This is a story to be told without celebration, more in despair. All successful democracies rely for their success on the government of the day being challenged by an effective political opposition, thus stimulating both sides to do better. But politics is itself the story of those who seek power, and these are people who suffer from perhaps more than their fair share of human failings, the worst being the pursuit—and enjoyment—of power for its own sake. That those who claim to be saving others from themselves should be particularly subject to the corrupting influence of power should come as no surprise: messianic fervour is almost always accompanied by self-delusion as to the purity of both motives and means, let alone the final destination.
The recent story of democratic politics in the Anglosphere is a story of good intentions collapsing into something called “woke progressivism”. This ideology has invaded all the main political parties and most of the minor ones also. Woke progressive values and ideals also dominate in the institutions of civil administration—the so-called “Deep State”—and serve to frustrate any attempt at reform. The impact of woke progressivism reveals contemporary mainstream politics in the West for what it really is: an exercise in the triumph of style over substance, incapable of delivering on its promises even as its practitioners enjoy all the benefits of their elite status and the privileges that go with it, at the expense of the great majority of ordinary people who just want to be left alone to get on with their lives. Apart from a brief respite during the presidency of Donald Trump, democratic politics in the Anglosphere has suffered from the ascendancy of the administrative state and a massive shift in power from the sovereignty of the people into the hands of an oligarchic elite.
This essay appears in June’s Quadrant.
Click here to subscribe
The progress of woke progressivism in the UK is most instructive as to the pitfalls that accompany good intentions arising from a desire to save others from themselves, because the UK has always been seen as having the most moderate of political cultures. The US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, being pioneer nations built on rugged settler values, might be supposed to have resisted the lure of woke progressivism for longer than they have, but their elites have now almost totally succumbed to the appeal of the rhetoric of equality, diversity, inclusivity and tolerance. But the meaning of such terms has been almost totally inverted by woke progressivism, which expects everyone to dance to its tune or be cancelled.
The story of the failure of contemporary democratic politics in the UK begins—as elsewhere—with the emergence of a distinction between the old traditionalists and the new radical reformists claiming to speak for the people, offering utopian dreams of plenty of everything for everyone, involving great sacrifices but a bright future.
The distinction between Left and Right comes from the early stages of the French Revolution. When the King still sat in the National Assembly, political rivals formed into two groupings. One group—the supporters of the traditional way of conducting politics through gradual piecemeal reforms—sat on the King’s right; the others—the political radicals who wished to tear down everything and start again—sat on the left. And so the Left was born, and finding itself dominant, proceeded to throw the baby out with the bathwater, leading almost inevitably to the Terror and the decades of upheaval that followed.
In Britain the excesses of the French Revolution prompted reforms that began with the Great Reform Act of 1832. During the early stages of this process there was no Left in Britain, the push for reform coming from like-minded activists in both Conservative and Liberal parties. But with the decline of the appeal of laissez-faire liberalism and the formation of the Labour Party in 1900 the working class at last had a party dedicated to its own betterment. From then on, the politics of Left and Right was a fixture in Britain, with the Liberal Party being viewed as centrist. By the 1930s the Liberal Party had declined in electoral appeal, and after the end of the Second World War it was no longer a significant political force.
It is only in recent years that the dichotomy between Left and Right has been revealed as a sham. Whichever party is in power the policies are much the same. Democratic politics has become a team game played by the elites who form into two sides for the purpose of ensuring that some of them are always in power. And this change has been brought about due to the adoption by all the significant parties of the ideology of woke progressivism. The Conservatives make dissenting noises at times but this is empty rhetoric, as is revealed by what they actually do when in power. And in 2016 an event occurred that made it increasingly obvious that the UK was not governed with the consent of the people but by a privileged elite who took their cue from masters elsewhere.
There was a truce of sorts between the parties during the EU Referendum campaign in 2016. But the Remain and Leave campaigns were remarkably bad-tempered and increasingly both relied on the tactic of arousing fear as to the consequences of staying in or leaving the EU.
