Lets Start a New Country Up: The Need for a New Politics
Open Democracy, May 22nd 2009
British politics are in exceptional times. So everyone says. Democracy is in crisis say some; parliamentary democracy is in crisis say others; while others more accurately say that the entire British political edifice is tottering on the point of collapse. Comparisons fill the airwaves: 1832, the Glorious Revolution, the loss of the American colonies, none of which work and just underline that these are indeed unprecedented times.
There is a widespread sense of historical amnesia and a state that doesn’t understand itself or its history. Vernon Bogdanor writing in The Guardian on Tuesday states in the second sentence that the last speaker to be removed was John Trevor in 1695 – as indeed the whole commentariat have been saying this week – oblivious to 1707, the creation of the United Kingdom and UK Parliament. What does it say about the UK that one of its leading constitutional experts does not know that Michael Martin is the first speaker of the UK Parliament to be removed?
Then we have the mainstream political classes’ suggestions that they could re-order and rewrite the entire political system in the fag-end of this Labour Government as simply as making a Pot Noodle. Labour’s playing with the idea of a written constitution has seen this work developed by Jack Straw and a Cabinet Sub-Committee. This shows the complete lack of comprehension of the political class and system on where we are, the scale of change needed and how it might come about.
On Thursday The Guardian launched its ‘A New Politics: Towards a Blueprint for Reforming Government’ which contained 26 micro-stories by its own journalists and columnists. Nearly all of these were worthwhile: PR, an elected Second Chamber, more power to backbenchers, although none were new.
What was missing wasn’t the lack of new suggestions, but the understanding that reform cannot come from dozens of micro-initiatives. These will either remain at fantasy level or be incorporated into the system. What is fundamental to the current crisis is that the British system of government and politics is broken and cannot be successfully put back together. The relationships of authority, trust and deference, which made the system work have gone forever.
This means incremental reform won’t do. Instead, we need a transformation of the whole UK body politic even if, at the moment, it is hard to see how this can be achieved in a way that we can trust. As part of this we will need to find new philosophies and worldviews to inhabit and animate that body politic. In short, as Michael Stipe once sang, we will have to ‘start a new country up’: well one country or maybe four very different ones.