Thursday, June 16, 2016

The politics of a post politics era.

The position of the UK as a member of the European Union has been a persistent question since the inception of the ECSC in 1957. Nevertheless the general view is that the in/out referendum is as much the product of short-term political calculation as of any great vision for the future for the place of the UK in the world. David Cameron's decision to use the vote to attempt to unite his party and create a platform for a bigger majority in 2020 may prove to be a massive miscalculation.

A referendum is only occasionally about the issue on the ballot paper. Often it risks becoming the focus for a wider range of discontents. To me, that is exactly what is happening in this one.

To see why, perhaps it helps to consider the bigger picture in British politics. Trust in politics and the political process has been fading for decades. 

Going back thirty years, Margaret Thatcher was able to push through highly controversial changes, even in the face of bitter and occasionally violent resistance. A highly polarizing figure when in office, it was her defenestration that was most damaging. She was the classic model of a charismatic leader whose departure is disruptive. It was disruptive both to the country, and also- especially- to her own party. Her enemies among Conservatives did not get what they wanted from her fall, and neither did her opponents in other parties. John Major, whose diffidence masked considerable toughness, struggled to maintain peace in the party, but in the end he ultimately fell because of the collapse in confidence that followed the British exit from the ERM in September 1992. This occurred just five months after Major gained a Conservative majority of 21 against all predictions of a hung Parliament. The divisions amongst the Tories grew ever more bitter after the 1997 defeat, and these bitter Conservative divisions have lingered and festered to our own day- as the hatred unleashed by the Prime Minister's decision to support continued EU membership has revealed.

Nor has Labour been immune from the same kind of problems. The landslide victory of Tony Blair in 1997 presented Labour with a similar "charismatic leader" problem, and his controversial leadership combined with a genuine national repugnance at the way he filled his boots after leaving office. His focus on wealth, to the exclusion of all other considerations, including morality or even taste underlined a sense that political leaders were abusing their position for their own personal gains. At the same time the scandal of MPs expenses broke, and although the sums of money were quite small, there was a sense of disgust against the whole political class, virtually irrespective of party. Meanwhile Labour too- as the Conservatives had before them- gone through a succession of petty leaders. However, whereas after William Hague, Michael Howard and Iain Duncan Smith, the Tories had settled on the charismatic, or at least electable, David Cameron, Labour quickly passed through the highly flawed Gordon Brown the immature Ed Miliband before settling on the decided uncharismatic Jeremy Corbyn. Labour is as divided as the Conservatives and it is still essentially leaderless.

The fall of the British two party system, which has been a process lasting at least two generations, is now reaching a terminal phase. From the late sixties until 2005 it was the primarily the recovery of the Liberals/Liberal Democrats that chipped away at the two party dominance in the national vote, with an occasional blip of support for National parties in Scotland, and to a lesser extent, Wales.

During the 2010 election, the election campaign proved highly volatile- with a huge surge in support for the Liberal Democrats in the polls, after their leader's stand-out performance in the first leaders debate. However in the end all parties were disappointed- no majority and in the end even the Lib Dems lost five seats from their historic 2005 high of 62. The advent of the coalition was to prove disastrous for the Liberal Democrat interest, and in 2015 the Conservatives squeaked a similar victory as 1992- with an even smaller majority, this time of 12.

That victory came despite a shockingly low percentage of the vote- less than 26% of the eligible electorate voting Conservative. More to the point, despite the evisceration of the Liberal Democrats at the hands of their erstwhile coalition partners, two party support fell further. Labour were virtually clean bowled in Scotland at the hands of the SNP and the anti-EU UKIP attracted nearly 13% of vote. The fact is that the electorate is demanding more choice in politics, but the system is- so far- failing to supply it.

Thus this referendum has become a vector of rage against the political machine. The fact that the political class is largely on the side of Remain has been a cause of its weakness, not a source of strength. The inchoate rage has been channeled by the absurdity of a former Minister of Education -of all ironic things- decrying the value of expertise. Michael Gove's dismissal of "Experts" was greeted with disbelief- "whatever you think of experts, you wouldn't want to build a bridge without one"- but in a sense Gove's absurd vacuity captures the Zeitgeist that dismisses rationality in favour of personality. This irrationality captures the rage of those who feel weakened and disenfranchised by the globalization process. It is the province of the internet troll and the wrath of certainty denied.

I had just written this paragraph when the terrible news of the murder of Jo Cox MP came through. She was attacked while campaigning for Remain in her constituency by a man shouting "Britain First". It is an horrendous crime, and although of course it does not reflect the will of the leaders of Leave, it does reflect the atmosphere of irrational hate that they have created. It is the first political murder in Britain for many years. In the face of this shocking event, I almost throw up my hands in despair. I can only hope that we rally round to reject this poisonous irrationality. I will continue to make my case with mind as much as heart or spirit, but for today I shall close.



  

      

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