Who owns all the oranges? by Oran Burke

Who owns all the oranges?

“So why did democracy fall out of favour?”

“It’s more complicated than that, it was more that it gradually became less acceptable to those who governed. It’s hard to pinpoint where exactly its demise began, it often depends on who you speak to. Historically, it may have started with Margaret Thatcher, the Prime Minister in the 1980s, but that’s so long ago that most people have forgotten the details. She certainly pushed the ideology of market forces shaping the country and went to war with the unions.”

“They were responsible for destabilising the country according to our history teacher. Isn’t that why she had to defeat them?”

“What you’re taught conveniently ignores the growth in poverty and inequality that took place in the eleven years she was in power, something that is still with us today and has plenty to do with the anti-union stance she promoted. While it’s true they were unpopular because they often held the country to ransom, that was no different to banks saying they were too big to fail when the 2008 crash happened. There are people still alive today who hate Thatcher for the way communities were ripped apart by her actions, but equally there are those who think she improved the country immensely by dragging the economy into the modern age. Because of her electoral success, the opposition found themselves gradually coming around to her way of thinking, which led us to where most people remember the demise of democracy beginning – when the Labour party took over in 1997.”

“What was that again?”

“It was one of the two main political groups that tended to win elections in the late twentieth and early part of this century. The other one was the Conservative party, often called the Tories. In theory they had very different views about how the country should be run, but in the mid 1990s they started to become more similar, as they were both very business friendly when traditionally only the Tories had been, and Labour had sided with unions and workers. Anyway, after about seventeen years of Tory rule, a guy called Tony Blair led Labour to a huge victory.”

“That name’s familiar. How was that a turning point for democracy?”

“Well, it wasn’t immediately, and really it was the combined efforts of Thatcher and Blair that prompted its downfall. He carried on her inequitable economic policies, and then added a few undemocratic twists of his own. In those days the cabinet was much the same as it is today, made up of the ministers in charge of departments, except they were elected, then chosen from the party which had a majority. The British government was in theory run by consensus, where the cabinet would discuss major issues facing the country and try and solve them together. Over time Blair began to lose interest in this and turned to advisers instead, meaning decisions about the country were being made not by a group of MPs but by unelected staff, something that was called a sofa government.”

“A what?”

“It was a term used to describe a less formal way of running the country, sitting around with your aides deciding policy rather than doing it the more formal way of consulting with ministers. There was nothing necessarily wrong with having a close group of advisers and discussing issues with them but they seemed to become more important in Blair’s government. Don’t get me wrong, he wasn’t the first to do this, but he took it to a different level, probably because he fancied himself as more of a US-style president than a British Prime Minister.”

“Couldn’t he do what he wanted? Isn’t that what democracy was, politicians making decisions for the people.”

“I suppose so, but it was a representation of it which didn’t conform to the traditional view.”

“I’m not sure I understand. If he had been elected surely it was his right to do things as he saw fit.”

“Yes and no, the rules and traditions of British democracy allowed a certain amount of autonomy for the Prime Minister but there were also restrictions on the role.”

“Like what?”

“There were four main ways he should have been held to account, by the public, press, parliament and his own party. Also, the judiciary had a say in the matter because in those days anybody could take the government to court to challenge something considered against the rule of law.”

“That seems like a lot of ways to make sure he does what he should.”

“Well, yes, but think about each one. Public opinion would show up in elections, protests and polls; freedom of the press was considered necessary so all politicians could be held to account; parliamentarians and political parties were in danger of being voted out of power if they didn’t support the rights and views of people. So the theory of democracy is very good, it’s just that in practice it relies on the goodwill of politicians not to push the limits too far.”

“And this Tony Blair did?”

“He did, but within the rules. Every government has done to a certain extent, no matter who was Prime Minister, but things seemed to get more high-handed under him. Once he got things started, it was easier for those that came after him to keep the laws already in place and in some cases expand them. Don’t get me wrong, he did some good things as well, it’s just the bad things were very bad.”

“Such as?”

“He’s remembered mostly now for the Iraq War.”

“Oh, we did something about that in school. I knew I recognised his name from somewhere.”

“Really, what does the Department for Education have to say about it?”

“That it showed the value of a strong leader.”

“Interesting twist, but not entirely accurate. Firstly he sent troops to Afghanistan after the attacks on New York in 2001. This was generally seen as ok as the scale of what happened was shocking to people who lived in Europe’s relatively secure bubble. When the case was made for going to war in Iraq two years later, public opinion was against it unless there was United Nations support, which never came. There were huge demonstrations, and many of his own party refused to back him, but he went ahead anyway. He cajoled parliament into voting for the war and presented evidence that was eventually proven to be seriously flawed. How many innocent civilians died is still disputed, but it was a lot. By the time US and British forces withdrew more than eight years later, one monitoring organisation had it at well over one hundred thousand, but those were only the ones they could confirm. It was probably many, many more.”

