Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Speaker ousted and an information revolution

There is much grinding and gnashing of teeth in the broadsheets today over the plight of Britain’s parliamentary democracy. Michael Martin became the first speaker to be ousted from his chair since John Trevor 300 years ago, in the wake of the Members’ expenses scandal played out on a daily basis in the Telegraph and which has effected all parties. Much has been made of Martin’s working-class origins and his Catholicism (he’s the first Catholic to hold the chair since the era of Cromwell), but he is as much the product of a culture of vested interests – in this case, the old, male Labour aristocracy that, until very recently, kept an iron grip on the industrial West of Scotland – as any Old Etonian. And there have been many other recent speakers of impeccable working-class roots such as George Thomas and Betty Boothroyd who have encountered little prejudice (indeed Thomas, a devout Methodist, was accused of sectarianism himself).

However, they lacked Martin’s breathtaking inarticulacy (surely a problem for a Speaker). Reform, though on what scale, now looks inevitable, as does a general election and a trouncing for the Labour Party in the European elections on June 4th. Taking the long view, as historians should, we might draw parallels with the 17th century. No, there probably won’t be a civil war, but we are seeing an information revolution akin to that of the popular printing revolution. The result is an ongoing revolution in ideas, the belief that information should be accessible to all and that new ideas of governance can be expressed by all. Rather than be pessimistic about the future, history suggests we have grounds for optimism. In early modern Britain, the print revolution and the ferment of ideas that resulted, climaxed in the Glorious Revolution, the ‘first modern revolution’, in Steve Pincus’s phrase, that gave us remarkable financial and political innovations that benefitted Britain (and, arguably, the rest of the world) enormously.

Democrats can find good news elsewhere. In India, Monmohan Singh’s Congress Party has won that huge democracy’s 15th election. Even in the contested region of Jammu and Kashmir, the election passed off peacefully, and nationwide there was a 60 per cent turn out (60 per cent of which is under 35). It was a huge setback for the extremist Hindu nationalist BJP under their leader Lal Kishen Advani. Notable is the religious tolerance displayed by the electorate: PM Singh is a Sikh, while the Italian-born Roman Catholic Sonia Gandhi, formed a mother and son political double act with Rahul Gandhi, great-grandson of Jawaharlal. India is still wracked by poverty and bewildering bureaucracy, but democracy remains vibrant in a country whose economy will soon surpass that of its former colonial master.

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