Book Reviews: ‘Modernity Britain, 1957–62’, & ‘Against Elections – The Case for Democracy’

Gradually Modernising

‘Modernity Britain, 1957–62’, by David Kynaston. (Bloomsbury £14.99)

This is the latest in Kynaston’s massive history of Britain from 1945 to 1979. It is a detailed combination of political, social, cultural and economic history, with a lot of reference to and quotations from autobiographies and contemporary diaries.

1957 saw Harold Macmillan becoming Prime Minister; John Lennon met Paul McCartney for the first time; the causal link between smoking and cancer was confirmed; ball-by-ball radio commentaries on cricket Tests began; and there was a national bus strike. As the years passed, Blue Peter, Coronation Street and Z Cars started on TV, supermarkets became much more numerous, betting shops and commercial bingo halls opened, and many pubs and cinemas closed. In 1962 the Crazy Gang had their last performance, Accrington Stanley were wound up, the Beatles got a contract with EMI, and the centenary of ‘The Blaydon Races’ was celebrated.

Two well-known political quotations bookended the period. In July 1957 Macmillan announced that ‘most of our people have never had it so good’, and in June 1962 Harold Wilson stated that ‘the Labour Party is a moral crusade or it is nothing’. It is hard to imagine claims along these lines being made today.

Living standards improved for most people. Between 1951 and 1958 the average earnings for industrial workers had grown by over 20 percent in real terms. In the second half of 1957, 56 percent of adults owned a TV set and 12 percent a fridge, and by 1960 82 percent of homes had a TV and 21 percent a fridge. Yet plenty of people still lived in poverty, below National Assistance levels. There were massive programmes of slum clearance and the building of flats (such as Park Hill in Sheffield and the high-rise blocks in Glasgow), but in 1960 there were still 850,000 homes categorised as unfit and slum clearance rates were running decades behind the plans. This was part of more general moves towards town planning, the restructuring of town and city centres and the building of big road schemes, such as Birmingham’s Inner Ring Road.

A few women were becoming prominent, for instance as journalists or newsreaders. But it was generally assumed that most married women would stay at home rather than work, and women on the whole earned far less than men and were more likely to be doing unskilled jobs. Marriage was the norm, and less than three percent of households were lone parents with dependent children. While many men expected their wives to just cook and clean, ‘the sociological evidence was mounting that marriages as a whole were becoming more companionate.’ The oral contraceptive pill could be prescribed from the end of 1961, but only to married women.

Immigration was a live issue, though in 1958 there were just 165,000 non-white immigrants in Britain. The Notting Hill riots that summer were ‘the most serious civil unrest of the decade’, as mobs of white youths rampaged through the streets. Many ads for rented flats stated ‘No coloured people’, and there was discrimination in employment as well. By 1961 it was being claimed that prejudice against West Indians in Birmingham was leading to ‘neighbourhood segregation’; there were no more than 35,000 West Indians in the city.

The Conservative election victory in October 1959 was their third in a row, and led to many arguments within the Labour Party. It was claimed that nationalisation had been the most damaging issue, and Hugh Gaitskell reiterated that it was not intended to take every private firm or small shop into state ownership. In 1957 a motion on unilateral nuclear disarmament had been defeated at a Labour conference; Kynaston says that this was the moment when Labour and ‘radical’ ideas began to become detached from each other, but it needs to be asked how radical Labour had ever been. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was set up in early 1958, and the Committee of 100 in 1960.

This is a very wide-ranging history of the period, but it has little to say about inequality and the lives of the richest people in Britain. 



Sorting it Out?

Against Elections: The Case for Democracy’, by David Van Reybrouck. (Bodley Head. 2016. £9.99)

Genuinely fascinating and thought-provoking new books seem hard to find, though Van Reybrouck seems to have produced one. In the current climate of political cynicism and apathy, the main title of ‘Against Elections’ could be interpreted as something beyond populism and even a call for fascism, but this is very far from being the case. His main argument is that it is not democracy itself that is the problem, but the way it is practised – almost exclusively through the form of competitive elections that produce self-reinforcing political elites.

