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Party pieces

Simon Barrow

BarrowWith Britain's major political parties and parliamentary systems facing big challenges to their capability and viability over the past year, 2012 is likely to produce further defining moments for our democratic polity - and that of Europe, too, where controversially non-elected governments have emerged in Italy and Greece as part of an effort to stave off the threat to the Eurozone.

The latest shockwave has been provided by David Cameron's decision to veto a European treaty change backed by the great majority of the 27 EU members. Only Hungary now also looks set to stay outside an accord aimed at facilitating greater fiscal union and regulation of financial institutions.

The British PM has set his face against this change partly, it seems, to placate backbench Eurosceptics who might threaten the coalition government; but also to protect the interests of the Conservative party's friends in the City of London and to stave off perceived future pressure from European restructuring.

What all this signals is not the end of a financial crisis, but the deepening of a political one. This revolves around competing definitions of sovereignty and a set of democratic deficits worsened by global recession, unstable debt and the 'orthodox' austerity measures that threaten social instability as well as economic recovery.

In 2011 the hands of governments have been tied by the fickleness of markets dominated by corporate interests, as well as a private banking sector in need of substantial reform. Mainstream politicians may sneer at the worldwide Occupy movement, but the protesters seem clearer about the core problem than those elected to solve it.

The recently deceased German essayist Christa Wolf said that human political flourishing comes from paying attention to grassroots initiatives for change rather than top-down interests and ideologies.

This is a tough message for the big political parties to grasp. But it seems increasingly unavoidable. This year Westminster will need to respond to the Committee for Standards in Public Life recommendation of a £10,000 annual cap on individual party donations. Corporate bankrollers, lobbyists and media barons will also face greater scrutiny. Politicians may squirm, but reformers will see their discomfort as necessary growing pains.

Meanwhile, Britain is likely to become more isolated in Europe, which in turn will face more calls for genuine democratic accountability at all levels. The debate about Scotland's future will heat up. And the coalition between Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties will face its biggest challenges yet.
The political ride is set to get bumpier. But the key question remains: who does (and who should) call the shots in shaping the capacity of our key institutions both to respond to popular pressures and to ride the economic tiger?  n

Simon Barrow