Is Our Democratic Process Under Threat?

“When the public feel their politicians are for sale, it makes it increasingly hard for them to trust their leaders.”

This article appeared in the print edition of the Evening Telegraph: 03/08/2020 [Online] Available:  [Accessed: 2020, Aug 05] 

If you were asked to identify one thing which influenced your vote in the referendum on European Union membership in 2016, what would it be? Two days before the vote, a journalist reporting on the campaign in Sunderland approached a middle-aged man awaiting a train to Newcastle and asked how he would vote. He wanted Brexit citing pit closures, de-industrialisation and the admission of Turkey to the EU as reasons. The journalist asked where he heard this, the man replied: “Facebook.”

The journalist was Peter Geoghegan and this encounter prompted his new book ‘Democracy for Sale’, which investigates the extent to which dark money buys votes and undermines democracy. Despite being analytically dense, the book conveys Geoghegan’s gift for story-telling as he unveils research on obscure protagonists like Brexit-backing businessmen Arron Banks and Richard Cook as well as surveying the organisational origins of Cambridge Analytica and the European Research Group.

Peter Geoghegan was born in Ireland and grew up in the small rural town of Longford before completing a PhD in Edinburgh on life after the Good Friday Agreement. Now aged 39 and living in Glasgow, Geoghegan is investigations editor for openDemocracy as well as being a broadcaster and decorated writer, earning various awards including a Saltire Award nomination for his first book ‘The People’s Referendum’. Peter and I spoke a week in advance of the release of his new book.

Research published by Cambridge University in January revealed that 58 per cent of people were unhappy with democracy. Why such a crisis in confidence? Geoghegan says: “When the public feel politicians are for sale, it makes it hard for them to trust their leaders. In the United Kingdom and United States, there is clearer evidence of the use of money to influence the democratic process.” However, he adds that a lack of electoral reform and representative democracy have also dented faith in politics.

Given his historic work on Scottish independence and the fact polling is situated at a historic high, I ask for Geoghegan’s view. He says: “Everyone assumed Scotland would see a surge for independence after Brexit but actually the pandemic has had more influence.” He adds: “I find it hard to envisage support for independence going away but, even if the SNP secure a majority next May and there is a democratic mandate, I am sceptical whether Boris Johnson will allow a second referendum.”

Despite his view that the appetite for democratic reform is minimal, Peter Geoghegan is remarkably optimistic about the future. In terms of what he hopes his book will achieve, he says: “I am keen to spark conversations about what democracy is, about its health and to look at ways we can prevent corporations and lobbyists using dark money to warp healthy and open democratic debate.” ‘Democracy for Sale’, published by Head of Zeus, is available in book stores from Thursday August 6 for £14.99.