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State cracks at its weakest point

The scandal of MPs’ expenses has led to a constitutional crisis because it creates a vacuum within that part of the machinery of state that the ruling classes have used to hoodwink the populace about the true nature of democracy under capitalism.

There are several enduring myths about the present state and democracy. They suggest that capitalism and democracy are natural partners and that the ruling elites have championed the rights of ordinary people since time immemorial. And that Parliament was and remains the centre of this process.

These legends have proved vital in cementing a relationship between rulers and the ruled, especially since 1884, by which time all men had finally achieved the vote. By then, however, the capitalist state had consolidated itself and as the political scientist Anthony King says in his book The British Constitution:

Democracy, whether parliamentary or otherwise, was … a latecomer on the British political scene. It was a novel feature grafted on to a pre-existing constitutional structure. Largely for that reason, democracy in Britain, in the form of universal suffrage, was accepted as a humdrum matter of political practice long before any widespread enthusiasm developed for democracy as a set of political ideals that deserved to be promoted for its own sake.

Nevertheless, this “humdrum” practice led to the building of the Labour Party and facilitated long periods of class compromise in the political sense. Some Labour governments were even able to make substantial reforms, like a free health service. That is what has come to an abrupt end and not just in recent weeks either.

The fact that New Labour MPs and cabinet ministers are even greedier than the Tories illustrates how far we have travelled down the road to the point where nothing of importance separates the three major parties and their unconditional commitment to global capitalism.

Nor is it an accident that the outrage has built at a time of the gravest economic crisis since the 1930s, when tens of thousands are losing their homes, their jobs and their pensions while the fat cats in and out of Parliament feel no pain whatsoever. The same MPs and ministers who have bailed out bankers and their pensions are caught with their own fingers in the till. What hypocrisy!

As to Parliament, it has had little or no effective control or real power for at least 125 years. The constitutional position of the House of Commons is to provide the raw material in the form of MPs who then go off and become something else – the government. The conventional idea that Parliament has lost power only in recent times is also rejected by King, who explains:

Commentators frequently refer to the decline of parliament – that is, the House of Commons – in recent decades, but parliament’s decline as a legislative assembly began in the middle of the 19th century and was complete by, at the latest, the 1880s or 1890s. Nothing much of constitutional significance has happened [to parliament] since then…

As Parliament is a talking shop full of MPs on the make, while the government and the rest of the state machine hold on to serious power, it is clear that reforms will make little difference. Clearly, the cat is out of the bag in the sense that many voters now have little time for Parliament. An historic shift is under way and this explains why party leaders are running around like headless chickens trying to find a way forward, with some MPs hoping that replacing Speaker Martin will do the trick.

They couldn’t be more wrong. The state’s edifice has cracked at its weakest point and it threatens to bring the whole structure down with it.

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor
19 May 2009

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