In the deep dark hours of the morning, in despair at the results coming out of America, I began to think that democracy is broken. Then I thought again. No, democracy isn’t broken, it worked perfectly over Brexit and over Trump. We may not like the results, but the machinery (and that’s all that democracy is, a machine) worked exactly as it was intended to.
But what is broken is the system powered by that machine. And that system is politics; not government, not the will of the people, nothing like that, just politicians. Voters are the motive force that turns the machine, and politicians are what is spewed out at the end of the process. When commentators talk blandly about the Whitehall bubble or the Washington bubble, as they do with ever greater frequency, what they are saying, without ever examining it, is that there is a growing disconnect between the two ends of the process.
Up into the 1950s the default relationship between electors and elected was a strange mixture of deference and trust. It was assumed that those in power were, by some magic formula, exactly the ones best able to deal with whatever was going on. It was also assumed that a change of government would not radically undermine what the previous government had done. Indeed, Churchill’s 1950 government was ideologically opposed to Atlee’s nationalisations and the NHS, yet did nothing to overturn them, even though they were still new and largely untried. Left and right, at least in liberal democracies, were not considered to be so far apart, and we had the examples of Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany to persuade us not to move too far to either extreme. Some of that trust was eroded during the 1950s by things like Suez and Korea, meanwhile increasing prosperity, which initially bolstered the conservative governments of Eisenhower and Macmillan, eventually gave people more freedom to want improvements in other parts of their lives also.
At the start of the 1960s the political pendulum swung to the left just at the point when popular movements were beginning to flex their muscles. The anti-discrimination marches in America, Women’s Liberation, Gay Lib, all pushed at generally receptive governments. Coupled with things like the ending of capital punishment in Britain and the improvement in educational opportunities, these mass movements helped to generate massive social change throughout the decade. These changes were generally so successful and so popular that when right wing governments returned to power at the end of the decade (Nixon in America, Heath in Britain) they did not feel able to roll back on any of these changes in anything but a half-hearted manner. However, by the middle of the 1970s, relatively weak right wing governments were replaced by even weaker left wing governments (Carter in America, Wilson and then Callaghan in Britain), and popular movements (notably the unions in Britain) took the opportunity to push for even more. But these movements were less assured, less focussed and less in tune with the national mood than their 60s predecessors had been, and the result was pretty chaotic to say the least.
This paved the way for the first of the neo-liberal governments, Thatcher in Britain then Reagan in America. Both were right-wing ideologues who had worked out that the best way to neutralise or defeat the left wing mass movements of the previous two decades was to characterise them as the enemy of an even bigger mass movement, the (fictional) silent majority. Thus anyone proclaiming a liberal agenda was demonised as undermining the rights or the wealth or riding roughshod over the morals of the people. Mass movements were not attempts to fuel reform but a form of terrorism. That was what lay behind the attack on the miners culminating in the Battle of Orgreave; it was what lay behind the demonising of Liverpool football fans after the Hillsborough disaster (“football hooligan” had become a handy way of talking about disaffected working class youth); and on a smaller scale it was behind renewed censorship movements such as Mary Whitehouse’s National Viewers and Listeners Association.
As a result of all of this, neo-liberalism concentrated more power in the hands of government, which in turn allowed them to carry out a more radical programme. Thatcher, for instance, was able to renationalise industries in a way that no post-Atlee conservative government had felt able to do. All subsequent governments, of whichever stripe, have continued the neo-liberal agenda if only because the access of power remains attractive. But it is precisely there that the disconnect between elector and elected had its roots.
If I tend to concentrate on British examples from here on, it is not that similar instances did not occur in America (or Australia or Canada), but simply that I am less familiar with them. Thus, in John Major’s government, there was the corruption scandal when a number of Tory MPs were accused of taking cash for questions. The worst offender was Neil Hamilton, who lost his seat at the next election but simply reinvented himself as a Cheeky Chappie and is currently a UKIP member of the Welsh Assembly. You can take bribes, and if you laugh it off there will be no real consequence for your political career. Similarly, just a few years ago, there was the scandal of MPs’ expenses, when a large number of politicians were found to have defrauded the public purse by claiming many thousands of pounds in expenses to which they had no entitlement. A couple of relatively peripheral figures were taken to court, but for the vast majority they suffered no real consequence other than repaying some of the money as if it was all just a big mistake. Practically every MP accused of claiming excessive expenses, if they chose to stand again at the next election, was re-elected without problem (in the main they were in safe seats, and their parties chose not to field a different candidate, so the voters had little choice but to re-elect them). And the response of Parliament as a whole to this scandal? They simply proposed that MPs’ pay should rise by 11%, at a time when every other public employee in the country was limited to no more than a 1% pay rise. Better pay and no expenses might have been a sensible notion, but the obtuse and insensitive way in which it was handled beggars belief. The indelible impression was created of politicians who believed that, once they got to the centre of power the normal rules of society did not apply to them. Snouts in the trough was the most common analogy. It’s hard to have any respect for them under those circumstances, hard to have any sense that they are there in Parliament on my behalf rather than for their own enrichment.
