30 Jan 10

Democracy is deaf

After Tony Blair's appearance before the Iraq Inquiry in the UK, a few thoughts on the growing distance between politics and the people.

Over in Britain, this was the week for which many people had been waiting. This was the week that put Tony Blair before the Iraq Enquiry.

Perhaps expectations were too high. Alastair Campbell’s recent pushover performance should have been fair warning of that.1

Iraq Inquiry

Some were looking for Blair to somehow fess up for a whole decade of wrongs, not just Iraq. Most wanted answers on Iraq itself, of course, but that depended on the right questions being asked. 2

At worst, the Iraq Inquiry will be remembered as a complete whitewash; at best, it’s been used as a platform for self-justification instead of an opportunity to deliver some home truths.

We can therefore expect a further delay to the initiation of any healing process on Iraq, a conflict approved by the UK government without the approval of the UN or indeed the British people. 3

Meanwhile in Europe

Here in Brussels, we talk of a democratic deficit in European institutions: the remoteness of the European machine to the ordinary citizen.

Yesterday afternoon, as Belgium’s three major unions marched for “employment, respect for workers and social justice”4, a thick line of police and even thicker window glass kept out the worst of the klaxons and firecrackers on the Rue de la Loi. Spanish fishermen actually succeeded in breaking windows in 2008, but the question remains the same now as then: who’s really listening?

The appointment of Baroness Ashton as the EU’s top foreign affairs official was an ugly surprise. The sparks of Ashton’s meteoric rise tend to obscure the fact that throughout her career she has never been democratically elected to office. That there had even been talk of Blair as President of the European Council was unthinkable. The backroom horsetrading for these two jobs showed once again that the leaders of Europe are evidently talking, but not to the people who pay their wages. 5

In a flabby attempt to communicate with the outside world, the outgoing Barroso Commission experimented with online media. Some Commissioners jumped on the blogging bandwagon – with comments universally moderated by “The Moderator” – and the results were predictably bland. Next, there followed a YouTube channel (imaginatively titled ‘EUTube’) whose deliverable was a sort of ‘policymaking for dummies’, encoding Commission initiatives into over 250 embarassing video vignettes. 6

The upcoming Commission seems certain to deliver more of the same. French Commissioner designate Michel Barnier’s videos7 from last year’s European election campaign trail are no less laughable than those of EUTube.

Frustration in the United States

Few politicians have exploited the Internet like Barack Obama but after the horrors of the Bush years, expectations of him were always going to be unrealistic. Nevertheless, Obama was so audacious in assuming the responsibility of being voice of a generation that we believed he could deliver change.

Now over a year into his presidential term, he’s finding it very tough to do that. His healthcare bill, expected to bring basic healthcare to a staggering 40 million Americans who can’t afford it, was foundering even without the recent defeat in Massachusetts.

Even those who would benefit from Obama’s reforms are likely to vote him down because they’re angry and they’ve lost faith in government. 8

As self-defeating as it may seem, this is stark proof of the popular anger which continues to go unrecognised among the Establishment. Put it down to the mental instabilities of an isolated individual, as did the Pope and Silvio Berlusconi, and perhaps complacency obscures the growing Other of mainstream dissent. 9

Looking for alternatives

Iraq, the Lisbon Treaty, inertia over the financial crisis: all situations in which the voice of the people went unheard or ignored. Few would claim to be political experts but many today will agree that their leaders fail to represent them the way they want to be represented.

Certainly no-one would deny that the stale consensus of the late 1990s is long gone and that frustration is increasingly channelled towards populism and extremism. There are few signs yet that those in power are willing or able to do something about it.


  1. Alastair Campbell at the Iraq war inquiry – Guardian.co.uk, 12 January 2010
  2. Tony Blair’s unanswered questions – Telegraph.co.uk, 29 January 2010
  3. Iraq war illegal, says Annan – BBC news website, 16 September 2004; Polls find Europeans oppose Iraq war – BBC news website, 11 February 2003
  4. Manifestation des trois syndicats pour l’emploi le 29 janvier à Bruxelles – LeSoir.be, 22 January 2010
  5. EU chooses unknowns for new top jobs – EUobserver, 19 November 2009
  6. The EU Tube channel had 253 uploads as of 30 January 2010
  7. Michel Barnier channel on Dailymotion.com
  8. Why do people often vote against their own interests? – BBC website, 30 January 2010
  9. Berlusconi has fractured nose, broken teeth after attack – CNN.com, 14 December 2009



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