Sunday, 28 September 2014

If a week is a long time in politics…..

If a week in politics is a long time, then the last week must have seemed like an eternity in Westminster.  The referendum was won but then confused by the Prime Minister’s attempt to link further Scottish devolution with ‘English votes for English laws’.  Then Ed Miliband ‘forgot’ to mention the deficit in his speech on Tuesday, something that did little to suggest a Prime Minister in the making, and his attempt to resolve the problem of England by focusing on regionalism—he needs Scottish MPs to be able to vote in Westminster.  Then, on Friday, the House of Commons voted in favour of the use of British planes in Iraq against IS..a third Iraq war…Britain’s involvement in the Middle East is increasingly resembling the Hundred Years War.  Finally, a second Conservative MP defected to UKIP and a junior minister resigned after what appears was a newspaper ‘sting’—you would really think that they would have learned from past experience about these and yet politicians appear to fall for it every time--not an ideal beginning to the Conservative Party conference.

Looking at all these mistakes, errors of judgement, what many call betrayal, is it too much to suggest that the political system is in ‘crisis’?  I know that politicians have bad weeks but I find it difficult to remember when they actually had a good one.  It appears that they have come under the Voltairean delusion that ‘everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds’ or ‘things can only get better’!  Well, they’re not.  There is a profound and continuing disillusionment with the political system, politicians and everything emanating from Westminster.  It’s not simply that politicians get things wrong—we all do that—or that they appear out of touch with the lives of ordinary people—it has ever been thus—it’s a sense that something is fundamentally wrong with the body politic—something rotten in the state of Denmark.  It raises questions about what is the point of the United Kingdom in the twenty-first century?

One of the things that History teaches us is that societies in which there is a disconnect between the aspirations of its peoples and the credibility and legitimacy of its political elites is that it leads to growing economic, social , cultural and political pressures and that if these pressures are not reduced then those societies often fragment.  In the past, people have assumed that their political leaders have solutions to their everyday problems and, although there may have been different emphases among different politicians, to some extent they did.  The primary aim for politicians at least since 1945 was to make sure that people had work, were educated, had proper health provision and a good standard of living—they ensured that people’s aspirations were as least partially met.  There were always some who fell through the social net and welfare provision provided support for their needs.  At a time of growing globalisation and global tensions, British society—or more accurately English society—is turning in on itself, becoming less tolerant, more xenophobic, more clearly divided between the rich and the rest and unhappy with itself.  This, in part, explains why UKIP is gaining  increasing support across the political spectrum—you make a grave error if you think its appeal is simply to those with right-wing views,its jingoistic rhetoric appeals equally to white working-class voters on the left.  The mainstream political parties may ridicule UKIP—and much of what it says is easy to ridicule—but what it does and does very effectively is to speak for those who feel increasingly dispossessed in their own country for whom unfettered immigration and membership of the European Union are the fundamental causes of Britain’s woes.  The unwillingness of both Labour and the Conservatives to call a referendum on membership of the EU—despite saying they would—is a longstanding reflection of this disillusion that predates the formation of UKIP and is something Gordon Brown should have done over the Lisbon Treaty almost a decade ago.  We simply do not trust politicians to do what they say they’re going to do—something people are finding increasingly irksome. 

Monday, 22 September 2014

What does democracy mean in Britain?

Britain undergoes periods of democratic introspection about once every decade but what is often a frenzy of calls for constitutional change quickly subsides and the country returns to its normal state of constitutional lassitude.  Britain is not unique in doing this—crises in the body politic globally tends to lead to existing governmental structures baring the brunt of public opprobrium with the emergence of new political parties saying that they have the solution of the nation’s woes.  So what does democracy actually mean in Britain and why is our attitude to it so ambivalent?
For many in Britain, democracy relates to the right to express their opinion through the ballot box, a right that evolved between the Reform Act in 1832 and the Representation of the People Act in 1928—a process that took almost a century.  The extension of the vote to include those between 18 and 21 in 1969 marked an end to the democratisation of the electorate and the only way this could be altered is to extend the vote down to 16 and 17 year olds—something achieved with some success in the Scottish referendum.  Parallel to the extension of the vote has been the emergence of pressure group politics where interest groups seek to exert influence on government through parliamentary and extra-parliamentary pressure and party politics through which different sections is society seek to achieve electoral dominance.  So democracy in Britain can be expressed individually through participation in local, national, Union and European elections, through seeking to influence government policy through legitimate pressure and lobbying and from within political parties, processes made both more complex and more immediate by the twenty-four hour nature of the media and the emergence of social networking.  Politicians are now expected to be able to react immediately and often instinctively to emerging stories in the media with an appropriate and often inappropriate sound bites almost before events occur.  Today democracy is played out on the television screen, the tablet or smartphone—everyone it seems has an opinion—and there has been a ‘technologing’ of politics as never before.
The problem is that our constitutional and political structures have not been keeping pace with the changes in how people experience democracy.  In one sense that may not be a bad thing since constitutional change needs to be a considered process—rapid constitutional change is often poor constitutional change.  But the lag between people’s perceptions of how democracy works for them and a responding repackaging of constitutional structures to reflect those perceptions has resulted in a growing dissatisfaction with Westminster politics and its seeming inability to do more than adopting the classic ‘we know what’s best’ approach to challenges to its legitimacy.  This is reflected in the falling numbers of people who votes in elections, further reducing their legitimacy and the legitimacy of those elected to public office—why should we bother to vote when it doesn’t change anything?  Our democratic system is linked almost exclusively to the question of voting rather than taking a broader view of democracy as a participatory process—the campaigns in Scotland clearly show what the impact of active participation are and their effect on voter turnout.  Our representative system based on the notion that ‘if you don’t like what we’re doing you can vote us out at the next election’ is today insufficiently responsive to people’s democratic aspirations.  Whether an English Parliament is the solution to this is unlikely—it simply adds another tier of already discredited politicians.