Van Reybrouck diagnoses the malaise at the heart of the crisis engulfing representative democracies across many parts of the globe and voter dissatisfaction with elected politicians and parties. He points out that political parties in most Western democracies are now regarded as being the most corrupt organizations legally existing and that contempt for conventional party politicians appears to be at an all-time high too. He also discusses some of the alternatives mentioned to systems of representative democracy, such as direct democracy, which has influenced movements like Occupy and the Indignados. The Five Star movement in Italy, despite its populist flavour, has also grappled with these issues and argued strongly for other forms of democratic consultation and for limits on political terms served by elected representatives.

But few have questioned the usefulness of elections themselves as a ubiquitous part of the democratic process. One of the most fascinating parts of the book is where Van Reybrouck traces the way in which ‘democracy’ and ‘elections’ have now become synonymous. In reality, throughout the history of the last 3,000 years or so, elections have just been one way in which democratic will has been expressed. Another method has largely fallen by the wayside – democracy through sortition, or the drawing of lots. In most countries this is regarded as acceptable for choosing juries making decisions about legal cases, but isn’t typically used otherwise. Van Reybrouck discusses how this situation came about, as the democracy practiced in ancient city states like Athens, or even many of the Renaissance city states such as Venice and Aragon, included very pronounced elements of sortition alongside elements of elections.

Furthermore, it is clear that many of the philosophers of the Enlightenment were strong advocates of sortition too. Montesquieu, one of the most significant influences on modern constitutional theory and nation states claimed that ‘Voting by lot is in the nature of democracy; voting by choice is in the nature of aristocracy . . . the casting of lots is a way of election that distresses no one; it leaves to each citizen a reasonable expectation of serving his country’. Similar views were advanced by Rousseau in his Social Contract.

However, to ruling elites (both aristocratic and in the rising capitalist class) sortition was dangerous and random and could not guarantee that those entrusted with power and responsibility would be suitable for the role. Hence the emphasis on elections, initially with very limited electorates of those who could be ‘trusted’ – most typically men of property. But of course the granting and widening of democratic rights was a protracted process that was not merely something handed down by the ruling elites free and gratis – in most instances it had to be struggled for, eventually by the majority class of wage and salary earners, and it would be interesting research to see how and why sortition (as opposed to election) was relegated in importance by workers’ movements struggling for democracy.

Van Reybrouck contends that the reintroduction of sortition within Western democracies currently in poor health would be a way of reinvigorating the democratic process and, in doing so, also potentially undermine the anti-democratic movements currently coming out of the shadows. He may have a limited point here, but the hierarchical and competitive nature of capitalist society mitigates against this working in all but a few selected areas – recently sortition has been used as part of consultative processes on constitutional issues in Ireland, Iceland and the Netherlands, though with mixed success.

As in ancient Athens, sortition works best when combined with forms of elections that can produce a range of competent candidates for given roles, with sortition and fixed terms of office providing the genuinely wide representation (and randomness) that stifles the emergence of elites. The Socialist Party of Great Britain already uses sortition in a limited way as part of its internal democratic practice and it seems likely that socialist society would be the most obvious type of democratic social system that would enable sortition and elections to work hand-in-hand effectively. This is because socialism – as a system of common ownership and democratic control – would be a society without classes and elites, without leaders and the led. More work is no doubt needed on this element of socialist democracy, and that can be developed and refined by the wider socialist movement as it grows over time.

Van Reybrouck has produced an important work, but not one that will necessarily save capitalism’s rather limited and somewhat spurious democracy from itself. It is, however, of clear use and interest to socialists as principled believers in the most scrupulous of democratic practices as the cornerstone of a genuinely egalitarian society.


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