Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Britain Since 1918: The Strange Career of British Democracy, by David Marquand

One has only to think of the House of Lords, our first-past-the-post electoral system and our unelected head of state to realise that Britain is not yet a true democracy. This masterly analysis presses the point home, beginning with demands for parliamentary reform in the 1640s and ending with a new epilogue on the “crisis of polity” of 2009. From the “bottom-up defiance” of the Levellers, the British Jacobins and the Chartists to the “top-down reform” of whig imperialists, tory nationalists and democratic republicans, there has never been a single vision of democracy in Britain, Marquand says. A major question in this book is how can “the democratic promise of political equality be squared with the economic inequality inherent in capitalism”? Blair-Brown, emerging from Thatcher’s “monstrous shadow”, couldn’t square the circle, and Marquand is disappointed by Brown’s “coy constitutional initiatives”. This book’s real virtue lies in its clarity and the reminder that democracy can never be taken for granted.