The low-water mark came when—at the invitation of the Prime Minister David Cameron—the leader of a foreign power, Barack Obama, stood on the steps of No. 10 Downing Street and actually threatened the British population that if the vote went the “wrong” way the UK would be put at the back of the queue when it came to negotiating a trade deal. Cameron’s “Project Fear” was at its peak, and the political, social, economic and cultural elites were almost unanimous in their support for Remain. The public opinion polls showed that a majority of the UK population was also for Remain. But on the day—and despite all the fear-mongering—the Leave vote won, securing 52 per cent of the vote. This was the first indication that the ordinary people of the UK had had enough of the establishment’s politics of contempt.
Ever since the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Parliament has been seen as the sovereign political power in Britain, ruling in the name of the monarch, but a monarch invited into that role and remaining in that role only with the support of Parliament itself. In 1689 John Locke anonymously published his Two Treatises on Government in which he set down in formal terms the idea that democratically accountable government by a Parliament of elected representatives was really government by consent of the people. The ultimate source of sovereignty lies with the people themselves, and they lend that sovereignty to Parliament between elections. But over the years Parliament seems to have forgotten that it possesses its power only under sufferance, and that its masters are really the people who elect their representatives to that role, an electorate of sovereign citizens, possessors of political liberty and personal freedom.
The contempt of Parliament towards its electors was never clearer than in the years immediately following the vote to leave the EU. These were years of deceit, obfuscation and obstructionism by the majority of Remainers sitting in Parliament, who could not agree amongst themselves as to the best way to display their contempt for ordinary people. Although agreement was eventually reached as to an interim period of readjustment, and a withdrawal deal was negotiated with the EU, the final outcome of the Brexit process is still in doubt, because nothing will be certain until the last political links with the EU are severed. And that might be years away. But the fact remains that the result of the EU Referendum revealed a fundamental disconnect between the establishment and the ordinary people of the UK.
The new fracture lines in British society are not between socio-economic classes or races or attitudes to climate change. Most ordinary people simply do not organise themselves into factions around these issues, as is evident by the lack of popular support for traditional class politics, identity politics, or even save-the-planet demonstrations. Although the woke progressive activists like to claim popular support, their mass demonstrations rarely attract more than a few thousand supporters, and to assemble that many in one place means many supporters travelling long distances. The new fracture lines in the UK today are between those who have power, authority and influence, be it political, economic, social or cultural—along with their supporters and enablers—and those who lack power, authority or influence: the great majority of people.
This shift towards a politics of power-differentials is totally predictable given that woke progressivism itself relies for its appeal on the idea that those without power are necessarily “victims”. But its rationale is transparently irrational. More and more people from the minorities now occupy positions of power, authority and influence, even as they continue to claim “victim” status. And their “victim” narrative enjoys almost universal support from the political, social, economic and cultural elites. This “victim” narrative rings increasingly hollow to most of those on middle and low incomes, because the lives of most people are being made ever more difficult by the increasing cost of living generated by the implementation of woke progressive policies (for example, energy prices in the UK have soared over the past few years during the shift to wind and solar power).
This is all happening against the background of economic changes that have generated a new globalist economic elite who can now influence government policy through their impact on the international currency and bond markets. The most blatant exponent of leveraging political power through the use of big money is George Soros, who openly admits to setting up his Open Society and Common Purpose foundations specifically in order to have an impact on government policy (this agenda is explicit on their websites). The World Economic Forum—set up to be the voice of the globalist economic elite—invites the leaders of Western countries to its annual agenda meeting at Davos each January to lecture them on how they should be running their countries. A visit to the WEF website reveals their agenda: a new world order bringing together all the world’s countries into one globally-regulated bloc (meaning that the sovereign democratic state becomes a meaningless abstraction). The WEF and George Soros may claim to support democracy, but what they have in mind is anything but democratic because what matters is the power of big money, not the way people vote. In other words, democracy only matters if people vote the “right” way, and one way of ensuring this is to make the differences between the main political parties merely cosmetic.
The political theatre of hostile rhetoric conceals a grim reality: the main parties are no longer offering alternatives, but only variations on a theme. And that theme is woke progressivism. In 2021, with Boris Johnson heading the Tory government, and Keir Starmer leading the Labour Opposition, the only significant difference between them is how far and how fast they travel towards the promised woke progressive utopia, and what sacrifices they demand of the ordinary people.
