The Daily Telegraph
‘We should consider politics without parties’
To stop the rise of voter rage, says the former Ukip MP, we need radical change to limit vested interests
Carswell on Westminster
Something extraordinary is happening to politics across much of the Western world. Donald Trump has been elected to the White House. Marine Le Pen looks certain to reach the final round of the French presidential elections. From the leftist Podemos in Spain to the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in Germany, angry, insurgent voices, which would not even have found an audience a generation ago, can be heard. Why? What is going on?
The answer is that we are seeing the emergence of an oligarchy – rule by a few – and a populist reaction against it. The economy, notionally free-market, has become increasingly rigged to serve various vested interests. The “haves” have done well simply by having. Those without feel left out.
The new economic elite is doing so well because it is accumulating power politically. In many Western democracies, politics has ceased to be properly competitive. Parties like Labour or the US Democrats, which once served sectional interests, now represent instead the interests of career politicians. There is a strong sense among many voters that politics has become a cartel.
Nowhere is this cosy feedback loop between politics and business more visible than in Davos, Switzerland, where, every year, thousands of officials, executives and bigwigs get together at the World Economic Forum. They listen to each others’ talks, recycle one another’s clichés and pat each other on the back for being so well-connected and clever. Policy in Western states is increasingly made for, by and on behalf of these people.
Against this elite, we are starting to see an anti-oligarch insurgency; from Trump to Le Pen, Ukip to Geert Wilders. The trouble is that these radicals run the risk of playing straight into the elite’s hands.
It’s happened before. Throughout history, a sudden flow of wealth into a society can create a new concentration of power, which then inspires an antioligarch reaction. But, far from preventing oligarchy, these insurgents often paved the way for its triumph. In Venice, Bajamonte’s uprising against the big families enriched by overseas possessions gave them a pretext to create a Council of Ten; established to safeguard the republic for six weeks, it ruled for 600 years. In Holland, Johann de Witt opposed the elite but was so hopeless that he guaranteed the return of a strong Stadtholder. And we all know how the Roman Republic ended – with the crowning of a strongman as the first emperor.
Today, wealth flows in, not from overseas possessions or provinces, but from the future. Through the bond market, our elite are able to spend today off the back of tomorrow. The American revolutionaries cried “no taxation without representation”, and the idea that a government can only spend what taxpayers are willing to permit it to spend has been a key constraint upon the power of Western states. Yet since the early 1970s, governments have been free to live beyond their tax base, issuing bonds and borrowing from banks.
So large banks and Western governments have entered into an alliance, with the latter getting cash to spend now in return for giving banks and bond holders a guaranteed slice of future tax revenue. Britain and the US have both doubled their national debt this way in the past eight years. France last ran a balanced budget in 1973. This is ultimately incompatible with representative democracy. And this, rather than the election of populists, is why our democracy is in trouble.
If our liberal democratic order is to survive the twin assaults of oligarchy on one side and angry populists on the other, we need radical reform. I have a few ideas. First, we need to change the law to stop banks conjuring too much credit out of thin air. How much they can extend should be contingent on what their depositors are willing to risk. Our current system privatises profits while socialising any losses. My reform would ensure that those who owned shares in banks became liable for their customers’ deposits – as they were before banks lobbied to make the taxpayer pay. I also propose changes to corporate law to stop executives acting like those that once ran the East India Company, enriching themselves at shareholders’ expense. Shareholders should be able to decide who sits on corporate boards, and veto excess pay.
Other reforms could give back to the people what states have monopolised. Money should no longer be issued by unaccountable central bankers; there must be more competing currencies, including non-state currencies. I also advocate giving each of us new rights as citizens. Rather than leaving it to politicians to squander what we pay in tax, we must allow individuals to self-commission certain services if they choose to. Everyone should have a legal right to claim their share of the local education or healthcare budget and spend it on rivals, letting citizens decide who can best serve them.
Finally we must break the political cartel in Westminster. I joined Ukip in the hope that they were going to do this, but I now realise that political parties – whether long-established or insurgent – are part of the problem. All of them are guilty of peddling the big man myth (it usually is a man): the idea that a single, god-like leader is the answer to everything. Yet we can do politics without parties – or rather, without parties as they are currently constituted. Parties exist to aggregate money and resources to get candidates elected. Now digital technology can bring together campaigners without the danger of any small clique running the party in its own interest. We already have platforms like Crowdpac, created by David Cameron’s former staffer Steve Hilton, which allow independent candidates to raise money online. No longer dependent on rich donors, campaigns might finally free themselves from the vested interests that today dominate policymaking behind the scenes.
The central insight behind Western liberalism is that social and economic affairs aren’t the product of some grand design, but emerge naturally from our actions. So the answer to both oligarchy and populism is to revive true radical liberalism: to challenge the claims of elites to organise the world for us, and start organising it for ourselves. Douglas Carswell’s new book ‘Rebel: How to Overthrow the Emerging Oligarchy’ is published this week