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Why the Van Gogh Soup-Throwers Have a Point
When the RSPB has more members than all political parties put together, is it any wonder young people are giving up on representative democracy, asks Tom Burke
Phoebe Plummer and Anna Holland became famous last year after throwing a tin of tomato soup at a Van Gogh painting hanging in the National Gallery. Their act was a deliberate reference to Margaret Gibb, the suffragette who slashed a portrait of Thomas Carlyle there in 1914. That cost her six months in jail. Phoebe and Anna’s fate is still to be determined.
At their trial, the prosecutor argued that, unlike the suffragettes, ‘who had no democratic means by which they could argue their cause’, Phoebe and Anna, ‘have an established democracy’. This, he argued, made their action an illegal offence not an expression of political dissent.
No-one could argue with his premise, but his conclusion is more debatable. We do indeed live in an ‘established democracy’ in which women now have the vote. But whether that vote is worth very much is in doubt after a year in which Britain had three Prime Ministers who voters played zero part in either rejecting or accepting.
Britain may well have an established democracy, but it is much less clear whether it has a functional democracy.
Getting here has been a long and erratic journey. Beginning with Magna Carta in 1215, through the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the Reform Acts of the 19th Century to the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act of 1928 when the right to vote was extended to all women. This 700-year thread charts the struggle to legitimise the use of the power of the state.
For most of that time the struggle happened mainly within ruling elites. The social dislocation of the industrial revolution, however, created a vast mass of urban citizens unconnected to those elites. As the reach of state power expanded so too did the demand for control of its legitimate use, eventually producing the ‘established democracy’ we now take for granted.
It is less democratic than is often imagined. Britain does not have a written constitution to protect the right of a majority of its citizens to control the use of state power. The persistent attacks from the Right on the judiciary’s insistence – so far – that such rights as there are be observed illuminates the vulnerability of our ‘established democracy’.
The British system is also unusual in putting final control of the three principal tools through which that power is legitimately exercised – the executive, legislature, and judiciary – into the hands of one person – the Prime Minister. Thus creating the ‘elective dictatorship’ first identified in the 1970s by Lord Hailsham, and now controlled by the 170,000 current members of the Conservative Party.
The last time a British Government was elected with the support of a clear majority of the British people was in 1935. A Conservative Government was elected that year with 53.3% of the votes cast. Since then, no British Government, however legal its election, has been able to claim it was a legitimate expression of the will of even most of the people.
Furthermore, Britain’s political parties have become hollow shells of what they once were. In 1950 their total membership was some 4.25 million, 8.5% of the then population. Today, there are fewer than one million members of all the UK’s political parties combined, about 1.4% of the current population. This is rather fewer than the 1.2 million members of the RSPB alone and a tiny number in comparison with the 8 million members of the major environmental NGOs in Britain.
Faced with a Government that has focussed more on managing headlines than delivering promised outcomes on climate as on many other issues, it is not hard to see why Phoebe and Anna should begin to doubt the value of Britain’s ‘established democracy’. Nor to understand why they should resort to the use of civil disobedience – a political tactic to express dissent whose cultural roots in Britain are also ancient.
Phoebe and Anna have far more to lose than most if climate policy fails. Welcome though the surprising warmth of this winter is for today’s bill-payers, it is a terrifying warning to younger generations of what is to come if we do not stop burning fossil fuels very soon. They have every right to doubt that even the British Government, despite its justified claim to global leadership on climate change, is even doing all it could do now, let alone what it must do urgently to keep their future safe.
Climate policy success is within the UK’s economic and technological competence but achieving it will require effort from the whole of society. It is not a challenge that can be left to government or business alone. Britain has a vast, and currently underused, array of further institutional assets, formal and informal, from very local community associations to professional and academic institutions with global reach to contribute to the society-wide effort necessary for success.
All will need to be mobilised to play their part in an endeavour at least as difficult and consequential as war, which as recent history has demonstrated, requires a sustained use of the power of the state to support and align those diverse efforts. For that power to be effective, a democracy needs to be functional as well as established.
There is always a question that arises after an expression of political dissent like that of Phoebe and Anna has attracted attention. What next? Answers to this question lead some to up the stakes on civil disobedience to the point they risk breaching the tacit consent of the public on which this tactic relies to achieve change. For others, as currently with Extinction Rebellion, it leads to further reflection on a model of political change that will address the dysfunctionality of the ‘established democracy’.
There is another possible answer to that question which Phoebe an Anna may wish to consider. There are about 15 million adults aged between 18 and 34 in Britain. Typically, they are much less likely to vote than older people and even more unlikely to join a political party.
One reason why the Brexit campaign succeeded in achieving its small margin of victory despite a significant majority of young people wishing to remain in the EU, was that they simply didn’t vote. If Phoebe and Anna could persuade just 7% of voters between 18 and 34 to simply join one or other of Britain’s political parties, they would have taken back control of all of them from the older generations who are currently not doing enough to keep their future safe.
Tom Burke has been an environmentalist for 50 years. He is the chairman and co-founder of E3G and previously led Friends of the Earth and the Green Alliance