Black rod -Photography by Jessica Taylor, copyright UK Parliament.
Why has British politics fallen so low? This question has pre-occupied me for some time. Why do we not have the great leaders capable of addressing the existential challenges facing humanity? There are many excellent MPs. On the other hand why are a so many MPs and government ministers clearly uninformed and unfit for their jobs? Why has the quality of our politicians deteriorated? There is no shortage of outstandingly able people. Why aren’t enough to politics? In this article I shall describe how far our democracy has fallen, the consequences for citizens and present the key arguments in A C Graylings article The Long Road Back that explain why it fell and how it can be retrieved.
Successive governments over the past forty years have failed to tackle our systemic problems. Economic growth has been has not been equally shared. Income inequality and wealth inequality is now twice as high and rising. Labour’s share of the national income has fallen for nearly 40 years. A UN expert claims UK has violated its human rights obligations through sustained and widespread cuts to social support. The UK is the most regionally unequal country in the EU. 14 million people now live in poverty- 67% of whom live in working households. 5 million are estimated to be working in insecure jobs. Child poverty is rising – 1 in 3 children live in poverty. 5 million people have in insecure jobs. The housing crisis continues. Life expectancy has stagnated and homelessness has become an epidemic. Wealth is concentrated at the top: the richest 10% now own 45% of the country’s wealth; the poorest half of households own just 9%. Brexit is hitting the economy and will make it harder to address these challenges. (With acknowledgement to The New Economics Zine.
Growing anger with the failure of Westminster to change all this underlies much of the Brexit vote. In contrast with this, Jacinda Ardern, the enlightened prime minister of New Zealand has announced that wellbeing will be the organising principle of her country’s national budget.
The UK is deeply divided over Brexit. Not only are the nations and regions split; so are people within them. Families are split. It makes little sense when two opposing Ministers, MPs or members of the public express their views in a few minutes on radio news or television. We are left none the wiser, no more enlightened than before. Membership of the EU is too important to be treated superficially.
Feelings are strong. There is abnormal uncertainty about the future. It is not good for us. Many people are depressed and in despair. People are tired of Brexit and just want it over. Anger is becoming a dangerous epidemic. The Labour MP Jo Cox died after being shot and stabbed multiple times following a constituency meeting by a man apparently with far right views. Some women MPs have decided not to stand again. Others have asked to be escorted by police. MPs, some red in the face, shout at each other in the House of Commons. Much debate is a display of ideology and ignorance. Prime Minister’s question time is a display of nastiness, insults and evasion rather than sensible dialogue. Surely it is time to end this senseless performance. It serves no useful purpose. It must be said that this is in contrast to the useful proceedings in parliamentary select committees. Then there are the absurdities of the ancient rituals in that Gothic Parliament building, and the involvement of the monarch.
Boris Johnson must be the worst Prime Minister in living memory. We have a Prime Minister 0.13 per cent of the population voted for whose word cannot be trusted, and to quote Alastair Campbell’s article in the New European 31 October We’re still in the game…but boy, do own goals make it harder: “a liar, a charlatan, someone parading as a man of the people while pursuing a policy that will damage the lives of the poorest and weakest most”. Why have we sunk so low?
A C Graylings article The Long Road Back casts considerable light on the matter. Here I shall an abridged version of his key arguments. He argues that when the Brexit issue is resolved, as well as addressing serious inequalities and injustices in our economy and society, there is a huge clean-up operation required in our political and constitutional order.
Whatever the outcome of the Brexit debacle – whether the UK leaves the EU or remains in it, or soon returns to it, or survives as ‘the UK’, or splits into two or three separate states – the debacle itself is already a mark of closure, an ending, to something that has been integral to one major stream of British self-identity. This was the lingering belief, after the end of empire, in the superior nature of everything British: The character of the people, the institutions of the state, the contributions made to world science, thought and culture, and the globally dominant English language itself.
The pride and pomp of the British in the heyday of empire did not last long. The phrase “lost an empire and not yet found a role” was on their lips. Entry to the EEC/EU saved the country’s economy and saw it flourish, and offered a new and significant role as one of the big three states in one of the big three blocs in the emerging new post-Cold War world, alongside the USA and China.
A mature and intelligent acceptance of this new role and its great possibilities seemed to have established itself at the beginning of the new century, as expressed by the success and confidence of the London Olympics in 2012. But alas, there was still too much rot in the floorboards, and British self-congratulation in the first decade of the 21st century had given a group of people in our political order – a fifth column from the past – the feeling that now was the time to reassert what they mythologised as the spirit of Britain in Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee.
