JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman, 30.5.09
THE GENERAL ELECTION is almost a year away; and yet the government seems so obviously weak, divided, and burned out that many can scarcely imagine it lasting that long. Those in power stand accused of abusing Britain’s traditional constitutional settlement in ways that have over-centralised decision-making, reduced the power and autonomy of MP’s, and turned the once-mighty Westminster Parliament into a mere rubber stamp for government.
Worse, there is an atmosphere of sleaze around; many MP’s stand accused of using their positions for personal enrichment, rather than for the good of their constituents. Leading media personalities are talking of standing for Parliament, against some of the worst offenders. Senior members of the Shadow Cabinet are writing persuasively, in the more serious newspapers, about the urgent need for constitutional reform. And in the meantime, major issues of war and peace, social exclusion and environmental degradation, are largely neglected, as Westminster fiddles, and parts of society are left to burn.
Yes, it’s a familiar and depressing picture, after the political upheavals of the past few weeks. Yet what I’m describing is not the political situation today, but the one back in the summer of 1996, when John Major’s failing government was struggling against the inevitability of its own demise; and it’s the similarity between these two moments in UK political history that makes me increasingly wary of the opposition parties’ strident calls for a general election, as the one-stroke solution to the current mood of public disgust with politics and parliament.
For what history tells us is this: that the structural problems in the organisation of British politics are now so deep that if a general election were held now – on the basis of an unreformed electoral system, and an unreformed system for the nomination and selection of candidates – then for those of us with vivid memories of 1997, the day after that election would seem pretty much like Groundhog Day. The new young leader, his wife and family would walk up Downing Street to declare a brave new dawn of decency and accountability in British politics; a few constitutional reform measures would be written into the first Queen’s Speech, although nothing radical enough to entail serious change at Westminster.
Then the gates would swing shut, and it would soon be business as usual. Lobbying and media pressures would dictate the re-emergence of the normal pattern of politics, with MP’s whipped into a dull appearance of unanimity, central government making shows of strength on issues supposed to be decided elsewhere, and any chance of real people-power undermined by powerful vested interests. And thirteen or fourteen years down the road, we would find ourselves back in the same position, with a raddled and exhausted Cameron defending the indefensible, and some bright young leader from the opposition benches portraying himself – or even herself – as the people’s friend, and the one-vote remedy for all our political ills.
And that, in the end, is the crux of the matter: that if the moral and intellectual quality of British politics is to improve, then all those of us outside the professional political game are going to have to do much more, in future, than make that single Westminster cross on a ballot paper, once every five years. In the first place, we need to reconcile ourselves to voting more often and more subtly, as we already do in Scottish national and local elections. We need to use a range of different electoral systems, to exert a series of balancing pressures on our politicians; and we need fully to embrace the idea of coalition and minority government, as preferable to the large “false majorities”, and hundreds of safe seats, generated by the Westminster system.
And then secondly, we also need to think about re-engaging with the party system through which our parliamentarians are nominated and selected, either by rejoining and reforming existing parties, or by creating completely new ones, better fitted to the political landscape of our time. Of course, to many people, that just sounds too time-consuming to be a serious option; too much like hard work, too boring compared with an evening watching Britain’s Got Talent.
But let’s suppose, just for a moment, that the current economic downturn is more than a mere blip in an endlessly self-mending market system. Let us imagine that we might – as all the numbers suggest – be facing a real energy and resource crunch, and a long term need to live by a different scale of values. And let’s assume, just for a moment, that in that new world, we find ourselves both with more time on our hands – millions of us will be unemployed, after all – and with a much stronger sense of how bad government could severely damage our lives; then that could be the moment when poltical reform really begins.
For as we have learned in Scotland these last ten years, new structures – from transparent expenses systems to proportional representation – can help protect political institutions from the worst excesses of arrogance and sleaze. But in the end, if citizens remain disengaged and cynical, the effect of such change tends to be marginal. It only begins to make a decisive difference at the point where some profound social shock, driving up from the grassroots of politics, starts to generate completely new political forces. Now, a change of that kind is beginning to test the old Westminster system to destruction. And although a swift general election now might ease the pressure of public disdain for a year or two, we need to recognise that it will take more than a set of new faces at the top to rescue British democracy from the cycle of disrepute into which it now tends to fall; and to rebuild its living connection with the ordinary voters of this country, in a form that can withstand the pressures of the age.