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Sunday, 5 February 2012

Old-World Political Stasis and US Democracy

There is a huge difference between British and Chinese politics, on the one hand, and US democracy on the other. The difference  is stark, but its fundamental nature is often unrecognised even by students of politics, and it does not usually feature in economic discourse. That difference is, however, very important in the formation of economic policy: and it is even more important in the political rhetoric that wraps around the economic data.

The partisanship and pettiness of American politics shock unsuspecting foreigners when they are first exposed to it. While the vituperation against President Obama that has characterised almost the whole of his presidency is somewhat more vicious than in any previous incumbency, it is merely the latest stage in a progressive demystification of the office.Nixon became reviled, Ford was pitied and Carter became despised; then Reagan - with superb showmanship and a well-practised voice - raised the prestige of the office and forced his many opponents to raise their rhetoric against his policies while treating the President with almost old-time deference. The first Bush began in office with Reagan's legacy, but his relative lack of showmanship and his bad luck [largely the consequence of poor decision-making] set him up for defeat by the exceptionally able and charismatic Bill Clinton. William Jefferson Clinton was conscious of the dignity of his office: to a degree that allowed him the hubris to assume that the media would turn a blind eye his exploitation of the White House for sexual adventurism. Instead the press and TV channels reverted to the mode that had brought down Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter: and only the self-interested loyalty of the Democrats in Congress saved Clinton from impeachment  As with all known sexual predators who also have political charisma and real power, Clinton was hugely popular and it is widely reckoned that he would have won a third term if that were constitutionally possible. It was not allowed, so his party selected a candidate for the next election who lacked both the charisma and the racy reputation: who duly lost.

When Clinton left the White House, the whole staff left; except for the housekeeping team. To show their hostile contempt for the incoming President - George W Bush - the members of Clinton's court removed the 'w' keys from keyboards. The entire archive from the Clinton Administration had been removed. The whole cabinet and many other offices in the state were vacant, and the new incumbent had to present all his new senior ministers for confirmation by the Senate. Each new President brings in a total new Administration which [at least in principle] can set its own policies in each area: and drop any programme from the former Administration that they do not wish to keep. The Administration needs congressional assent for new expenditure and to make [or repeal] laws, but otherwise it has a free hand.

In China, by contrast, any change in the personalia at the top of the government is always presented as a means of continuing and refreshing the status quo. The Communist Party has led the state in unbroken succession since 1948 and it is presented as the carrier of a single and unchanging truth, Chairman Mao's enhanced version of Marxism-Leninism. Everyone in open political life and in journalism is required to adhere unconditionally to the myth that everything that happens is in a continuum. The wild changes that occurred under the 'Great Helmsman' from mass nationalisation to the 'great leap forward' [which set the economy back for more than a decade] to 'let a thousand flowers bloom' to 'cultural revolution' to the reviling of the 'gang of four' to the cautious introduction of Deng's liberalising reforms and on to the recent amazing success of industrialisation and export-led economic growth are simply not admitted in any official record. Children learn about the truth anecdotally in the family circle or from friends whose families are more frank, but they also learn the unwisdom of denying the official line in public. Through most of 2012 the party will be finalising the distribution of authority between the present high officers of state, who will step away from centre-stage at the end of the year, and the rising stars who have been prepared to follow. There is a great deal of speculation whether the balance of the new front-of-house team will be more or less liberal than its predecessors'; but it is unpredictable how far the new leaders will feel able - or be willing - to signal significant changes in direction that could unleash unrealistic expectations among business managers, bankers, local government officals or the tiny minority of advocates for more western-style democracy and human rights.

The Chinese Communist Party has managed a phenomenal task of socio-economic change without surrender of any political muscle; and naive commentators in other parts of the world have vainly hoped that the system would eventually implode. Economic risks such as allowing banks to fund a property boom have been greeted cheerfully by doom-sayers as 'unsustainable'; yet so far control has been maintained, often by the deployment of significant devices that have been used effectively by western monetary and fiscal authorities. The great majority of intelligent western-educated Chinese claim to be broadly satisfied with the lack of western-style human rights so long as it is in combination with the success of the economy.

It is likely that Chinese party officers have taken comfort from the British example; and understood it better than British commentators recognise the context in which the embarrassing idiocy yaah-boo political gaming takes place. The ruling power in Britain is not Parliament, and does not attribute authority to politicsl parties. The Council - usually meeting as the Privy Council - has continual succession since 1661 and its role was consolidated after the Glorious Revolution of 1688. All acts of state are executed by - or with authority of - the Crown in Council. Any level of emergency powers can be created and enforced by Order-in-Council and most routine legislation [which is only granted parliamentary time by assent of the Council] demits to the Council the authority to modify, extend or defer its provisions. The Cabinet is a committee of the Council; and however different one government's policies may be from its predecessor's, after an election has changed the ruling party, the new Cabinet must work on the basis that it is continuing consistently to give advice the The Queen. Even if a new government wants fundamentally to change major policies, they must proceed slowly and continue with all existing laws and regulations. King George V was keen to bring in a minority Labour government after the collapse of the Lib-Con coalition after the First World War, provided its members took the Privy Council oath [and leading ministers even kitted themselves out in antiquated Council uniforms]: and it worked so well that no group of politicians with any chance of power has subsequently questioned this bizarre system of rule. The rhetoric in parliament and in the media may be extreme and contrarian but the reality is that all the Civil Servants [from the Clerk to the Privy Council and Cabinet Secretary downwards] continue in office regardless of the change of Cabinet level personnel. The populace are deluded by myths that play up the pretended power of the electorate to 'change' the political map; in fact, the British almost certainly have less influence over the direction of policy than do the Chinese.

The British system is suddenly placed under threat, however, by the egotistical master-tactician Alex Salmond of the Scottish National Party. He is sworn of the Council - he would not have been allowed to become Scottish First Minister without that - but he now appears to seek a popular mandate to create a new constitution. It will be fascinating to see how the Privy Council - as such - will react to this potential threat to its hegemony.

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