The ‘Eurosceptics’ in the Tory Party, soon and unexpectedly to be aided and abetted by the little rump of far-left Eurosceptics in the Labour Party, had been giving their own party leaders a great deal of trouble ever since the UK joined the then-EEC in 1973. Their power varied inversely with the number of Tory seats in the House of Commons. They succeeded in getting a Tory prime minister, David Cameron, leading a minority Tory party in the House of Commons and therefore in coalition, to commit to a referendum on continued EU membership.
There was no other reason for having such a referendum; it was purely an internal Tory party affair. The surprise win by the Tories in 2015 (gifted by the swing to the left of the Labour Party, away from the successful version of liberal-left social democracy created by Blair and Brown) cemented Cameron into carrying out that promise. However, very few things have a single, simple cause. The circumstances of the 2016 referendum, its nature, and its consequences, have multiple causes that jointly led to the stupefying mess in the country and its political and constitutional order that we are now in.
The Eurosceptics made good use of these other factors. They are as follows.
First, there was the policy from 2010 of austerity and the resulting large and rapid increase in inequality, which affected some areas of the country and economy much more drastically than others. This was a foolish and short-sighted policy that did not reduce national debt but caused harm to the social fabric and hardship for millions of individuals and families. Keynes had taught that you borrow and spend in a downturn, save and repay in an upturn; the Tories did the opposite.
Second, there was a series of bad mistakes and misjudgements by David Cameron and Ed Miliband, the leaders of the two main parties. Cameron’s mistakes were to offer a referendum, to introduce and enact a poorly designed referendum bill, to make a political promise to treat the result as mandating despite the fact that no referendum can trump the sovereignty of parliament, to regard himself as a lucky chap so there was no need to make much effort in campaigning to remain, and to assume that the country would not be stupid enough to vote to leave. Miliband’s mistake was to change the rules for Labour Party membership and for election of the leader in such a way as to make the party hostage to the least electable – and as it has proved, least effective – leadership since Foot.
Third, there is the quality of MPs after decades in the EU. Membership of the EU brought a degree of general consistency and equilibrium to the economies and states of the member nations, even taking into account the misguided austerity policies after 2010 in the UK itself. This has lessened the temperature of political debate in the UK, premised as it is (unlike most other EU countries) on a deeply adversarial style of politics.
That moderated, with a more temperate tone entering politics in the period between the end of Thatcher and the post-2010 coalition. But as a result, politics became somewhat less attractive to energetic, clever and ambitious people, with the result that – with some extremely honourable exceptions – the general quality of MPs is not nearly what it was.
Banal careerism, the unchallenged sway of the party whips, unthinking sound-bite ideas as the staple of political discourse, the fact that literally hundreds of MPs in the Tory party can support a profoundly unfit person such as Boris Johnson in the office of prime minister – this is a mark of serious decline in quality of those elected to the legislature. Add to this the nature of party machines – so inflexible that in the Labour Party (for example) a deeply unpopular, ineffective, electorally toxic leader such as Corbyn can remain in the position of leader in the face of every indicator that he should be replaced – and one sees that ossification in the country’s political structures invites much blame.
Fourth, there is the innate fragility and dysfunction of the UK’s outdated and ramshackle constitutional order. The uncodified constitution – ‘a series of understandings that no-one understands’ – is very convenient for any party that commands a majority in the House of Commons, because they can do whatever they like, always getting their agenda enacted and controlling the business of the House of Commons itself.
Among many other problems, this is the result of a key fault of the UK constitution, which is that there is no separation of powers between the legislature (parliament) and executive (the government – meaning, the cabinet and prime minister). In normal circumstance the government is drawn from the majority in the House of Commons, which means that the government controls the House of Commons through the whipping system of party control. Instead of holding the government to account, therefore, parliament is in effect the creature of the government, and does what the government wants.
This situation was accurately described as “elective tyranny” by a British Lord Chancellor, Lord Hailsham and concluded that the system was unsafe: governments which control the legislature have unlimited powers to do what they like.
This is as true today as it was when he wrote it. This is dangerous enough in itself; but now consider what happens when a clique – say, Eurosceptics – come to exercise power over the government in respect of crucial decisions such as EU membership, holding the government hostage to their demands. The clique controls the executive, the executive controls parliament, parliament is absolute in its powers: The clique is the tail that wags the entire dog. So long as those in office are mature, intelligent and honourable men and women, they will act with restraint, and resist the pressures to wield the absolute power they have; this is what John Stuart Mill saw as the chief means of maintaining ‘constitutional morality’ in the state. But obviously, when people of lower quality, less integrity, less intelligence and less honour populate these offices of state, danger looms. And that danger has burst upon us in the form of Brexit.
