What a difference a book can make

David Aaronovitch

These have been bewildering weeks in the recent history of British democracy. Respectable women call BBC Radio 4 programmes to talk about how they would like to "string up" their elected representatives; headlines and commentators seem to compete for the most apocalyptic way of describing a crisis in governance.

As in the strange period in 1997 following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, a group psychosis seems to have developed, partly independent of the media and partly fed by it.

Eleven years ago people "connected" with their grief, an emotion catalysed by the sudden loss of an iconic figure. In spring this year they have connected with their anger, an anger wholly directed at those who have sought to exercise political power and catalysed by the orchestrated leak of MPs' expenses.

The only moment of even transient relief for government came as the result of capitulating to the demands of a popular actress who, in a moment of high comedy, had chased a minister across Westminster.

What a difference a book can make. I had been as confused as any other observer about these events, thrashing around attempting to catch their meaning - and then I read John Keane's The Life and Death of Democracy - his history of Man's attempts to govern in equity.

Contained in this massive book was, among many, many other things, the analytical tool that told me why such a period as we have been living through was more or less inevitable.

This instrument is Keane's diagnosis that for 50 years - largely unanalysed - a new form of democracy has been superseding the representative democracy that, formally, operates in most of the world.

Keane names this new system "monitory democracy" and locates it in the growth, now exponential, of systems of checking on, constraining, campaigning towards, goading and humbling those elected to power.

In his introduction, Keane describes how "power-monitoring and power-controlling devices have begun to extend sideways and downwards through the whole political order. They penetrate the corridors of government and occupy the nooks and crannies of civil society, and in so doing they greatly complicate, and sometimes wrong-foot, the lives of politicians, parties, legislatures and governments".

This phrase has a double resonance, because "wrong foot" was exactly the term used last week by the Conservative MP Sir Anthony Steen in a now notorious interview, in which he accused voters of being jealous of his large house. He and other MPs had been "wrong-footed", he claimed, by Freedom of Information legislation - a classic monitory device - brought in by the Labour Government.

Sir John's candour was rewarded by the threat from his party leader to "have the whip withdrawn so fast his hoof won't touch the ground".

That Keane, in a book covering the entire history of democracy, as well as a substantial speculation about its future, should so precisely capture the background to such a local scandal is a measure of the brilliance of his accomplishment.

[Click here to read the full review]