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Democracy and the mirage of accountability in Britain


Accountability is supposed to be one of the cornerstones of democracy. Elections are the most fundamental element of this process: every few years, political leaders have to put themselves forward to the people for re-election, giving the people a chance to vote them out of office if they are not satisfied with their performance. In the parliamentary model of democracy that originates in.

Britain and is also common in other countries, the elected representatives of the people are also supposed to hold government accountable for their actions on an ongoing basis. The standards to which British members of Parliament (MPs) are supposed to hold their government are strict and well-defined, despite the fact that Britain does not have a written constitution. One of the greatest offenses any government officer can commit is to lie to Parliament, in effect to the country; traditionally, providing parliament with false information even inadvertently has been a resignation matter for a government minister.

All of which seems a very long way from contemporary British politics. When Britain votes on May 5, Labour prime minister Tony Blair will almost certainly be returned to office for a third term , despite the fact that he is widely regarded as having lied to Parliament and the country in order to justify following the US into war in Iraq. The understanding that the decision to go to war had been taken in Washington long before it was officially finalised; that much of politics – in the US, Britain and internationally –in the build-up to war was designed to justify a pre-existing policy, rather than set it; and that Tony Blair was fully aware of these realities when he told Parliament that he was working for peace, as well as when he misrepresented the case for war, is now generally by informed observers. The evidence to support this scenario, direct and indirect, is overwhelming; the gun has been found, it is smoking, it has Blair’s fingerprints all over it, and there are numerous reliable witnesses who saw it in Blair’s hands before, during and after the shooting. Yet still Blair maintains his innocence and the jury that is supposed to convict him – Parliament – refuses to do so because it is packed with Labour MPs who do not want to face the consequences.

On May 5, of course, the matter will be out of Parliament’s hands and put to the wider jury of the British public. There, at least, people might expect Blair to be held accountable. But that too is not going to happen; in the extremely unlikely event that Blair loses, it will not be because of his illegal war inIraq. Why not? Because a jury’s verdict (as the British justice system demonstrates with monotonous regularity) is only as good as the evidence put before it by those in a position to do so, and in any case, it can only rule on a case that is brought to it by the system.

Defence lawyers well know that the next best thing to having a good case to put before a jury is to confuse them with masses of information or misinformation that they cannot understand. In court, there are strict rules on the sort of evidence advocates can present to the jury, and a judge to try to enforce those rules in order to help a jury reach the right verdict. In politics there are neither rules nor a judge, with the result that those in power can say anything they want, on record and off, safe in the knowledge that Britain’s notoriously right-wing and xenophobic popular press is more likely to exaggerate it than to question it (see p. 11).

Faced with this situation, the main opposition parties in Britain have simply not taken the case of Blair’s lying to Parliament over Iraq to the British people as an election issue. The Conservatives under Michael Howard have been hampered by the fact that they are traditionally even more pro-American than Blair has been, and themselves supported the war, while Britain’s third party, the Liberal Democrats, led by Charles Kennedy, who opposed the war throughout, have decided to fight the election largely on domestic issues rather than re-enter the dirty politics that the Iraq question would raise. Only a few minor parties – notably the Respect Coalition led by former Labour MP George Galloway, who was expelled from the party and vilified by the media for opposing the Iraq war – have raised the issue.

Like Bush, Tony Blair will claim that his re-election vindicates his position on Iraq. In fact, it will do nothing of the sort. It will demonstrate only that modern western democracies, far from being bastions of accountability and good government, create uneven battlegrounds on which those capable of the dirtiest and most dishonest politics often emerge successful, thanks to their ability to manipulate the system, to the support of important cliques and institutions in society (notably moneyed ones), and to the inability of manipulated, uninformed, misinformed or wilfully ignorant electorates to either grasp the real issues, or put principle ahead of prejudice and self-interest.

Little wonder that it is a system that the same elites would like to see established elsewhere in the world, notably in the Muslim world that is currently proving so difficult for them. And little wonder, either, that Muslims the world over, for all their dissatisfaction with the (pro-western) authoritarian governments that dominate the Muslim world, prefer to look to their Islamic leaders for the hope of a better alternative to this flawed and discredited system.

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 34, No. 3

Rabi' al-Awwal 22, 14262005-05-01

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