Every referendum held in the UK since the Irish unification referendum ……(and referendums should not happen in a representative democracy) has been held on a different basis. Lack of clarity and consistency in important events such as these is the mark of an unstable and fragile constitution. The doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty is very uneasily challenged by referendums: the latter raise the question – Which is the authority in the state – elected representatives with a duty to be informed and to act in the interests of all, or an opinion poll of people many of whom are casting their vote on the basis far more of emotion than information?
One of the major scandals of the 2016 referendum is that its outcome has never been debated in parliament. The question, ‘Shall we take the advice of 37% of the electorate to take an enormous, uncosted, unplanned and unpredictable step?’ has never been debated and voted upon in our sovereign state body.
And finally on this fourth point, we need to recall that our hopelessly undemocratic first past the post electoral system lies at the rotten core of these arrangements. It disenfranchises the majority of voters, turning them off politics. It puts majorities into the House of Commons on minorities of the popular vote. It entrenches two-party politics, in which elections produce one-party government by turns – with the foregoing ‘elective tyranny’ resulting. It is a mess, and reform is urgently needed.
Fifth, there is the availability of powerful new ways to practice the old tricks of spin and propaganda: Social media – which allows careful targeting of messages to identified groups which only they see, so that others cannot contest the messages and correct misinformation. This was a significant factor in the outcome of the 2016 referendum, as claimed by Dominic Cummings and Cambridge Analytica themselves. Some 37% of the electorate was persuaded by these means to vote in favour of a blank proposition with no plan, no impact assessments, no costings, no road map and no set of policies attached to it, an astonishing achievement when you think about it: A perfect con, the sale for a very high price of a tatty paper bag with an unknown thing – or nothing – in it.
Put all the foregoing together and you see that the UK is in a woeful state, and once the Brexit debacle has been cleared up – I hope and expect by being stopped – there is a huge clean-up operation required in our political and constitutional order, in addition to addressing the serious inequalities and injustices in our economy and society. The slogan we need to be shouting from the housetops is not just “STOP BREXIT” but also “REFORM”. If we are still in the EU when we do this, we can expect a double benefit – all the good of continued membership, and with it greater stability, transparency and common sense in the governance of our own state. If we are (temporarily) outside the EU, we need to get rid of the rot in the floorboards of our constitutional order in order to construct the mature, intelligent and responsible governance required to get us back on track.
We in the UK have skated on very thin political and constitutional ice for a long time; the wealth and prestige of empire, the nostalgic dream it left behind, the self-deceptions and illusions of those who could not see how good a future was developing for us as a leading nation in Europe, made us unaware of the danger. We have fallen through that ice, and the bitterly cold waters we now flounder in must at last wake us up.
This is my summary of what needs to be done:
Re-imagining Democracy – A Collaborative Democracy
- A written Constitution
- A Citizen-led Convention to determine the Constitution .
- Parliament to be the principal decision-making body of Government
- First Minister as head of Government elected by Parliament as a whole
- Proportional representation for national, regional and local government
- 50:50 representation for women and proportionate representation for Black, Asian and ethnic minorities.
- Devolution of power from Westminster to regions, local government and communities – the principle of subsidiarity
- An elected reviewing chamber representing the regions.
- Total recall for all elected politicians
- A cap on individual funding and complete disclosure
- End the so-called “revolving door”
- Votes from age 16
- The Rights of Future Generations to be recognised
- Strengthen the powers of the Electoral Commission
Re-imagining Political Leadership.
- Compassionate – compassion is the most important factor in making decisions
- A servant leader
- Presence rather than charisma
- Enabling – a leader of leaders
- Getting the whole system into the room, involving all stakeholders, using Citizens Conventions in making change
- Collaborating to bring about change
- From Heroes to Hosts
- Modelling good leadership for others such as valuing difference, non-violent communication and listening
- Able to unite a highly talented team as Clement Attlee did
- Internationalist – wanting all nations to flourish. Peacemakers
- Inclusive, involving diverse people in creating a vision for the future. Standing for diversity
- Integrity – truthful, values based, able to admit mistakes, putting national interest rather than party interest first
- Not engaging in silly point scoring
If you want to change things for the better, here are some campaigns to support:
Campaigns to Stop Brexit: Another Europe is Possible, European Movement UK, People’s Vote Campaign, Scientists for EU, Remainer Now.
Campaigns for political reform: The Young People’s Party, For our Future’s Sake, Our Future Our Choice, UK Youth Parliament, Compass-The Progressive Alliance, The Electoral Reform Society , Citizens Assembly Project, Unlock Democracy, Make Votes Matter, Counting Women In, 50:50 Parliament, Women’s Equality Party, Voice4 Change, People’s Vote.
I am an author, writer and speaker. I give participative talks in communities, universities, schools and at conferences. My latest book is The 21st Century Revolution – A Call to Greatness . If you like what you read in my Blog, please spread the word.