence between Scottish independence from 2014, Corbynism from 2015, and especially Brexit after 2016, means that elite tolerance for democracy is at a new low. We should expect the coming years to see a concerted clampdown. Referendums on constitutional affairs are out. Internal party democracy is a dangerous luxury. Protests and strikes are a blight. And public questioning of any of this is 'dis/mis-information'.
The Tories have fractured into multiple cliques, with dissident Tories forced to make their stand outside the party. Forget the panic about 'creeping fascism'-this weakening of centrifugal Tory authority was the real meaning of two rival conservative gatherings that took place in the south of England in May.
The Conservative Democratic Organisation directly protests the lack of democracy in the party and warns of a collapsing membership. But it is widely seen as a front for Boris Johnson's government in exile and ultimately shares his narrow and personalist ambitions. The National Conservatism Conference was a transatlantic import, focusing more on criticism of Tory ideology and policy. Younger and styling itself as intellectual, its evangelist-inspired version of conservatism lacks an organic base in Britain. But whatever the weaknesses of these initiatives, they indicate that even the first party of British capitalism cannot bank on avoiding backlash. Since the Liz Truss debacle, the party establishment organised around Sunak has solved the problem of the party membership by locking them out.
SNP democracy, meanwhile, is functionally dead. Spring conference, once micro-orchestrated and stale, has simply been dumped. Add it to the pyre: since 2018, SNP constituency associations have been stripped of powers, the party's National Council was retired, and the leader given effective control over setting policy in manifestos.
Sturgeon's departure has revealed a vacuum where a party should be. The pretence of a coming independence referendum was holding the show together. Sturgeon's hyper-centralisation of the SNP was one of few criticisms even her most ardent fans would admit. After all, they could retort, isn't this centralisation working by delivering one election victory after another? With the Police Scotland investigation into SNP finances, the whole edifice threatens to disintegrate. The party machine has responded by retreating deeper into obscurity. A forthcoming 'Independence Convention' looks set to be the most tightly controlled rally yet, with members told in advance they will be deciding nothing.
The most brutal repression has taken place in Labour. The party's platform, on which Starmer was elected, has been shredded. Corbyn's ejection from the parliamentary group was both preceded and followed by a cascade of arbitrary expulsions, censorship of sitting MPs, and the blocking of electoral candidates. The barring of even Jamie Driscoll, the sitting North of Tyne Mayor, shows the machine feels no compunction whatever.
Though these parties appear strong and dynamic in their suppression of Brexiteers, leftists and independence supporters, this authoritarian turn really demonstrates weakness rooted in decades of British social and economic development. The era of neoliberalism has seen a transfer of public wealth to private hands, and this has damaged the reproduction of the public sphere. But, even more importantly, it has also seen a break from nation-building projects between social classes, which once involved rulers extending their influence into the broader population through parties and other civic bodies.
Remote elites now govern without the consent created through mass participation. This means a hollow, brittle and inflexible politics from which the working class majority are alienated. Far from producing stability, these conditions have bred shocks and ruptures, like those which multiplied in recent years, as voters lash out at reviled leaders.
Public institutions have become increasingly authoritarian to deal with their unpopularity. This is demonstrated not only by the intolerance of the parties, but the general assault on free speech, journalism, the rights to protest and to strike.
Much of this repression is being done in the name of resistance to populism. Those like Marr who commit the hated phenomenon to the grave don't understand that it is a consequence, rather than the cause, of democratic decline. Indeed, the populist style of politics-with its departure from traditional party forms and hyper-personalisation-only reflects the decline, as described above, of traditional political cultures and civic capacities.
Further dissent must emerge because material conditions demand it. Real wages haven't grown for an astounding eighteen years. The grievances of mortgage holders are being pilled on those of renters by government policy and Bank of England interest rate hikes. Inflation continues to destroy working-class living standards. Expressions of anger against these conditions are rebuffed as misled and dangerous by the media and politicians.
This is not an unbridled triumph for the establishment. It is a crackdown prompted by weakness, establishing only a temporary reprieve from the chaos of recent years. But to connect with the anger which is mounting beyond the halls of Westminster and Holyrood, socialists must grasp that democratic and economic questions are not separate, but aspects of the same regime.
That regime is not exemplified by some frightful populist threat, by culture war opponents, foreign governments or shady 'dark money' conspirators. Authoritarian liberalism, governing in plain sight from our most powerful institutions, is fighting to defend privilege, property and power from a disenfranchised majority. It is they who threaten our democratic rights, livelihoods and futures.