For the past few weeks I ought to have been living in the past. I’ve been reading two excellent books: Jesse Norman’s book on Edmund Burke and Antonia Fraser’s Perilous Question, which deals with the 1832 Reform Act. Both are great reads; however, both curiously feel as if they are dealing not with historical events but rather describing current affairs. Both deal with broken systems of parliamentary representation, governments out of touch with the moods and needs of the people, embryonic and dysfunctional parties, strong and weak leaders, and desires for change pitted against obstinacy and intransigence. Plus ca change, eh!
Fast forward to today and the argument is over the funding of political parties. This, as is often the case, looks at the problem from the wrong end presupposing, as it does, that we need parties. Some say that the ideological differences between right and left are greater than ever. They may be at the macro level of big versus small government, but faced with the manifesto commitments of the political parties few electors could, in a blind test, place the right policy with the right party.
Issues today are also far more complex, inter-related, nuanced and global than ever before. And yet we continue to try and force them into the constraints of the old two party political system. As Private Willis, guarding the House of Commons in Gilbert & Sullivan’s 1882 operetta Iolanthe, sang it:
“I often find it comical, how nature always does contrive
That ev’ry boy and ev’ry gal that’s born into the world alive
Is either a little Liberal or else a little Conservative”.
And then there’s the ping-pong, he said, she said adversarial nature of the debates in the House of Commons cockpit made worse by MPs having to tow the party line. Quoting W.S.Gilbert again, this time in the words of Sir Joseph Porter in HMS Pinafore:
“I always voted at my party’s call
And never thought of thinking for myself at all.”
Sometimes there are free votes, so called as they allow MPs to use their conscience liberated from the dictats of their party whips (although why on earth the Hunting Bill was felt to be a conscience issue no-one seems quite sure). Then there are referendums on issues too important to be left to our usual legislators. We’ve had two in this country, the first on the original decision to join the EU and the second the ill-judged and ill-timed referendum on PR. However, such plebiscites do beg the question of what are our politicians for if not to decide, on our behalf, on great matters. Or if we are to have referendums, why not on other issues, such as the perennial question of the death penalty; or indeed, on issues such as the UK’s membership of the UN or NATO, both of which affect our sovereignty as much as Europe.
People are beginning to question the efficacy of the political system. Many agree that it does need to be modernised. It is becoming recognised that for many people it is simply irrelevant, and the reality is that the vast majority outside the political bubble have disenfranchised themselves from party politics. Some want to start the reformation by having open primaries for electing candidates. It is a good idea but, again, it starts in the wrong place. We need to properly understand where the decision-making process is best served. Few, if any, can name their MP (or, indeed, accurately identify senior politicians) and yet the solemn myth of the link between MP and their constituency perpetuates. And much of the work they do in their constituency surgeries involves either trying to solve problems caused by local government and other agencies, or in being the counsellor of last resort. At the other end of the scale, even Lloyd George would be amazed that reforming the House of Lords remains a work in progress.
So where does one start? Part of the problem is that the debate is taking place within the confines of the existing system. Of course change can only come from within, but it requires great maturity to be able to see beyond one’s own position. The question is not how can we reform the current political process, but what is it actually for and, given what we know and the realities of how we now live, how can we make it as engaging as possible for all citizens to be able to contribute.
But then for some change is always difficult. The Duke of Wellington was reported to have “…never read or heard of any measure up to the present moment which could in any degree satisfy his mind that the state of representation could be improved or rendered more satisfactory to the country at large.” Plus ca change, plus c’est la même chose.