Europe is slowly strangling the life out of national democracy

Peter Osborne reviews Peter Mair’s Ruling the Void: The Hollowing of Western Democracy:

The opening paragraph is bold, powerful, and sets out the thesis beautifully: “The age of party democracy has passed. Although the parties themselves remain, they have become so disconnected from the wider society, and pursue a form of competition that is so lacking in meaning, that they no longer seem capable of sustaining democracy in its present form.”

The first half of Mair’s new book concentrates on this crisis in party democracy. He tracks the sharp fall in turn-out at elections, the collapse of party membership (the Tories down from three million in the Fifties to scarcely 100,000 today, a drop of 97 per cent) and the decay of civic participation. Mair shows that this is a European trend. All over the continent parties have turned against their members. Political leaders no longer represent ordinary people, but are becoming, in effect, emissaries from central government.

On Europe: The European political directorate has taken decision-making away from national parliaments. On virtually everything that matters, from the economy to immigration, decisions are made elsewhere. Professor Mair argues that many politicians encouraged this tendency because they wanted to “divest themselves of responsibility for potentially unpopular policy decisions and so cushion themselves against possible voter discontent”. This means that decisions which viscerally affect the lives of voters are now taken by anonymous, unaccountable bureaucrats rather than politicians responsible to their voters.

Though the motive has been understandable, the effect has been malign, making politicians look impotent or cowardly, and bringing politics itself into contempt. In Britain, for example, David Cameron can do virtually nothing to head off Bulgarian or Romanian immigration. The prime ministers of Greece, Portugal and Spain are now effectively branch managers for the European Central Bank and Goldman Sachs. By a hideous paradox the European Union, set up as a way of avoiding a return to fascism in the post-war epoch, has since mutated into a way of avoiding democracy itself.

To sum up, the European elites have come very close to the abolition of what we have been brought up to regard as politics, and have replaced it with rule by bureaucrats, bankers, and various kinds of unelected experts. So far they have got away with this. This May’s elections for the European Parliament will provide a fascinating test of whether they can continue to do so.