“That’s terrible. Why are you telling me this?”

“It may seem like I’m digressing but it makes an important point. Think again about checks and balances as they used to be called. The public – ignored, the press debates – ignored, his party – ignored. The only bit that supported him was parliament, and that was only possible with the backing of the opposition, which was a little embarrassing for a Prime Minister with a majority. He stifled debate by cutting the time given over to cabinet discussions, ignored the public and press and relied on the opinions of a select group of advisers. It was just one of a number of things that started during the Blair years. After 2001, the nature of democratic countries didn’t necessarily change immediately but there was a sudden openness about the nasty things they were willing to do.”

“How do you mean, nastiness is normal now?”

“That’s true and the regulations brought in were similar to what happened during The Emergency. In some cases they succeeded and sometimes the bills were toned down from their initial harshness. Laws that dealt with terrorism, which had been passed to deal with the troubles in Northern Ireland, were adapted to allow longer detention and easier deportation of foreign nationals now they wanted to target Muslims. In the ten years or so that Blair was in power, it was like two steps forward, one step back when it came to the government’s desire to be more draconian. Laws came in, were repealed, adjusted, strengthened and scrapped, but the overriding effect was a removal of the rights of certain people to a fair trial. If you look at it in today’s terms, it became acceptable then to control the movement of people they considered needed to be watched.

“That was just the stuff that happened within the country of course. Britain, the US and several of their allies were mixed up in the kidnap and torture of people they suspected were involved in terrorism. Now, these things had probably always happened, it was just done secretly before. This time the US in particular was open about the fact that it had a prison where they kept people without trial. Over the years, stories eventually came out about how people got there and it turned out that many of them were seriously abused, not necessarily directly by Britain and the US, but more than likely with their knowledge. The governments dressed it up in words like extraordinary rendition and enhanced interrogation, but it was just kidnap and torture. The problem was that because of other bombings in Bali, Madrid and London, a lot of people justified these things or ignored them, effectively endorsing them.”

“Dad, I’m not seeing where all this fits into the end of democracy.”

“Ok, let’s go back to everyone having the right to a fair trial supposedly being one of our guiding principles, something that was understood the world over but not necessarily always adhered to. By not standing up for the rights of the individual, Blair and his government devalued the Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights and took away any moral high ground they might have had to criticise other countries. That’s not to say we held that territory convincingly to start with, but by stating openly that they were choosing to ignore international conventions, they began the process of dismantling their ability to lecture others. Do you see what I mean? If you present your nation as a standard by which others should treat their citizens, and then you take part in a dubious war that causes the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent people, or get involved in the same unsavoury acts you’ve criticised other countries for, then you lose all integrity. At the time, international human rights organisations were criticising Britain and the US in the same way they did the most brutal regimes in the world.

“And don’t forget, just like today, when you make this kind of behaviour normal, people will try to defend it. There were arguments in pubs and living rooms across the country about whether any of what was happening was justified. The problem with forcing people to take a position on such ethically unsound practices, done in their name with their tax money, is that out of a sense of patriotism people will defend it, regardless of the long-term harm it does to the country’s image or its democratic principles.”

“So there was some support for what happened.”

“Of course, in those days there were always a number of viewpoints and debate about the issues of the day was still allowed. Remember though that war was only one of a number of things that happened in the early part of the century that led us to where we are today. It was also when surveillance cameras became a normal feature on our streets.”

“But that’s no different to now.”

“No, but the uses have changed. Originally they were used as a crime deterrent. Public opinion quite rightly fell on the side of prevention and they became commonplace across the country, eventually making British people the most recorded in the world. Again, it was just one of those things people got used to and there wasn’t really any harm in it when used correctly, but when something offers the possibility of misuse, it will be exploited by someone. Facial recognition technology has now advanced so far that it’s possible to pinpoint a person on a camera and automatically track their movements for as long as you want. The comment politicians used to make about the explosion of cameras was that if you weren’t doing anything wrong, you had nothing to fear from them. These days the language has altered subtly to describe them as necessary for the stability of the state, and that has more to do with the people who have control than anything else. Whereas before they were considered a protective force for good, now they’ve acquired a more sinister use. If anyone knows that you do.”

“Yeah ... I still think about Iqbal sometimes.”

“I know sweetie but you see what I’m saying, don’t you? It was easy to use selective camera evidence to claim his cousin was involved in something dodgy and then round up the rest of the family individually using identification software.”

“He was my friend. He didn’t do anything wrong. They just grabbed him off the street in front of us. I still don’t really understand why. Will all this stuff you’re telling me help explain it?”

“I’d like to say yes, but I’m not sure it can.”

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Who owns all the oranges?
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© Oran Burke 2014. All rights reserved.

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