New victims of oppression are now the focus, delineated along lines of race and sex, not socio-economic class; and there are new obsessions with open borders, mass migration, international humanitarianism and climate change; obsessions now shared by all the mainstream parties. These obsessions are those of the new woke progressive elite, which feels it can ignore the ordinary people of the country, particularly the working class, and increasingly the lower middle class.
The new woke progressive ruling class is disdainful towards the masses. The minorities designated as “victims” by this elite are trapped in this status by the rhetoric designed to highlight their plight and the policies proclaimed to “rescue” them. But their “saviours” need ever more “victims” so the propaganda of victimhood is relentless. Meanwhile the children of the masses are held hostage by an education system now dominated to a large extent by the ideology of woke progressivism, delivering a narrow and shallow education intended to create more converts to the cause. In this way children are indoctrinated to hate the values of Western civilisation and encouraged to believe there is a moral virtue inherent in victimhood. The state thus assumes the role properly belonging to parents, and any dissent is condemned as being “racist”, “misogynist”, “transphobic”, “homophobic”, “Islamophobic” and so on.
The underlying values and logic are highly suspect. Victimhood carries no necessary moral worthiness, and the roles of “oppressor” and “oppressed” are not mutually exclusive, either morally or logically. Each case should be taken on its merits. But for the children of today to question their teachers on the orthodoxy of the victim narrative is to risk severe censure. The result is political indoctrination—there is no other term for it. If these children succumb they become today’s equivalent of Lenin’s “useful idiots”. This is taking place whilst the incidence of mental ill-health in children is skyrocketing, and the possible connection between this and the emotionally disabling cognitive dissonance caused by woke progressive indoctrination remains under-researched. Even if there turns out to be no causal connection, the moral and intellectual stunting of today’s children makes them the real victims.
The post-war years of successful democratic government have been turned into a story of failure, with the clock being turned backwards towards the bad old days. Seventy years of positive reforms are now slowly being dismantled, with British society becoming more divided again, equal opportunity being now almost a thing of the past, the wealth divide getting ever wider, and the middle class being hollowed out so that only those who are useful to the elite are actually doing better than before. The lower middle class is sinking in wealth and income towards the level of the working class. And the repressive measures taken in response to COVID-19 indicate that the government is intent on imposing ever more intrusive control over the lives of ordinary citizens, abolishing civil liberties almost at whim, with the full support of the Opposition parties, who call for even more stringent control measures. The founder and director of the WEF, Klaus Schwab, is totally open in his book COVID-19: The Great Reset (2020) as to how the pandemic is being utilised to implement the agenda of the world’s globalist hyper-rich elite.
The era of arbitrary rule by elected despots and tyrants and those they serve is upon us, and one wonders how long it will be before elections themselves are considered unnecessary. The only winners in all this are the globalist economic elite. They will hedge their bets and come out on top whatever the outcome, richer and more powerful than ever. Their wealth and influence are such that they can control the supply of lending to governments desperate to borrow ever more to finance an ever-growing deficit. It is no wonder that world leaders hurry to Davos each year, summoned by the globalist hyper-rich, to be lectured by them on how best to run their countries for the benefit of the hyper-rich.
The success of Western representative democracy has been turned into failure, as a result of the hubris of those who seek power, and the greed of those who desire ever more wealth and the influence attached to it. The great mass of ordinary people, those with little money or power, now have to face the grim reality that their natural right to sovereignty is being denied them by an oligarchic elite who hold them in contempt.
We have allowed this elite to deny us our natural rights, and the challenge now is to assert ourselves in an effort to regain those rights; rights to political liberty and personal freedoms that our forebears sacrificed so much for in earlier times so that future generations might enjoy the benefits.
We will have to endure all over again the struggle for political liberty and personal freedom, or succumb to the rising tide of pathological irrationality that is woke progressivism as it imposes its destructive and repressive agenda of identity politics, open borders, climate change and enforced wealth redistribution, setting one group against another whilst telling us it is all for our own good.
Paul Sturdee is a retired teacher of philosophy who leads a contemplative life in the UK