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Britain and the USA, arguably the world’s two most ‘traditional’ liberal democracies, will soon face elections; in a couple of weeks in the UK (on 7 May); in a couple of years in the US, where the runners are though announcing their candidacies in these weeks.

 

What is the state of democracy in the two countries?

 

In the United Kingdom it is highly likely another coalition will be in power, as was the case in 2010 and in contrast with a whole history of ‘bipolarism’. Opinion polls cannot be fully relied on, but what is crystal clear is that no party is close to any majority; both Tories and Labour would garner about 35% of the votes, and slightly more in terms of seats. The Liberal Democrats, who in 2010 betrayed their electoral promises by allying with the Tories, will probably lose more than half of their seats, while the Scottish National Party (SNP) will likely sweep away Scotland’s constituencies (forecasts say they might gain 50-55 seats), mainly to the detriment of Labour. Right-wing UKIP will obtain a lot of votes and some seats in the South, mainly to the detriment of the Conservatives. There will probably be seats for Welsh Nationalists and Greens as well. All of this means that any coalition risks being ‘colourful’, in all senses, and include strange bedfellows – something really unusual in British political history until very recent times.

 

British citizens are disaffected with traditional party politics. Parties and their leaders are perceived as distant, ineffective and controlled by small cliques. The Labour leader, Ed Miliband, and London’s ‘overbearing’ Mayor, the Conservative, Boris Johnson, attended the same, high-end, primary school. Both Miliband and Cameron later studied PPE (‘Philosophy, Politics, and Economics’) at Oxford. Many British citizens feel that politicians like these have never ever tasted the harshness, difficulties, and problems of more ordinary lives. Local issues (raised by Welsh and Scottish parties) or populist themes (the anti-EU or anti-immigration rhetoric of UKIP) better draw voters’ attention. In addition, millions of citizens feel increasingly excluded by economic policies which clearly favour the wealthy and heavily dismantle any forms of welfare. In this sense, SNP’s likely triumph is as much about welfare as it is about Scottish autonomy. The SNP supports increase in public spending and investments in social housing, renewable energy, nurseries, and so on. Its voice is perhaps the most critical of neoliberal ideologies.

 

Is the European malaise thus entering Britain? To some degree, it is. Finland held elections on 19 April and will be governed by a coalition (the party with the highest share of votes received a modest 21.1%) and Britain will follow. In general, European politicians seem to have very few ideas and just accept the economic trends which are ‘dictated’ by the USA. Coalitions are the only ‘political’ answer – as if politicians wanted to entrench and defend their positions; they are in power in Germany, Italy, Austria, The Netherlands, and the EU itself (that is, the Commission), among others. 

 

While in Europe a dividing line is taking shape between citizens and political parties, in America true dynasties are gaining more and more political power. This is how The Economist put it (see http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21648639-enduring-power-families-business-and-politics-should-trouble-believers), also highlighting the risks for meritocracy. 2016 presidential elections may (shall we say ‘will’?) witness a contest between Hillary Clinton, who, in different roles, has been in top roles since 1992, and Bush III, that is, Jeb, son of George H. and younger brother of George W. Is ‘family brand’ evidence of merit? To be frank, we all know about the vicissitudes and mistakes of the Bush dynasty, but what can we say about the Clintons?

 

Even leaving aside their political record, doubts arise on the transparency and purposes of the Clinton Foundation, on which we know little, particularly with reference to its funders and donors (see http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/03/19/us-usa-clinton-donations-iduskbn0mf2fq20150319). How has the Foundation been used by the Clinton family? What kinds of dealings have been going on between it and donors such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar, which are among its most important financial supporters? In addition, Bill Clinton’s administration enacted massive changes in financial regulations, which culminated in the Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999, a bill which removed barriers between commercial banks, investment banks, and insurance companies, and is often regarded as one of the triggers of the financial crisis of the late 2000s. We have seen how the financial crisis spread to the ‘real’ economy, and from the USA to the rest of the world. A lot of the problems the world is facing now are an outcome of the choice to empower the financial industry above politics, a trend which was inaugurated during the Clinton administration. In a broader sense, the impression is that political choices and values have been sacrificed in the name of short-term profit, and this has corrupted the quality of democracy in America and then the West as a whole. Running for the White House is thus becoming a sort of ‘family job’ which does not really fit with the idea of democracy. Together with Clinton and Bush, we find then the well-known cohort of ‘usual suspects’ in different industries; the oil-military complex with the Republicans, the Silicon Valley and a part of Wall Street with the Democrats, to put things in a perhaps simplistic but suggestive way.

 

Democracy is being sold out. In Britain and even more the USA, it has become similar to an oligarchy, in which few rule (mainly those with economic power), while scions of important families and former school mates take on political responsibilities. Yet tremendous wind will soon blow from Scotland: London should reflect on this, and Washington has two further years to find solutions.

 

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