Looking back over the posts I’ve written over the last few years it seems appropriate, that having spent a great deal of time writing about the nature of and reasons for radical change in Britain, Canada and Australia and about how women and men struggled to get their voice heard by the political establishment, my thousandth post should be on the challenge facing contemporary British politics. Nicola Sturgeon, perhaps the most thoughtful of the party leaders—and I mean this as a compliment-- today promised that her party would reform the discredited ‘Westminster system’ to meet the demands of ‘ordinary people’ across the UK. Though her agenda remains Scottish independence, she has articulated something that is blindingly obvious to anyone beyond the ‘Westminster village’—the current Westminster system is in need of radical reform. Since devolution was introduced in Scotland and Wales in 1998, the major political parties have failed to address this issue. Yes, they’ve tinkered round the edges but this has been largely cosmetic rather than ‘real change’.
There have been moves on House of Lords reform but they appear to have stuttered to a halt. Attempts at electoral reform and changing constituency boundaries foundered with the proportional representation referendum and party politics in Parliament. Belatedly, the Conservatives have come to the conclusion that things like the NHS and local government cannot be managed from Westminster. But, and it was exemplified on the debate on the use of the secret ballot in relation to the Speaker, many politicians do not recognise that what they do appears petty, corrupt and out-of-touch with the lives of ordinary people. Insulated in their ‘bubble’, they only emerge when they need your vote and even then tardily if it’s a ‘safe’ seat. Is the system ‘discredited’ in the eyes of many voters? Well, if voter turnout is a good indicator, and I think it is, the falling number of people who bother to vote in any elections—local, national or European—makes clear just what people think of politicians. Now, politicians have never been the most popular of individuals but in the last decade there has been a shift from indifference to what politicians do to one of visceral dislike. They give the impression of a disregard for the electorate, in the public imagination borne out by the expenses scandal, and complete unawareness of the needs and plight of their fellow citizens. We increasingly have a career cadre of politicians in all of the major parties whose experience of work is limited to being research assistants or running their own business, who have been educated in high-flying public or state schools and universities and whose motivation appears less concerned with helping the public than with helping themselves.
Although there is a crying need to reform our public institutions—and I’m not just talking about the political ones—we should be clear that institutions are not in themselves the cause of the discredited system, it’s the people who inhabit and run them and it’s this as much as anything that explains why reform has not taken place. Those within any political system have a marked unwillingness to reform it: it might affect them. Take the House of Lords as an example. Getting rid of the ‘hereditaries’ or at least most of them, was not a real problem as their position was and is indefensible in a democratic system but turning it into an elected House now that’s another matter. Labour may call for this but, it appears, with little enthusiasm to push the matter through—it had thirteen years to do so and failed. Having the ‘gift’ of being able to appoint life peers is, whatever your party, an important tool for managing Parliament. Am I surprised that calls for a federal UK, something discussed at length in the aftermath of the Scottish referendum, have declined from an overwhelming shout to a quiet whimper in the past months? Not really even though it is an obvious solution to the growing crisis in the constitutional legitimacy of government. Whether it’s further devolution, Britain’s place in the European Union, austerity politics or the NHS, the fires of discordance are being stoked by politicians who want to scare us into voting for them because, as far as they’re concerned, everything will be fine if you elect their party into power. The point, and Nicola Sturgeon recognises this, is that it won’t and before long the public, not easily roused from its constitutional apathy, will assert its democratic voice.