Playing a dangerous game
If you visit the House of Commons to sit in the public gallery, they hand you a leaflet that emphasises the majesty of the procedure you are witnessing. The ‘mother of parliaments’, it tells you, is the cradle of modern democracy and the gold standard for government of and by the people.
The tone of the leaflet suggests that it’s aimed at foreign tourists, which is just as well, because anybody living in the UK would be well within their rights in reporting our parliamentary mother to social services.
Firstly, to get it out of the way, having a king is plainly at odds with democratic values. Abolishing the monarchy, though, requires more than tweeting #notmyking 23 times a day and buying a Guy Fawkes mask.
You’re paying for him, so until you organise a revolution, he #isyourking.
Similarly, independence might bring a better democratic model for us here in Wales, but we face immediate problems around fundamentals like housing and healthcare that cannot wait for that outcome.
Even in these reduced circumstances, however, we are supposed to have some mechanism for influencing the decisions made on our behalf.
Most of us, of course, never influence Westminster politics with our votes. The first-past-the-post system means that casting a ballot in safe constituencies is largely symbolic. Again though, changing that would be the work of decades.
What I’m addressing here is the system as it is sold to us: the monarchical, Anglocentric, gerrymandered farce of democracy that we are too apathetic to overthrow. How’s that going; on its own terms?
Well, by my reckoning, we haven’t received even the appearance of a democratic outcome to an election since 2005. Tony Blair’s victory that year came with the caveat that he’d finally be handing over the reins to Gordon Brown, because leadership of the nation is the sort of thing decided in an Islington restaurant, rather than a General Election.
At least we knew about that, though. In 2010, after the financial crisis had turned Brown into Admiral Doenitz, we greeted the Conservative/Lib-Dem coalition.
The creation of this government involved the hasty drafting of a programme of government for which nobody at all had voted. Laughably, it included provision for a referendum on electoral reform which David Cameron’s party was not required to support.
2015’s election brought a Conservative majority at the cost of the Brexit referendum which swiftly saw off Cameron. Then we had Theresa May with no mandate, Theresa May with the DUP, Boris Johnson with no mandate, Boris Johnson in coalition with Covid-19, Liz Truss with no mandate, and Rishi Sunak with no mandate.
In the midst of all this, some people clung desperately to the Brexit vote as evidence of democracy enduring. Even for them, though, it must be a stretch.
To keep that show on the road, the UK government has effectively reunified Ireland and created so many vocational exceptions to the restriction on freedom of movement that you could be forgiven for suspecting they’re not quite as averse to immigration as they make out.
All of this means that Keir Starmer’s anxiety to demonstrate caution in the run-up to next year’s election may prove to be reckless in the medium term.
So far, we have had three Keirs. There was the enthusiastic Europhile of Jeremy Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet, the sensible radical who ran for the leadership, and now the Brexit convert who eschews left-wing economics, cleaves to Government foreign policy and is scaling back commitments on the environment and constitutional reform.
Labour enthusiasts tend to nod and wink that he’ll pivot left again once he’s safely elected. How do they think that will go?
People have been voting for governments that bear no relation to what they offered for nearly 20 years. Brexit not only failed to deliver economic results, but hasn’t satisfied those voters who wanted, for whatever reason, to stem immigration and assert UK sovereignty. Democracy is seemingly divorced from the mechanism of Government altogether.
The starkest UK example of this was the defenestration by the bond markets of Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng. Although only tangentially connected to an election result, they did, at least, hold offices of state in a country that claims to be democratic.
Those responsible for their removal, necessary as it was, were faceless speculators.
Abroad, meanwhile, Russia and China have ceased to pay lip service to democracy at all, whilst the ruling families of the Gulf prosper with little internal dissent.
Finally, we face the prospect of Donald Trump returning to power in the USA having openly incited insurrection and baldly promising to override any democratic institutions that hinder his will.
Next year’s general election will, paradoxically, be our most acrimonious, whilst offering the narrowest ideological choice we have ever seen.
Fury will erupt around gender and immigration issues, but the major parties offer no meaningful change to the economic status quo. Democracy has become low-rent entertainment.
Voters get to vent their frustration on carefully ring-fenced fringe issues while the juggernaut of international finance motors on regardless, stripping our public services and administering our lives by stealth.
It may be that democracy has exhausted itself. Perhaps we are too mistrustful and cynical to demand vibrancy from it anymore. But as the Welsh Labour Party prepares to offer its members a choice between two versions of Drakeford Lite, and Keir Starmer surveys the car crash of 2023 Britain only to prescribe an aspirin, they’d be unwise to rely on our apathy lasting forever.
The Trumpish overtures of Reform UK have their own TV channel in GB News and the Tory press at their service once Sunak is defeated. They will be reminding everyone that along with Powellite rhetoric on race, they promise to raise the threshold for income tax to £20 000 per year.
In its wariness, the left across the UK is playing a dangerous game.
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