It was Franklin D. Roosevelt who proclaimed that “There’s nothing to fear but fear itself,” in his inaugural speech of 1933. If these words were today uttered by one of the leaders of Britain’s two major political parties, there would have to be an unspoken suffix, to wit: “So, naturally, we’re fucking shitting ourselves.”
This week, the UK goes to polling stations to choose its elected representatives for the UK government in Westminster. For those readers who don’t know, the UK is a fractured country consistent of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. We don’t officially call them “states” in the manner of the US or EU federal entities, but let’s use that nomenclature here.
The latter three of these states exist in some sort of partially-disconnected limbo, each according to their own negotiated stated of “devolution.” This leaves England in an interesting position. England is wholly and exclusively governed by the UK parliament at Westminster. The UK parliament is made up of elected Members of Parliament (MPs) from all four states. This creates a serious issue for the government (small ‘g’) of England. In matters of government that have been “devolved” to the semi-independent states, e.g. Education, English MPs cannot influence policy in those states. An English MP has no say on Scottish education policy. However, a Scottish MP can vote on English education policy, since that policy is defined within the UK government.
Exclusion of non-English MPs from voting on policy matters that have been devolved was the crux of the so-called “West Lothian Question.”
Footnote: I remember a lot of chat as a youngster about an MP called Tam Dalyell on the TV. I remember that my English parents loathed him as a “leftie” and a “troublemaker.” Now that they’re as terrified as the political classes of “the Scottish problem,” it has become abundantly clear to me that – on this issue at least – Dalyell was a visionary.
In September 2014, Scotland voted to remain a part of the UK in a referendum. It was – as most things of national interest seem to be these days – mindlessly politicised along overly simplified party lines. The main UK political parties aligned themselves with what they thought they should do, and then ran campaigns accordingly. Promises were made. Some people believed them. Mostly, it seems, English people who now view themselves as having “bought” Scotland. But those promises were never kept. And now a lot of people are quite cross.
The British political system is quite settled. We have two major parties, which used to be quite different, but are now much-of-a-muchness. Both are right-of-centre, authoritarian parties. There is then a clutch of minority parties, usually motivated by some primary policy interest, such as territorial independence, a focus on ecology above all else, or a strong sense of nationalism.
Our last major political shift happened in the late 1990s, when the then left-of-centre “Labour” party executed a significant move to the right. In the process, Labour silenced and/or ignored its political roots, and focussed on a highly media-savvy strategy of soundbite-driven nothingness fronted by a man who appeared to represent a fresh face on politics.
It was a landslide. But it triggered a political system that favours generalised acceptance through media manipulation over actual policies. Successful political parties in the UK are now like Formula 1 cars: the differences between them are sufficiently slight that most casual observers cannot tell them apart.
The abject failure of the Liberal Democrats to deliver any substantive power in coalition, together with the Scottish referendum and the rise of the anti-immigration Euro-sceptic UKIP are threatening another change in the political landscape. Scotland is strongly anti-Conservative (big ‘C’ as one of the two major parties) after a succession of 1980s decisions had a disproportionate effect on Scotland. And with Labour’s shift away from its traditionally socialist roots, to a Conservative-lite standpoint, both of these parties are barely credible north of the border. Centrist libertarian Scots are faced with unpalatable voting options, the least of which appears to be to throw its collective weight behind the “Scottish National Party.”
England, under-represented by a local (state level) government, feels threatened by Europe and the recently-devolved nations. Like all societal groups that feel their foundation is under threat, the English are therefore susceptible to alternative options that would previously have seemed extreme. Thus the blokeish man-on-the-street shtick perpetrated by UKIP’s leader Nigel Farage appears to represent a path to the return of the good old days when English people felt that they had a voice that was not being undermined by territorial separatist minorities. If a voter considers that UKIP represents him, then it is easy to overlook that party’s strongly authoritarian exclusionist attitude.
The media has completely failed to undo any of this. There has been precious-little scrutiny of Farage. Instead, they focus on his antics almost as if he is an attention-seeking child that makes the adults laugh. In so doing, they afford him visibility to the public eye, and that then allows his message to reach his audience. Essentially, by uncritically replaying Farage’s antics they are giving his philosophy a platform. However, if Farage and his party represent people to the extent that they vote for him, then those votes are as valid as anyone else’s.
All of this has combined to give the Conservative and Labour leaders cause for panic. They have the very real fear that the population of the UK will exercise its democratic right in a way that does not perpetuate the traditional “pick the lesser of two evils” hegemony. And they’re very scared. Some of the rhetoric being spouted is wrought with defensive emotion. If the fate of a nation wasn’t hanging off it, it would be amusing.
In the meantime, there is the choice of to whom we Brits must assign our vote. I am strongly in favour of the Australian system of voting being mandatory, although I would very much like it if there was a “None of the above” option on the ballot papers. There needs to be a viable mechanism to rationally express overall dissatisfaction with the quality of political parties and their candidates, without going into the polling station and daubing faeces on the ballot paper.
Our political system, and our elected representatives are about to be given a mandate of sorts by the population of Britain, to govern the country according to our wishes. Naturally, as a country of 64+ million “our wishes” are a complex and often contradictory thing. But the one thing that we do agree upon is that our representatives are exactly that. Politicians need to get back to actually running the country and engendering positive change for the health & wellbeing of all of its inhabitants. And if a few (or a few hundred) politicians need to learn that by spending some time on Unemployment, then that’s a level of collateral damage I can live with.