To put it mildly, mainstream politics has an image problem. To put it less mildly, it has a public reputation to rival Dr Harold Shipman’s. We saw it last week in Clacton and in Heywood and Middleton, and will see it again in Rochester and Strood on November 6. We saw it last month in Dundee and Glasgow. We saw it a few years ago in the extraordinary outpouring of fury that greeted the MPs’ expenses revelations. We see it in every new opinion survey.
As one academic put it to me after the Clacton result: ‘Ukippers basically distrust everybody’. The same could be said of the Yes-voting hordes that careened around George Square at those impromptu ceilidhs and who now gaze lovingly at their shiny new SNP membership cards. The same could be said of those who’ve given up voting altogether. This collapse of trust in the established order of things is the greatest internal crisis facing our country today.
What do we do about it? We need a fix, clearly, because mainstream politics has to be rehabilitated. Neither Ukip – new motto: ‘we have principles. If you don’t like them we have others’ — nor the nationalists or the Greens or the socialists, nor any of the other fringe temptresses, are the solution to anything. Their policies may differ but they have one definitive, shared characteristic: they are not part of the reality-based community. They are extremists, touting fantastical wish-lists.
To be frank: politics attracts more than its share of the arrogant, the unpleasantly ambitious, the emotionally unintelligent and the downright odd. Of course it does. Who else would want that rootless, celeb-lite, half-infamous, peculiarly lonely existence, and to hang out with other people who want that too? Westminster is both an awe-inspiring and a bizarre place. And though there are plenty of good, conscientious people on the green benches or doing the donkey work backstage, power is seen to be controlled by an elite: often privately and Oxbridge educated, increasingly dynastic, a highly specialist profession that George Osborne calls ‘The Guild’. It applies to them all: Tory, Labour and Lib Dem. They have their own language, skill set, even morality – they seem, like human pond skaters, merely to skitter across the surface of our world.
Disraeli referred to Robert Peel’s Conservative government as ‘an organised hypocrisy’, and many would now extend that epithet to the political class as a whole. The feeling is reciprocated – the voters are cussed, ill informed, unreasonable, ungrateful. They can’t be reckoned with, or voted out. And in increasing numbers they are batting their eyelashes at greasy populists who promise the earth safe in the knowledge that they’ll never be in a position to deliver.
But here’s the thing: the voters, like the customer, are always right. If politicians who complain about the press are like a ship’s captain complaining about the sea, those who grumble about the voters are simply the milk grumbling about the cow.
If parts of the electorate have taken a shine to Mr Farage and the loopy leaders of the perimeter it should tell the big parties something: that the world is changing, that people don’t believe their interests are being served, that ‘you’re doing it wrong’. The question you – the career politician — need to answer is, what do they mean by ‘it’?
It’s clear the country requires major democratic reform, and that significant power must be handed from the centre to national assemblies, local authorities and communities. Many at Westminster (and at Holyrood) say this is a bad idea, that there isn’t the talent base and that it would lead to chaos. This is to miss the point. There were plenty of people who voted Yes in the independence referendum in the full awareness that bumpy times would lie ahead. But they valued the relocation of control and ownership over stability. The same is true of the Ukippers: they want a bigger stake in the way things are done, to feel that their voice counts. They don’t want an Establishment – in Brussels or London – taking decisions for them any more.
But I wonder whether there isn’t something beyond even this – a cultural and psychological shift that politicians haven’t spotted or, if they have, are too frightened to address. I wonder whether the basic craft of their trade needs to change; whether it’s time for a new art of public discourse, a rethink of the practice of politics. A few years ago, after a particularly long-winded and tedious speech by the current education minister Mike Russell, one wit said that he’d ‘spoken for so long his suit came back into fashion’. What if The Guild has been up there blowing its own trumpet for so long that its style has gone out of fashion? That it’s no longer fit for purpose, is a bit of a lame arrangement, that you (you again, the career politician) are ‘doing it wrong’?
Wherever I look in politics these days all I see is loose wiring, the bodge job of cheap handymen. During the referendum campaign, Labour aggressively blasted away at the SNP for its ludicrous claim that Westminster intended to privatise the NHS. Then, within what seemed minutes of the result being declared, Labour began blasting away at the Tories for planning to privatise the NHS. This is the daily soap opera. You can see why voters might feel they are being taken for idiots.
And they are. The political classes display blatant contempt for the intelligence of the electorate. They see themselves as wizards, making us ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ with their clever illusions, their levitations and rabbits and hats. They don’t realise the audience can see the colourful handkerchief hanging from their sleeve, the trapdoor in the stage floor, that the lovely assistant’s legs remain attached to the rest of her body.
Politics needs to be saved from the politicians. We live in an age of peer-to-peer communication, in which a lie or a bluff can be exposed as such on the internet within minutes. Deference is gone, institutions are tottering, people have choice and empowerment in most areas of their lives. No one believes in magic or magicians any more.
So, what if there was a new way of doing things? What if we agreed to level with one another, to come to terms with complexity, to talk straight? The political class could admit it is weaker than it has ever been. It could explain that Britain, like every other country, is wrapped in a web of multi-national agreements, signed up to a welter of treaties, has pooled its sovereignty through the EU and the UN. That this is all necessary in a globalised world where no country can do just what it likes.
It could explain that big business is a mighty, border-straddling force, often able to move country at will, to organise its tax affairs in ‘efficient’ ways, and no longer dances to the nation state’s tune.
It could admit that all this imposes restrictions, that there are major downsides and that getting your way is always difficult and sometimes impossible. But it could begin to tell the story of the benefits, too – the prosperity, unparalleled in human history, that has accompanied the opening up of borders and the rise of free trade; that the EU and the UN, for all the weaknesses and need for reform, are places where countries come to talk and find agreement, and that, looking back over the course of centuries, this relative harmony is not to be lightly dismissed or walked out on.
It’s hard to gainsay humility and honesty. In a way, this new Britain already exists and it’s for the democratic superstructure to catch up. I suspect this will in time require a new voting system, new parties to compete with the old, extreme devolution, the full embrace of the opportunities of the technological revolution and more. And at the heart of it all will be humans, with their human failings, human quirks and human vanities: it will always be a strange person who seeks to run the lives of the rest. We’d better think about some new ground rules, because things will never go back to how they used to be – they never do.
(This article appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on October 13, 2014)