The stunned silence from this blogger over the past three weeks is a reflection of the turbulent times we’re going through. I was waiting for events to slow down a bit so that I could reflect on them. But events, dear boy, events kept on coming. Since the announcement of the fateful referendum vote on 23rd June, there are many of us still confused and bewildered. I’m certainly one.
There are plenty of places on the internet where people react to news events. In blogs, social media and so on, much of it takes the form of soundbites, often angry in tone. It’s mostly a case of people shouting at each other without listening. I’ve always tried to make this blog more thoughtful, analytical and reflective than that. But it needs to be rooted in the real world. That world, and in particular Britain, has been convulsed by radical change over the past four weeks. How can we make sense of it all, from a longer-term perspective? Below are a few ideas around the political themes which are beginning to get a bit clearer. (I hope to cover the economic issues next time.)
The Government We Have
So what sort of a government have we ended up with, for now at least? Well, let’s admit it: it could have been a whole lot worse. Theresa May as PM is clearly preferable to Gove, Leadsom (or Angela Loathsome – thanks Private Eye) or Johnson – in that order of awfulness – for different reasons in each case. And yet… May’s cabinet looks worse than Cameron’s in two respects. With the likes of Davis, Johnson, Leadsom and Grayling, the government is more right-wing than its predecessor and is likely to be more socially conservative. For all their faults, especially on economic policy, Osborne and Cameron were social liberals by the standards of the Conservative Party.
May’s speech in Downing Street after becoming PM made a whole load of references to the poor, vulnerable and disadvantaged and could just have easily been delivered by PM Ed Milliband last May if the last general election had turned out differently. But the Tories have form in this respect: say one thing in the first flush of victory, do the opposite in office. Think Thatcher and her emetic quotation from St Francis of Assisi (I feel queasy thinking of it even now), and Cameron’s “greenest government ever” to “green crap”. So any initial optimism should be treated with great caution and much scepticism.
As for the opposition: in short, we don’t have one. The Labour Party has chosen this critical time for the nation to engage in one of the bitterest internal feuds I’ve ever seen. With multiple challenges and huge self-inflicted uncertainties and no clear sense of direction yet from government, we need an active and vigilant opposition holding May and company to account. Instead we have an endless feud and a drawn-out leadership contest which will most likely solve nothing.
I have some sympathy with Jeremy Corbyn when he says he was elected less than a year ago with a clear majority of members’ votes. Also, I agree with most of his policy statements (when they can be deduced). But the Party leader’s day job is to lead his or her team of MPs in the House of Commons. In this, he has clearly failed. It was asking too much of a man who had spent his entire political career as the outsider, the rebel, to suddenly transform himself into a credible Prime Minister in waiting.
Labour and Tories
All of which brings into sharp focus a key difference between the Labour and Conservative Parties. Whilst Labour bickers over procedures and following due processes for elections, the Tories go for the kill. First Johnson, then Fox, Gove and finally Leadsom were made offers they couldn’t refuse and they fell by the wayside. After months of the most vicious and mendacious feuding, they quickly fall into line, stand shoulder to shoulder and pretend they’ve always been the best of friends.
By contrast, some in Labour’s ranks seem happier fighting each other over points too trivial for the majority of voters than fighting the true enemy. I was with some Labour activists recently who were lamenting the fact that some factions within their party seem happier in opposition than in power, as it gives them the moral indignation of complaining how wrong everything is in the world. For them, being out of power is their comfort zone. It’s unsurprising, then, that there’s a mirror image in the Tory Party. A significant number of Conservatives consider themselves the natural party of power – by right – and resent it bitterly when, temporarily, someone else has the impertinence to win an election.
The State of Democracy
It’s ironic to note that both Labour and Conservatives have decided to have broadly the same selection procedure for their party leader: initial sifting by MPs followed by a members’ election from the top two candidates. The Tories aren’t afraid to bypass the second stage when their MPs don’t trust their own members not to vote for the loathsome Leadsom. Labour, by contrast, stick firmly to democratic processes, even if they know it could lead them into an endless loop of ever-more frustrating schism.
An opinion poll last week found that 61% of us agree with the statement that we should rarely or never again use a referendum as the mechanism to settle a decision as complex as membership of the EU. It’s easy to be wise after the event: ask a silly question….
This sorry affair brings into sharp focus one of the disadvantages of not having a written constitution. In most countries who do have one and which allow referenda, there will generally be some principles laid out. These typically would require some form of “super-majority” rule for votes which have far-reaching and major implications. These usually take the form of a two-thirds majority required for change, possibly with some minimum turnout figure. (Even the Synod of the Church of England has such rules!) Debated within the cool light of some constitutional convention, these rules would likely be seen as sensible and proportionate by most people. When setting the rules in a one-off Act of Parliament, as we did, such a rule would have been politically almost impossible. Howls of criticism from the usual rabid anti-EU campaigners would have classed it as cheating by those wishing to remain. The Labour Party allowed itself to be bullied into abstaining in the Commons debate: who would want to be the first to say the British people couldn’t be trusted with such an apparently simple question?
(Written constitutions are not, of themselves, a cure-all. I can immediately think of three obvious downsides of such a system in the USA: logjam in Washington, highly politicised Supreme Court judges and the notorious pro-gun lobby. Perhaps this is a topic worth discussing in more detail at some future time.) Tricky stuff eh, democracy?
What Price a Progressive Future?
For those of us on the centre-left of politics, these are bleak times indeed. I hold a deep belief in the improvability of human society over the medium-to-long term. Similarly, I believe in the power of more and better education and in the value of rational debate as a way of making progress for the greater good. Access to good information and a minimum level of honesty in debate are prerequisites to this. Religious fundamentalism, random acts of suicide / mass murder, the behaviour of politicians during the referendum run-up period, not to mention the threat of a possible President Trump, knock huge dents in that faith.
For the sake of future generations, humanity can – and must – do better.