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.