They used to do it subtly; they don’t bother any more. Last week a column in the Telegraph argued that businesses should get the vote. Though they pay tax, Damian Reece maintained, they have “no say in the running of local or national government”(1). To remedy this cruel circumscription, he suggested that elections in the UK should follow the example set by the City of London Corporation. This is the nation’s last rotten borough, in which ballots in 21 of its 25 wards are controlled by companies, whose bosses appoint the voters(2). I expect to see Mr Reece pursue this noble cause by throwing himself under the Queen’s horse.
Contrast this call for an extension of the franchise with a piece in the same paper last year, advocating an income qualification for voters. Only those who pay at least £100 a year in income tax, argued Ian Cowie, another senior editor at the Telegraph, should be allowed to vote(3). Blaming the credit crisis on the unemployed (who, as we know, lie in bed all day devising credit default swaps and collateralised debt obligations), Cowie averred that “it’s time to restore the link between paying something into society and voting on decisions about how it is run.” This qualification, he was good enough to inform us, could exclude “the majority of voters in some metropolitan areas today”. The proposal was repeated by Benedict Brogan, the Telegraph’s deputy editor(4).
No representation without taxation: wasn’t that Alan B’stard’s slogan in the satirical series The New Statesman? Votes for business, none for the poor: this would formalise the corporate assault on democracy that has been gathering pace for the past 30 years.
This column is a plea for distrust. Distrust is the resource on which democracy relies. Distrust inspires the scrutiny and accountability without which representation becomes a lie. Distrust is all that stands between us and bamboozlement by people who, like Reece, Cowie and Brogan, channel the instincts of the billionaire owners of newspapers and broadcasters.
Last week, David Cameron argued that those who say business “isn’t really to be trusted” do so as a result of “snobbery”(5). Business, in fact, is “the most powerful force for social progress the world has ever known.” Not democracy, education, science, justice or public health: business. You need only consider the exemplary social progress in Zaire under Mobutu, Chile under Pinochet or the Philippines under Marcos – who opened their countries to the kind of corporate free-for-all that Cameron’s backers dream of – to grasp the universal truth of this statement.
He gave some examples to support his contention that regulation can be replaced by trust. The Public Health Responsibility deal, which transfers responsibility for reducing obesity and alcoholism to fast food outlets, drinks firms and supermarkets(6,7), reaches, Cameron claimed, the parts “which the state just can’t.”
Under the deal, Subway and Costa are “putting calorie information up front when people are buying.” The state couldn’t possibly legislate for that, could it? Far better to leave it to the companies, who can decide for themselves whether they inform people that a larduccino coffee with suet sprinkles contains no more calories than the average Olympic sprinter burns in a month. He forgot to mention the much longer list of companies which have failed to display this information.
Another substitute for regulation, he suggested, is a programme called Every Business Commits. Through its website I found the government’s list of “case studies of responsible business practice”(8). Here I learnt that British American Tobacco is promoting public health by educating and counselling its workers about HIV(9). The drinks giant Diageo is improving its waste water treatment process(10). Bombardier Aerospace is enhancing the environmental performance of its factories, in which it manufactures, er, private jets(11). RWE npower, which runs some of Britain’s biggest coal and gas power stations, teaches children “to think about their responsibilities in reducing climate change”.(12)
All these are worthy causes, but they are either peripheral to the main social harms these companies cause or look to my distrustful eye like window dressing. Nor do I see how they differ from the “moral off-setting” that Cameron says happened in the past but doesn’t happen today(13). But this tokenism, in the prime minister’s view, should inspire us to trust companies to the extent that some of the regulations affecting their core business can be removed.
We are living through remarkable times. The government, supported by the corporate press, is engaged in a naked attempt to rebuild the life of this country around the demands of business. Extending the project begun by Tony Blair, David Cameron is creating an economy in which much of the private sector depends on state contracts, and in which the government’s core responsibility is to provide them. If this requires the destruction of effective public healthcare and reliable state education(14,15), it is of no concern to an economic class which uses neither.
The corporations gaining ever greater powers will be subject to less democratic oversight and restraint, in the form of regulation. Despite the obvious lesson of the credit crunch – that self-regulation is an invitation to disaster – Cameron wants to extend the principle into every corner of the economy. Trust them, he says: what can possibly go wrong?
We at Outlookindia.com welcome feedback and your comments, including scathing criticism
1. Scathing, passionate, even angry critiques are welcome, but please do not indulge in abuse and invective. Our Primary concern is to keep the debate civil. We urge our users to try and express their disagreements without being disagreeable. Personal attacks are not welcome. No ad hominem please.
2. Please do not post the same message again and again in the same or different threads
3. Please keep your responses confined to the subject matter of the article you are responding to. Please note that our comments section is not a general free-for-all but for feedback to articles/blogs posted on the site
4. Our endeavour is to keep these forums unmoderated and unexpurgated. But if any of the above three conditions are violated, we reserve the right to delete any comment that we deem objectionable and also to withdraw posting privileges from the abuser. Please also note that hate-speech is punishable by law and in extreme circumstances, we may be forced to take legal action by tracing the IP addresses of the poster.
5. If someone is being abusive or personal, or generally being a troll or a flame-baiter, please do not descend to their level. The best response to such posters is to ignore them and send us a message at Mail AT outlookindia DOT com with the subject header COMPLAINT
6. Please do not copy and paste copyrighted material. If you do think that an article elsewhere has relevance to the point you wish to make, please only quote what is considered fair-use and provide a link to the article under question.
7. There is no particular outlookindia.com line on any subject. The views expressed in our opinion section are those of the author concerned and not that of all of outlookindia.com or all its authors.
8. Please also note that you are solely responsible for the comments posted by you on the site. The comments could be deleted or edited entirely at our discretion if we find them objectionable. However, the mere fact of their existence on our site does not mean that we necessarily approve of their contents. In short, the onus of responsibility for the comments remains solely with the authors thereof. Outlookindia.com or any of its group publications, may, however, retains the right to publish any of these comments, with or without editing, in any medium whatsoever. It is therefore in your own interest to be careful before posting.
9.Outlookindia.com is not responsible in any manner whatsoever for how any search engine -- such as Google, Bing etc -- caches or displays these comments. Please note that you are solely responsible for posting these comments and it is a privilege being granted to our registered users which can be withdrawn in case of abuse. To reiterate:
a. Comments once posted can only be deleted at the discretion of outlookindia.com
b. The comments reflect the views of the authors and not of outlookindia.com
c. outlookindia.com is not responsible in any manner whatsoever for the way search engines cache or display these comments
d. Please therefore take due caution before you post any comments as your words could potentially be used against you
10. We have an online thread for our comments policy:
You are welcome to post your suggestions here or in case you have a specific issue, to directly email us at Mail AT outlookindia DOT com with the subject header COMPLAINT