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26 May 2005 Edition

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Are capitalism and democracy mutually exclusive?

Book Review

The Vote: How it was Won and How it was Undermined

By Paul Foot


£25/€35 (Hardback)

"We do not live — and I trust it will never be the fate of this country to live -- under a democracy." It is a reminder of how fragile, and how new, a concept democracy is that it less than 150 years since British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli made this statement of assurance to the House of Commons in London.

And it is the struggle for democracy in Britain, and the undermining of democratic government, that is at the heart of The Vote: How it was Won and How it was Undermined, arguably Paul Foot's greatest work. Regrettably, it was also destined to be his last, as the man who pioneered radical left journalism in the Guardian, New Statesman and the Daily Mirror over a 40-year career and was named Journalist of the Decade in 2000, passed away last year, shortly after completing this book. With his death, journalism lost one of the truly great campaigning journalists, whose exposés of miscarriages of justice, including Who Framed Colin Wallace? were an inspiration to generations of writers.

The central theme of this book is a simple one — that capitalism and democracy are mutually exclusive and that the history of the struggle for democracy in Britain is that of campaigners fighting for the right to vote, and then seeing the mandate of governments undermined by the economic power of business.

The first part of the book is an account of the struggle, often violent in nature, for the extension of the vote in Britain. It opens in 1647, where Oliver Cromwell's victorious army is seething with revolt as the officers and men of the New Model Army who had fought for Parliament against the British King, now began to demand the right to elect the Parliament.

At the time, the right to vote was restricted to property owners with an estate valued at more than 40 shillings. As Foot describes it, "Parliament was an assembly of rich men chosen overwhelmingly by rich men for the purpose of safeguarding and protecting the property of rich men".

The demands of the soldiers, known as the Levellers, were straightforward — the extension of the right to vote to all men (women were largely excluded from their arguments), annual parliaments and fairly drawn constituencies to ensure equal representation, as well as salaries for MPs to allow working class representatives.

The arguments on both sides of the debate would remain largely the same for 300 years. The Levellers, in language foreshadowing that of the American Revolution, argued that 'all men are equally and alike born to property, liberty and freedom'. They held that if men did not have the right to elect the government that set the laws, they could not be held subject to it.

The vehement opposition of their opponents, including the wealthy landed gentry and Cromwell himself, was based on two central principles. Firstly, only people with property had a vested interest in the nation and could be relied on to act responsibly. Secondly, if people of no property had the right to vote, they would swamp the propertied voting class and introduce laws to seize and redistribute the property of the wealthy.

The Levellers, inspired by their ideas, put them into practice, holding regimental conventions that elected their own representatives and officers, producing their own manifestoes and at one point threatened to march on London and overthrow Parliament. But in the end they backed down, as Cromwell and other generals opposed to the radical changes that were being proposed dragged out the massive internal debates to buy Parliament time to organise both politically and militarily.

The book then moves on to follow the successive struggles for democracy in Britain from Thomas Paine and the aftermath of the French Revolution, to the Chartists and the 19th Century Reform Acts, up to the struggle for women's suffrage. The pattern remained unchanged. Efforts to widen the democratic franchise were repeatedly opposed by a wealthy minority, horrified at the threat to their property that democracy posed. And it was militant political strength outside Parliament that won every small advance. Excellently and accessibly written, this book is a fascinating piece of historical research in and of itself.

But it is the perhaps the second part of the book that is the most thought-provoking. Foot convincingly argues that political democracy, the power of the people to elect their own representatives and their own government, is consistently and deliberately undermined by that small section of society with economic power. "Without economic democracy — at least some form of democratic control of industry, finance and services — then political democracy will always be at the mercy of a greedy and predatory economic hierarchy," Foot argues. Capitalism and democracy, in other words, are hostile to each other.

Foot backs up his argument with a series of thorough analyses of Labour governments elected in Britain since the end of the Second World War. He tries to get to the heart of why governments elected on socialist manifestoes and policy commitments failed to implement them. In discussing the Wilson government of the mid '60s, he perhaps gets to the core of the issue.

"Not for the first time," Wilson reflected, "I said that we had now reached a situation where a newly-elected government with a mandate from the people was being told... by international speculators, that the policies on which we had fought the election could not be implemented; that the government was to be forced into the adoption of Tory policies to which it was fundamentally opposed."

Simply put, in the face of the economic power of the wealthy, the elected mandate of a democratic government was useless unless it implemented the policies preferred by that wealthy class. And in doing so, as one Labour Minister of the time confessed to his diary, they became no different to the Tories they had fought against.

"The rich," Foot believed, "have learned to live with parliamentary democracy because they have so easily been able to undermine the slightest tendency of parliaments to represent the interests of the masses... The history of 20th Century Britain has shown that whenever a Labour government in office has found itself in conflict with the class wielding economic and industrial power, that government has been resisted, humiliated or defeated, usually all three."

Foot ends by referring to the Labour Party under Tony Blair in scathing terms, saying that in the past Labour governments used to apologise for their failure to redistribute wealth in British society. Now, they boast about it. His examination of Blair's New Labour government, and in particular its devotion to private finance, is unforgettable.

The questions asked by Foot are valid ones for any democracy. If left wing governments come to power, can they implement left wing policies in defiance of the will of the wealthy and business classes? Can a truly democratic nation exist without economic democracy? Is political democracy, without economic democracy, nothing more than what James Connolly once called 'ruling by fooling'?

If, as Foot puts it, the power and will of elected governments are as nothing compared to that of the economic ruling class, then the lessons for Sinn Féin, for anyone arguing for radical change in the interests of the majority, are important and valuable.

When republicans speak about the building of political strength, it is often seen as synonymous with elected strength, but the reality is that the Irish independence and socialism will not come from an act in Leinster House, and certainly not from Westminster.

They will come from a movement that sees its elected representatives at whatever level as an interlocking site of struggle, making up merely one front.

Without the people being organised to demand change themselves, without a radicalised and democratic trade union movement willing to exert its power for political change, and a myriad of other forms of political strength, those seeking change merely end up managing capitalism. This is Paul Foot's last lesson, and he makes the case in a style that is well-written, thoroughly researched, utterly convincing and powerfully stated.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough as essential for political activists. Buy it, read it, and put it into action.


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