By Andonis Vassiliades
‘The flaw in the pluralist heaven is that the heavenly chorus sings with a strong upper-class accent’ (Elmer Eric Schattschneider, The Semisovereign People)
The economic fallout from Brexit on the UK economy covered in a previous comment could simply be the price the country has to pay for achieving higher and loftier aspirations.
But what are these important aspirations which are so sacrosanct that the UK is willing to sacrifice everything else for their safeguard? In a nutshell, sovereignty and parliamentary democracy: that Brexit will liberate the UK from the shackles of the EU, will give it back its ‘British’ identity and will put it ‘in charge of its destiny…’ (Daily Mail, 22 June 2016).
The most influential factor which played in the hands of the ‘leave’ campaign was immigration. It was linked to the nation’s assumed suffocation by the EU and the inability of the UK government to be free to conduct its own affairs. But it is one thing to raise the political temperature about immigration and another to use immigrants as a vehicle to delivering a manufactured social change by presenting the false message that leaving the EU will stop migration to the UK. It is an even bigger misconception that separation from the EU and its labyrinthine laws and regulations will restore the long lost political powers of UK citizens; and that post-Brexit they will again take control of their own identity, destiny, government, legal apparatus and parliamentary, pluralist, democracy.
UK parliamentary democracy has always been in the hands of an elite and the prerogative of a few selected and most privileged individuals – constituting six per cent of the general population – who administer and wield power over the people through the legitimacy of the ballot box. The idea that in a parliamentary democracy the people elect their representatives to parliament, who then present the people’s interests to the cabinet and the prime minister, is a carefully constructed make-believe fallacy. The opposite is true. It is the exercise and dispensation of prime ministerial patronage and power guided by party politics which is passed down to the cabinet, down to parliament and down onto the people.
The people, and the voice of the people, appear nowhere in this parliamentary democracy other than at the time of elections or referendums. Sadly even at the time of elections or plebiscites such as on Brexit, the voice of the people is skillfully orchestrated by these privileged few and politically motivated conductors. They do it with such finesse that the people are made to believe that when they hear the voice of their elites they hear their own voices and in effect they share the same interests.
These discreet individual and institutional interests succeed in canvassing and persuading the people of a better and brighter tomorrow and that their aspiration for a free and homogenous society will be delivered. The people believe the promises until the next election at which stage they are given the so called alternatives. These prove empty promises yet again but succeed in perpetuating the myth of a representative parliamentary democracy.
The facts, though, are different. The majority of people and their rulers have little in common to celebrate.
In terms of income, MPs currently earn £77,379; in 2017, this was £76,011; in 2016, £74,962. In 2017, the declared annual income of 11 of these MPs, all Conservatives, was £108,000 to £653,178. These figures do not include the scandal of substantial additional benefits to MPs in the form of expenses which totalled £26 million plus in April 2017 to March 2018. In contrast, the current average annual salary of Britain’s general working population ranges between £26,000 and £27,000.
The most ardent supporters of Brexit are millionaires and well connected. For example, Jacob Rees-Mogg is one of the richest people in the land with an estimated fortune of £100 to £150 million. Nigel Farage, who for years has made his purpose to attacking the British elite and the EU and has been presenting himself as the ‘champion of the people’, has far more in common with the privileged classes rather than the common people. His estimated wealth in 2016 stood at £2.4 million. Despite his denunciation of the European Parliament and his strong support for Brexit, he is still faithfully drawing his salary as MEP since 1999. With a MEP salary of £84,221 and an allowance exceeding £40,000 a year it is estimated that by 2017 he had earned close to £4 million or more. He is also, as MEP, taking a projected annual pension of £73,000. He resides in a £4 million Chelsea home. Boris Johnson is valued at £6.4 million with properties in London and Oxfordshire.
More broadly, David Cameron’s 2010 coalition government, presented as the face of ‘fairness’ for the reduction of elitism at a time of austerity, was a ‘coalition of millionaires’. The combined fortunes of his cabinet exceeded £60 million. Cameron’s own estimated wealth at the time stood at about £10 million. Nick Clegg’s stood at two million; Phillip Hammond’s at £7.5 million; George Osborne’s, at £4.6 million; and Michael Gove’s, at one million. Labour politicians do as well. For example, Tony Blair’s personal fortune is put at £60 million.
In terms of occupation, 35 per cent of MPs are career politicians, white collar and publishers/journalists; 31 per cent are from the professions (e.g. barristers, solicitors, doctors, civil servants, university teachers); and 31 per cent from business. Only three per cent of MPs are manual workers.
When it comes to education, 45 per cent of Conservative MPs, 27 per cent of Liberal Democrats and 14 per cent of Labour were privately educated compared to the national average of seven per cent. The average annual fee, at 2018 prices, for these exclusive schools is £17,000. Contrast that figure with the UK national annual average salary quoted above and you can get some idea about the imbalance. In similar fashion, nearly a quarter of all MPs are Oxbridge educated.
When it comes to the composition of the cabinet, ministerial posts are the preserve of a selected minority of privately educated individuals of whom nearly 50 per cent are Oxbridge graduates. Three-quarters of all 56 British Prime Ministers in all periods have been Oxbridge educated. This may not appear significant until this figure is contrasted with the one per cent of the general population who make it to these esteemed academic institutions.
With regard to gender, whilst women constitute 51 per cent of the general population, less than 32 per cent of MPs are women.
In terms of ethnicity, just over seven per cent of MPs are represented in parliament from ethnic minority groups though they constitute 14 per cent of the UK general population.
In summary, a privileged, highly educated, disproportionately white-male and wealthy minority can hardly be called representative of the majority of citizens. The notion, therefore, that by leaving the EU, the UK will restore the peoples’ voice; and that the people will once again take control of their destiny is a well-managed and ingeniously presented sermon that helps to maintain the existing order of things.
Andonis Vassiliades is an Emeritus Professor