Richard North, 24/05/2019  

Just about everybody's at it, homing in on Mrs May who is expected today to announce the date of her departure from Downing Street. Monday, 10 June is widely forecast as being the start of the leadership contest, after the state visit from President Trump and the Peterborough by-election.

Once again, therefore, the political classes have turned in on themselves, playing their dire games instead of getting on with the job for which they are paid. By way of a consolation prize for the Brexit we should have had but haven't got, we have a vast spectator sport called "guess the new leader", as the Westminster bubble takes time out to focus on its own concerns.

And, of course, it is a spectator sport. Unless you are a fully paid-up member of the Conservative Party - one of a tiny minority – you don't get a say in who is to be the leader of the government in one of the most critical periods in the country's history.

And then, even in that privileged position, you only get to vote on the pickings of three hundred or so Tory MPs, who will do their best to ensure they control the selection process, the net effect being that no one, at this stage, is able to predict who will be in the final run-off.

In what amounts to a thoroughly undemocratic process, the one small consolation is that the MPs may at least act as a filter to block the loathsome Johnson being put to the wider membership. Left to the rank and file members, they would probably vote for this creature. He has long been their favourite.

Possibly manifesting a sense of guilt about going AWOL at such a time, the bubble-talk is of the contest being over by the end of July, by which time parliament will be in recess. But that, as I have observed before, will require the agreement of the minor candidates. With as many as 25 expected to throw their hats in the ring, the bulk of them will have to stand down after the first round in order to speed up the voting process.

But, with a significant number of MPs on the "anyone but Johnson" ticket, that degree of cooperation cannot be assured. There will be a significant number who want to game a system where the short-sharp campaign is said to favour Johnson.

It certainly says something of contemporary politics that his supporters want that quick campaign, fearing that, if it is stretched out, their favourite will "blow it", by making one of his frequent gaffes. Presumably, they want him to be in post as prime minister before he makes his next gaffe – which he most assuredly will.

Until the Tories have sorted out their own internal grief, though, serious politics has been suspended. And since it is a long time since we've seen anything like serious politics, there is no guarantee that they will resume once a new leader has been appointed.

The one guarantee we do have is that, should the Tories be rash enough to allow Johnson to be their leader, we will not see anything approximating serious politics until he is gone. With that - and the certainty that this man would not command a lead in any general election – one hopes that this partisan electorate will see sense.

The trouble is, of course, that the Conservative parliamentary party is not exactly a reservoir of huge talent. In fact, the gene pool is such that it challenges the very fundamentals of Darwinian theory, where the most prominent of the candidates conform more with observations of what happens in a sewage farm.

However, to be presented with the choice of the least-worst, as an alternative to an outright wrecker, is not exactly a sound basis on which to select someone who will have to make some extremely difficult and complex decisions and then, potentially, go on to lead the government through complex and prolonged negotiations with the EU on our future relationship.

Nor is a general election any answer. This nation has been doubly cursed, having suffered not only the worst prime minister in living memory – if not our entire history - but also a staggeringly incompetent opposition. Between the two, they have destroyed public faith in our system of government, to the extent that even rather dubious demagogues begin to look attractive to the feeble-minded.

Confronted with what amounts to a non-choice, one can have a certain sympathy with those who look beyond the current party mix for their salvation. But if party politics is at the root of much of what ails our system, opting for more of the same, only with different colours, is hardly going to solve our problems.

It would be a mistake, though, to think we are alone in our problems. Most countries in Europe are experiencing some degree of popular disillusion with their politics and, across the Atlantic, the spectre of a divided nation is just as real. It is not just our party political system that it at fault. There is something fundamentally wrong with the way we do politics, not just here but in many other countries.

Sadly, in this country at least, the response has been very much in keeping with the tenor of our own parliament, articulating our dislike of current systems and volubly expressing opinions on the things we don't want. But there is a singular paucity of positive ideas for improvement and most thinking in the area of reform is restricted to trimming round the edges of existing systems, dealing with procedural and consequential matters.

Short of a violent uprising and open civil war though – or the sort of low-grade armed insurgency in which the IRA specialised - it is hard to see how fundamental change could be achieved in a system where the establishment is highly skilled at maintaining the status quo, and marginalising those who are seeking genuine change.

But then, in the history of mankind – right up to and including the establishment of the modern Irish state – it is difficult to find a successful example of activists enforcing fundamental change to a system without violence.

The one exception might be the relatively peaceful transition of the former Communist satellites to a style of democracy, after the collapse of the Soviet empire. But even in this, we have yet to learn whether the Ukraine is an outlier or a harbinger – without forgetting Yugoslavia. One could say that the post-Communist settlement is still work in progress.  

Viewed in that context, the UK's travails over Brexit might be seen in the broader context – possibly in terms of the gradual disintegration of the post-war settlement in Europe. Every now and again, the political tectonic plates do shift and, with three-quarters of a century having elapsed since 1945, we are probably ripe for change.

I would like to think that, as a species, we are capable of devising a new political settlement, and without the violence so often attendant on such change, and without having to endure the tedious histrionics of passing demagogues before we are able to identify a lasting model of governance, suitable for the 21st Century.

Whatever does evolve, one thing is for certain: representative democracy as we know it is dead in the water. The primacy of this system depends on the foundation myth that elected representatives are somehow better qualified and equipped to make decisions than the people they supposedly serve.

If Brexit has done nothing else, it has exposed for all to see the emptiness of that premise. Far from being leaders of thought and opinion, many MPs have shown themselves shackled to their tribal factions, weighed down by empty mantras and trailing in the wake of ordinary people, who are far better informed than they.

The rise of the citizen expert is something on which we commented back in August 2016, noting that the phenomenon had not yet been properly (or at all) understood. The aphorism "knowledge is power", I wrote, is still as valid as ever it was, and it is fair to say that much of a politician's power resides in the impression that they have better access to knowledge than ordinary mortals.

The important thing here, I continued, is that, with extraordinary wealth of information now available, it is not access which is the limiting factor, but time – and then skill. There simply isn't enough time in a day to visit all the information on a given subject, so even if MPs devoted all their time to keeping themselves up-to-date, they could never compete with the specialist who can afford to devote more time to the acquisition of information than they can.

In a sense, I concluded, information has been democratised. It is possible that, in its wake, we could actually see a true national democracy, rather than the pale shadow that passes for it at present. Thus, if information really is power, the people are probably closer to real power than they ever have been.

What they and the politicians need to do is to realise that there has been a shift of power, and then the "citizen experts" need to learn how to use their new-found power to effect. That is as true now as when I wrote it. The only thing that has changed is that the need is that much more urgent.

comments powered by Disqus

Log in

Sign THA

The Many, Not the Few