The Health of our Democracy

The doom-mongers had a field day this past year. In their predictions for the end of Western Civilization they identify a pattern of blasts that undercut the formerly unassailable position held by the West. It rested on several key assumptions. Democracy is the ideal form of government, by involving as many people as possible in the business of government. Parties, representing both more socialist and more conservative-free-market outlooks, fought over the centre-ground voters. This ensured a shared argument. Here in Britain for instance, Labour, the Lib Dems, and the Conservatives fought for those middle voters. Over the NHS, the armed services, over the deficit there were real conflicts, with varying solutions. Yet these parties fought for policies that were never so venomous to the other that they couldn’t find some middle ground. Take, for example, the overriding, almost neurotic, drive to secure a budget surplus that drove Cameron and Osborne’s government, which Labour did not, in principle, contest. Labour queried the speed and focus of the cuts but not the ambition itself, knowing that it was both politically popular and an eventual necessity for the UK. The common aims of the parties, whether to improve the services of the NHS, schools, or fight terrorists, formed the basis of our politics.


But what happens when our parties start fighting for inimical values? When two people, supporting different parties, cannot hold a conversation without finding the other repulsive, delusional, or ignorant? When parties stop fighting for the centre, and start fighting for the extremes?


If you’ve been perceptive, you might have spotted all three of these trends pervading British politics over the past 8 or 9 years since the Great Recession. The ‘minor parties’ of British politics – the Lib Dems, UKIP, the SNP, the Greens, Plaid Cymru – like adolescent cubs gnawing on the legs of the two venerable lions – the Conservatives and Labour – they distracted them in their clash, forcing them to double back, to cover their hinds and defend against them. The most obvious example of this is the EU referendum itself. Cameron, cornered by the perceived threat from UKIP and wearied by his own MPs in 2013, conceded that a referendum would have to be held on EU membership. This in itself is not necessarily as divisive an issue as it became. Membership of the EU won’t decide the UK’s future in its entirety, and another party coming into power would find both its benefits and costs, varying with how it’s executed. However, the conduct of both sides, In and Out, revealed the cracks in the crumbling bastion of our former political system.


The campaign never came close to meriting the title ‘debate’. There was no common respect for either side; both derided the other without properly attempting to convince them; both saw each the other as an other. The In campaign’s rightly derided claims of instant doom awaiting Britain on June 24th should we vote to leave, of economic collapse and a flight of companies from the UK, mirrored the Leave campaigns flat out lying that it a vote to leave would help the NHS’s funding crisis. Yet both sides persisted with their falsities. For a voter considering which way to vote, faced with contradictory facts and no way to check them, they are left completely unsatisfied. It fuels the declining trust in our politics, and the general anger at politicians. The nation split into an In and Out camp. Most visible is the hint of racism that taints discussion of immigration. This comes in spite attempts by leaders like the archbishop of Canterbury to insist that people’s concerns over immigration aren’t racist.


The fracture in our nation is visible through the kaleidoscopic array of issues that now divide us: Nationalism and the rise of the SNP, Plaid and English nationalism, or issues of privacy here in Britain. The debates have been given a more pressing demand given the inexorable pressures that are bearing down on us: The rising inequality of wealth and incomes, growing recognition of the unaccountability of the 1%, and now the challenges to international stability arising from Putin and Trump.


Usually in Britain, these issues have been overcome in the past by our parliamentary democracy. Labour and the Conservatives could argue and, eventually, work towards an eventual outcome, whilst simultaneously including both sides of the political spectrum. They drive their supporters to back the eventual outcome. Yet, with the chaos that is eroding the Labour Party’s internal cohesion, approval, and thus its relevance, the left of the political spectrum not tied to our political system. Furthermore, any policies that are currently being considered, and that have been during Corbyn’s premiership in Labour, are at risk of alienating voters further. When the opposition tendered is, at best, from the more extreme left- and right-leaning parties, or from within the Conservative party itself, the result is not a broad-based policy that is politically acceptable but divisive. Whether with the Snoopers Charter that was passed with almost no debate at the end of last year, or earlier this week when Theresa May has had to pander to her most extreme Europhobes and UKIP announce we’d leave the EU, the Common Market, and the European Court of Human RIghts.


This rift, which luckily for us is far from unbridgeable, must be rectified. The alternative is unfortunately prominent, its torpid, cantankerous democracy grinding to an ignominious halt, if not end: The United States of America. The rabid ideological divides that form a schism in the political nation, parties pandering to the extremes rather than the centre, with all common decency lost. This has contributed not only to the sour and vindictive president, Donald Trump, but can help explain the blatant disregard for the democracy that might seem so central to a nation with its founding principle being democracy.


There has to be an opposition party that fights the Conservatives. If Britain’s exit of the EU goes through Parliament without any of the scrutiny that is so vital, or the repeal of the Human Rights Act is conducted with as much secrecy as the passage of the Snoopers Charter, then once more, we take one step closer to a sham democracy. It’s clear that Corbyn is no leader – he’s failed to land a blow on May since his time in office. He clearly won’t step down, he clearly won’t be beaten when he’s backed by his Corbynistas and Momentum. In its stead, for it is not the credible opposition that Britain needs or deserves with our Parliamentary history, I still hold out hope for a mass exodus to either the Liberal Democrats or UKIP. Whilst some may query the second, UKIP’s anti-establishment, social responsibility message (one of its many) is popular in many of Labour’s heartlands. By reinvigorating either party, with thousands of new members, voters, and political ideas, there could be a credible alternative presented to May’s government. Yet it is clear this cannot happen anytime soon. Labour MPs, too bound to the institutions of Labour, cannot bear to let go. Until they abandon that sinking ship, taking with them all the valuables that still remain, we all remain in great peril. Perhaps a shock result from the Liberals would do it, as they seem to be racking up a few already, but anyway to revitalise the opposition is key, to rebind our nation together.


Yet the old adage, ‘be the change you want to see’, remains true today, and will be far more effective to follow than trying to breathe life into one of the myriad of opposition parties. As individuals, it is the choices that we make that ultimately decides the outcome of our elections, the issues our representatives raise, and those which dominate the national agenda. Acting courteously, considering and investigating the arguments of those whom you disagree with, however detestable you think it might be, and working to explain and convince other people to your point of view. Fight the political apathy of your fellow voters, because our democracy works by mass participation. Become an MP, a councillor, or at least join a party if you can – it is the lifeblood of democracy. Finally, don’t patronise those institutions you know actively divide the nation whether The Daily Mail, Mirror, The Sun, or The New European, online and in print. Every snide comment, every arrogant dismissal, every snarky meme, all contributes to the hateful divide we see across the pond.


We are lucky in the UK. We have an example of where a democracy went wrong. America’s seems almost beyond salvage, and as of writing this we are yet to even reach Trump’s inauguration. What’s more, our history of centre politics is strong, and, despite its slow fracturing, most people remain committed to these ideals. This blog may not conform to the farcical ‘anti-elite’, ‘anti-liberal, ‘anti-establishment’, or any other derisive trend that has swept Western politics. Yet this is not because there isn’t anything worthy in those movements, for there is much to be admired. Nor is it because the consensual style of politics didn’t have flaws, for there were several. It’s because we shouldn’t forget those most useful parts of our politics, which bring us together as a nation where others fall apart. We should never forget how much we have in common, and how much better we are together. Let Trump’s inauguration be a bugle call, to wake us from our mindless descent into national dissent.


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