But it wasn’t just this that cut the political class off from the people they are supposed to represent. There were the lies, blatant lies such as those Tony Blair told in the run-up to the Iraq War. We knew they were lies, it was obvious that they were lies, and he didn’t care, nobody was going to call him out on them. Or if they did, they were the enemy, they were the trouble makers, they didn’t know what I know as PM. And for a while we did trust; it is really, really hard not to trust those we have elected to Parliament. But the doubts were there, the suspicions, and with them comes contempt. After all, Blair’s was the government of “spin”, an arrogant sense that the truth was only what they chose to tell us, what they chose to interpret for us. And then there were the other lies, the expedient lies. Nick Clegg campaigns with an absolute, unequivocal promise to scrap university tuition fees; he finds himself the junior partner in a coalition government, and immediately supports raising tuition fees from £3,000 to £9,000. The swiftness, the total callous uncaring of that reversal was staggering. And the consequence was that nobody could ever believe a single campaign promise he made ever again. And the same holds true for every other politician: they’re all tarred with the same brush, we say. And the thing is, there are very few politicians, as a class, who have shown any inclination to try and reverse that image. One of the reasons that I don’t believe that the Brexit message about providing £350 million a week more for the NHS actually swung the referendum is because I doubt very many people ever believed it. It was a campaign promise, and we’ve learned to be cynical about them. The same with Donald Trump’s promise to build a wall along the Mexican border; when the wall doesn’t materialise it’s not going to matter, it was a campaign promise, that’s all, and campaign promises are made to be broken. Of course, this means that we don’t believe politicians when they are telling the truth either. Such cynicism is the end of representational democracy, but nobody in the system much cares about that.
And there are subtler forms of lying, forms that don’t appear like lying at all. David Cameron mastered this, and Theresa May seems to be copying. You make bold, heartwarming statements about all the social goods you want to achieve, then you appoint ministers who are implacably opposed to such goods. You fervently believe in a health service free at the point of delivery, you are always so honest and sincere whenever you say that; then you appoint Jeremy Hunt as Health Secretary who, before taking on the appointment, consistently lobbied in favour of privatised health. You look down the lists of Cameron’s and May’s cabinets and you see the same pattern emerging time and again. So you can say one thing, somebody else is doing the opposite, and there is no coherent attack upon the intentional incoherence of this policy.
Time and again, therefore, politicians are presenting themselves to the public as being self-serving, shifty, untrustworthy. They are supposed to be our representatives, but there is no connection between us and them. There used to be checks and balances, but they have been steadily eroded by the neo-liberal accumulation of power at the centre of government. There used to be ministerial responsibility: if a policy failed or a department screwed up, the buck stopped at the top, the minister took the blame and resigned. It was seen as the honourable thing. Ministers do not resign in those circumstances these days; I’m not sure they have done for 40 years or more, certainly not since Margaret Thatcher took office. It contributes to a sense of dishonour at the heart of government.
None of this mattered over much when politicians emerged from among us. They had a career, they had experience in the workplace, they got involved in things that mattered to them on a local stage, they slowly acquired wider recognition. Not a universal pattern, but consistent enough to be noteworthy. Now politics itself is a career not a calling; the path now is from intern to advisor to staff to safe seat. It’s a route that, in one form or another, David Cameron and George Osborne and Nick Clegg all followed, as have many of their fellows who have risen to cabinet or shadow cabinet positions. Their world, their experience, is all turned inwards into the pattern of politics itself; they don’t instinctively relate things to how they might affect the world outside but rather to how their political colleagues might respond. The Brexit referendum is only the most egregious example of this: David Cameron allowed himself to be bullied into calling the referendum only in an attempt to silence disaffected mutterings by members of his own parliamentary party, it had nothing whatsoever to do with the mood or interests or needs of the rest of the country.
So, drawing in on themselves, politicians increasingly seem to the general public to be greedy, self-serving, self-interested, untrustworthy, and in general uninterested in anything outside their own little political circle. Now this may not be universally true, it may not be true at all, but it is how things seem. And certainly all of this has been said before without anyone in politics showing the least interest in trying to contradict it. In general politicians behave as though we were still in the deferential 50s, when the electors should simply leave the elected to get on with the job of running the country however they see fit, but with the added perks of being able to cream a little off the top for themselves, and being able to lie secure in the knowledge that there will be no come back.
