I am indebted to My Kind & Faithful Reader from Palmers Green, who sent me a couple of recent pieces from The Law and Order Blog. Undoubtedly, she did this as a result of my longstanding belief in the need for electoral reform in the UK and my more recent, but related, claim that we receive the government that we deserve. (See: here).
Even with the Wilson Labour Government in power in the late 1960s, the much-vaunted British Constitution – being spooned out to me as one of my A-level subjects – seemed to me to be a dubious beast. The subject elevated the concepts of Separation of Powers & Checks-and-Balances but where were they to be found in a non-elected House of Lords; especially one that could be loaded by the government in power at times of legislative difficulty? How were minority opinions to be expressed in a first past-the-post constituency-based House of Commons? The 3-class Civil Service system seemed equally dubious to me, as an executive capable of reflecting the shifting tides of our society. The Judiciary similarly evidenced an incapacity for keeping up with the zeitgeist. All this smacked to me of a lazy self-satisfaction of institutions that were not prepared to subject themselves to the test of fitness for contemporary purpose.
At the time when a questioning student queried why the British Constitution was upheld as a ‘gold standard’ for democracy – when it so clearly had such reactionary attributes – one was reassured that an inherent quality of our institutions was its ‘unwritten’ character of reasonable behaviour, such that no government would propose & enforce unpopular policies. This wasn’t true in the 1960s; it wasn’t even true in the 19th century, and it certainly isn’t true now. Sure, we no longer have Rotten Boroughs, the franchise is universal and includes women, but we have 21st century issues which a government of vested interests can continue to fail to address by dint of the fundamental characteristics that are still in situ within our political institutions.
Another theme, that The Ericle has bleated on about, is the reluctance of today’s younger generations to get involved with national politics. Sure, they make their feeling abundantly clear about race, feminism and climate change but their horizons are mostly international; an expression of their principles rather a willingness to become engaged with national politics that might have a realistic potential capacity to effect change. Back in the 1960s, my political viewpoints led me to become a card-carrying member of the Liberals; the only party of that time that seemed interested in electoral reform – most probably, motivated by the fact that their polling of 10+% of total votes regularly resulted in a return of only a half dozen seats or so. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised how Clegg’s Coalition Liberal Democrats limply fought for this principle in the 2011 referendum; that ultimately speaks for the fact that ‘turkeys won’t vote for Christmas’. However, it also speaks for a passive electorate whose indifference to constitutional reform is a constituent (sic!) element of my contention that ‘we get what we deserve’ when it comes to government.
The above issues have never been more critically important. It is a matter of fact that every UK national election has been gained by the party that manages to grab the centre ground. Last week’s Conservative victory in Hartlepool, and the overall result of the local English election, is evidence of this. But are the Conservatives really a party of the centre? I think not – certainly not in any enduring meaningful sense of the idea! So why did the Keir Starmer’s Labour Party make such a poor fist of it? Ultimately, in this case, Boris’s successful 2021 Covid policies were trump cards that could not be denied. This notwithstanding, the Labour Party fought these elections with an invisible manifesto, and this was no accident. Keir Starmer, like every Labour Leader since 2010, is trying to square an irresolvable circle. He cannot move his party into the centre ground because it is in hock to the Trade Unions. Faced with this reality, Starmer – caught like a rabbit in the proverbial headlights – says and does little noteworthy, hoping that by the time the next General Election the electorate will be so fed up with the Tories that they will turn to the only available alternative. Faced with this scenario Starmer trades in platitudes, because he knows that if he lifts the curtain that reveals Labour’s true taskmasters he will be as unelectable as was our dear-departed Corbyn. And why does the great English electorate put up with this Tweedledum Tweedledee political scenario of governments that claim to represent the median, when they clearly represent interests on the wing? This all seems crystal clear to me: firstly, that our institutions are structured to deliver such outcomes and secondly, that the electorate can’t or won’t see the wood for the trees.
Sadly this is not the last word on an unfolding tragedy, as I’ve not addressed the ‘elephant in the room’: ours is a deeply divided society that is basically disinclined, or too disingenuous, to work its way towards a solution. To put it quite simply, the property-owning metro-centric South of the country has no empathy or inclination to concede its self-proclaimed rightness in such matters. If it had, then surely it would do something about it. A great many of my readers, who have read so far, will be saying to themselves: “This is not me!” But therein lies another inconvenient truth about ourselves – we have become a nation of talkers rather than walkers. If we really want change, we need to do something about it. For myself it’s clear that the United Kingdom – and now I am not just talking about England – badly needs constitutional and institutional change. I can see no other way out of this trap in which we find ourselves; of electing less-worse governments rather than ones that can bring about the fundamental changes that will recast this country into one that can endure and prosper in keeping with the times. And I say this as a true believer that this country continues to be one that sustains a generosity of spirit and intellectual fortitude like no other. However, if we continue not to grasp some political nettles, I also truly fear for what we could become.