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Sensemaker: Democracy in crisis

Sensemaker: Democracy in crisis

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Olympic champion Mo Farah said he was trafficked to the UK as a child and treated like a slave (more below). 
  • Nasa unveiled the first full-colour image from the Webb telescope showing distant galaxies (more below).
  • The UK’s Met Office issued a rare extreme heat warning for parts of England and Wales this weekend with temperatures expected to top 35C.

Democracy in crisis

As Boris Johnson announced his resignation on Thursday, Tortoise was mid-way through its first Democracy in Britain Summit. The discussion in our newsroom, between leading experts and our members, was a well-timed reminder that we should demand more from our political system than just a fresh face at the top. 

There’s a lot of work to be done. And it has little to do with Conservative leadership contenders’ plans to cut taxes or opt-out of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The machine is broken. Democracy isn’t fractured because of questions about “Leave” or “Remain”, the polarising Brexit options, but because the country hasn’t reformed its institutions to meet the demands of modern times. The average age of an MP is over 50, the legislative process is overly complex, and political parties are detached from their function in government: to serve and represent the people.

People are switching off. Young people care passionately about issues, but don’t see traditional politics as a means of change. Old people are treated like a burden. Most people feel alienation, distance and distrust, says pollster Peter Kellner. And this distrust, according to anti-Brexit campaigner Gina Miller, undermines the central tenet of democracy: participation.

New ideas are needed. There’s a real appetite for digital voting and people in the room were unanimous in their view that the ways in which people interact with the government online are insufficient. But not all people are digitally literate and we’re not yet able to properly hold technology companies and software engineers to account. 

How to fix the system. The government can partner with technology companies to build a digital democracy that works for everyone. As for Parliament, one idea is to change the process through which people become MPs to make it easier to come in from outside the political system. Another is to make the parliamentary processes and bodies for investigating sleaze and harassment more robust. Better education about, and simplification of, the legislative process would help people feel more involved. We need leaders with charisma and clear values to break out of a system of voting for the least-bad option. 

Tortoise’s Democracy in Britain poll showed:

  • 34 per cent of respondents think Britain is undemocratic.
  • 54 per cent say one of the worst features of British democracy is the quality of MPs.
  • 66 per cent think most MPs are mainly out for themselves.
  • 30 per cent think that Britain needs a strong leader who can take big decisions without having to consult parliament. 
  • 41 per cent say they feel “uneasy” about the way democracy works in Britain; another 24 per cent say they feel “disgusted” and 21 per cent feel “angry”.

Are any Tory leadership candidates addressing these issues? No. There are more problems than solutions at the moment, but the candidates running to replace Johnson as leader of the Conservative party, and as prime minister, are not facing up to any hard truths. 

Instead, the candidates are running on platforms to cut taxes, fight for Brexit and against “woke” culture (whatever that is) and, in the case of attorney general Suella Braverman, to leave the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights.

The problem, as Matthew d’Ancona writes, is that they are trying to appeal to a very specific group of people: the Tory party membership. This small group of around 100,000 people will select the winner by 5 September, once the field has been narrowed by MPs down to two candidates. 

Their platform might change once they win the leadership and get into Downing Street. 

But, if Johnson’s premiership has taught us anything, it’s that you want someone in office who actually believes what they’re saying. Otherwise the public sense of uneasiness, disgust, and anger will grow – and Britain’s democracy will suffer.


Twitter vs Musk
Twitter’s share price has fallen by 12 per cent since Elon Musk, the world’s richest person and owner of Tesla, announced that he was pulling out of a $44 billion deal to buy the social media platform. Musk said that Twitter failed to provide enough information on the number of fake accounts on the platform. Twitter is fighting back, arguing that Musk is in breach of their merger agreement and that his statements were “invalid and wrongful”. The company expects to file a lawsuit against Musk with the Delaware Court of Chancery. Why did Musk change his mind? Who knows. But it will be interesting to watch as Twitter, which didn’t want to be bought, tries to force him to follow through on the deal.


The view from space
The first image from the James Webb Space Telescope is one of the most exciting pictures in the history of astronomy. Why? First, just capturing this cluster of galaxies – catchily named SMACS 0723 – is a huge achievement. It took decades of work from 1,200 scientists, engineers and technicians from 14 countries to launch the telescope into orbit one million miles away from Earth (see our previous Sensemaker for more detail). Second, this image shows the infrared light put out by galaxies formed over 13 billion years ago, which appear as red smudges. To think about: this picture covers a patch of sky equivalent to holding up a grain of sand at arm’s length. There’s a lot more out there for us to discover. 

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Child poverty
The UK government’s levelling up mantra pledges to give everyone “no matter where they live, the opportunity to flourish”. You might think that tackling regional inequalities in child poverty, a key indicator of future opportunity, would be a top priority. But it is not mentioned in the 332-page policy document – a fact that makes today’s statistics from the End Child Poverty Coalition even starker, particularly for the North East, where child poverty hit 38 per cent in the year to 2021. Newcastle has seen child poverty increase by 14 per cent since 2014. The Bishop of Durham, a child poverty campaigner, says: “This is not right in a compassionate and just society like ours.” What can be done about it? Today’s episode of our podcast series Life, changing in partnership with The Nuffield Foundation explores the issue. But a decade of austerity and the dismantling and re-inventing of existing support schemes has left a patchwork of underfunded services for parents. The solution: a clear strategy that recognises how important early childhood support is to building a healthy society. 

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

German gas
European governments are on edge after the biggest pipeline carrying Russian gas to Germany was closed for maintenance. The Nord Stream 1 pipeline, which transports 55 billion cubic metres of gas annually, is due to reopen on 21 July but there are fears Moscow could keep the pipeline closed, threatening European energy supplies this winter. Germany has warned that an abrupt shutoff of gas would tip the economy into recession. “Around 5.6 million jobs would be affected by the consequences,” said Bertram Brossardt, from the vbw industry association of the state of Bavaria. Canada agreed to return a repaired turbine for the pipeline under a “time-limited permit” at Germany’s request, overriding sanctions and the objections of Ukraine. See also: today’s Net Zero Sensemaker on Russia’s free pass for nuclear. 


Mo Farah trafficked into Britain
Olympic champion Mo Farah has revealed that he was trafficked to the UK as a child, given a new name and forced to work as a domestic servant. Farah, who said he wanted to challenge public attitudes towards trafficking and slavery, told a BBC documentary that he was taken from Djibouti aged nine and flown to the UK by a woman he had never met. His fake travel documents gave him the name “Mohamed Farah” – his real name is Hussein Abdi Kahin. “For years I just kept blocking it out,” he says. “But you can only block it out for so long.” A sports teacher helped him find a foster family and apply for British citizenship. Farah was warned in the documentary, which is out this week, that he was putting his citizenship at risk, but the Home Office said that “no action whatsoever” will be taken against the athlete. 

Thanks for reading. Please share this round and tell us your thoughts on any stories we’ve missed. Email sensemaker@tortoisemedia.com.

Paul Caruana Galizia

With additional reporting by Jessica Winch, Nina Kuryata and Phoebe Davis.

Photographs Getty Images, BBC, NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI

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