The bank collapse of 2008 was probably the final nail in the coffin. Everyone was expected to suffer from austerity measures, except for the politicians who appeared to be untouched by the whole thing, and by the big corporate interests that funded the politicians. We’re all in this together had been the rallying cry of politicians since at least the Second World War; but now, the more they said it, the more patently obvious it was that it wasn’t true. And the sense arose, particularly among those worst hit by the economic travails, that if you’re not looking after my interests, why should I look after yours?
Which explains the rise of the anti-party politicians, Farage in Britain, Le Pen in France, Herder in Austria, Orban in Hungary, now Trump in America. They lie, they lie consistently and blatantly and badly, and it doesn’t affect their popularity one iota. That’s what all politicians do, but where conventional politicians try to hide their lies, this new breed doesn’t care. And there is something strangely honest in their dishonesty, which appeals to a lot of the people who feel they have been betrayed or left behind by the old politics. It’s a form of demagoguery, and demagogues have always been attractive to those who feel excluded by conventional politics. It has happened before, with Mussolini and Hitler among others. The one thing that demagogues do, always, is say that there is someone else to blame. Anything else they say is chaff; their intended audience doesn’t hear it, it is very possible that the speaker himself doesn’t hear it (how often has Trump denied saying things he is on record as saying?), all that matters is the blame. Conventional politicians see that things are more subtle, but having destroyed their link to the electorate, they have lost the ability to explain that subtlety. Blame is a simple message, and quite frankly when you are fed up with how politicians have behaved, with how they have treated you, then a simple message is all you have the patience to hear. What they are saying to the conventional politicians is: you ignored me, you lined your own nest while making my life harder, you fed me stories that you didn’t even believe yourself, and then you expect me to keep voting for you so you can keep on ignoring me and lying to me and lining your nest. These anti-politicians are not like that, they tell me I can get out of this shit by blaming someone else. And right now that’s the only sort of message I’m prepared to hear.
It doesn’t matter that the anti-politicians are probably more corrupt than the conventional kind; it doesn’t matter that they are fostering a spirit of fear and enmity and distrust that makes daily life worse than it was before. These things don’t matter because it is what the conventional politicians are telling us, and those politicians have abdicated the right to have us believe them. (By the way, I am well aware that a lot of this fear and distrust is being generated by a vile and disgusting press, particularly everything associated with Rupert Murdoch. And yes, the press is part of the problem, but I’m not sure there’s any point in fixing the press before we try to fix the politics.) This is what we have taken to calling a post-truth society, it’s why Brexiteers airily dismissed anything coming from so-called experts. It’s not that we don’t want to hear the truth, it’s that the truth has been so spun and twisted and undermined by government after government that it no longer seems to be at all relevant to the political process. They only tell us what they want us to hear, so we’ll only believe what we choose to believe.
You can look at things like the Brexit vote and the Trump vote as protests against the establishment, the status quo, the same old same old. In large part that’s probably exactly what they were. People weren’t voting for something, they were voting against whatever they felt had fucked the world up. But it would be a mistake to imagine that it is only a protest vote, a one-off mistake that will be put right the next time people have a chance to exercise their vote. People who voted in such large numbers (and they were large numbers even if Trump didn’t actually win the popular vote, even if Brexit only secured the support of a third of eligible voters) are not going to be looking for a reason to go back to the same old conventional politics, the oh so familiar politicians, the next time they face a ballot box. They are angry because the system has failed them, as indeed it has; the way the neo-liberal agenda has developed over the last thirty-odd years, the system was designed to fail them, because you can’t have big winners without big losers. So the next time around, they are still going to have been failed by the system, they are still going to be angry about it, and they are still going to feel that the conventional politicians in their hermetically sealed bubbles offer nothing to them. Okay, it is possible, indeed it is likely, that the anti-politicians will fail them also. But that doesn’t mean they are going to be ready to sweep everything under the carpet and go back to exactly how things were before. No, they will be looking for another anti-politician, or an anti-anti-politician, someone with another grand simple message, another someone who will stick it to the conventional politicians who have ignored and abandoned and cheated them.
And let’s face it, the machine of democracy worked perfectly in presenting that message.
So what we need now is not a return to the familiar. Business as usual cannot be an answer. What is needed now is a new politics. I have no idea what this might look like. I would hazard a guess that it involves reaching out to people, practical solutions to problems, a fetishization of the truth, an avoidance of obfuscation and obscurity. Simple clear ideas about what might make a simple, clear difference to the here and now. But that isn’t a blueprint for a new party, or a new politics, just a superficial list of some of the things that I feel have been missing from the old politics. But I wonder if anyone is actually thinking along these lines, or whether the knee-jerk response to all of these terrible election results is simply to try once more to revitalize the old politics. I’m just not sure that can or should be done any more.