Andreas Whittam Smith: We must act now to save democracy

British democracy is in crisis. We cannot wish this away. The cause is a precipitous decline in respect for members of Parliament and for the governments they form. Trust in our rulers has never been lower; faith in their competence is approaching nil. Democratic states cannot function properly in such circumstances. To see what is happening, look at what the polling organisations report.

One of these, YouGov, surveyed more than 5,000 adults throughout Great Britain in January this year. It asked how well or badly do people think Parliament does its job. The YouGov pollsters asked which were the features of Britain's political system that were liked the most and which were liked the least. Just over a third of the respondents couldn't think of anything worthy of praise. The rest of the findings were dire. More than half the sample (53 per cent) was critical of the quality of our politicians. And there is a widespread belief that politicians tell lies. Some 62 per cent of respondents agreed that "politicians tell lies all the time – you can't believe a word they say".

When Peter Kellner, president of YouGov, saw the results, he gave this warning: "What emerges is a picture of massive discontent that goes far beyond a dislike of particular politicians, parties and policies." A majority believes Britain's political system to be fundamentally flawed. "The combined effect of these complaints is more profound than is widely realised. Unless action is taken to restore the reputation of our political system, its very legitimacy may be at risk."

More recently the Hansard Society published the results of its annual audit of political engagement and declared that "indifference has hardened into something more significant, and disturbing." Trends in interest and knowledge are downward, sharply so in some cases. What is suggested is "a public that is increasingly disengaged from national politics".

Then examine what British Social Attitudes has found. After each General Election since 1987, the organisation has asked people how much they "trust British governments of any party to place the needs of the nation above the interests of their political party". The proportion trusting governments "just about always" or "most of the time" has collapsed from 47 per cent in 1987 to 20 per cent in 2010. When we compare this level of trust with our Continental neighbours, we find that, in 2009, 20 out of the 27 members of the European Union displayed higher levels of trust in their governments than we did. Notice also how much higher the turnout was at the recent French presidential election (80 per cent) compared with our last general election (65 per cent).

These warnings, however, rub against that part of our national character that holds it important not to get too fussed about things. While this is an admirable quality when the alternative would be panic in the face of a sudden threat, not getting too fussed can become dangerous complacency. It would be so now.

Return to the warning above: "Unless action is taken to restore the reputation of our political system, its very legitimacy may be at risk". For "legitimacy" substitute a more familiar word that carries the same meaning in this context: authority. Authority is the most important quality that governments can possess.

Until recently, successive British governments had authority in large measure. That is why we are mostly law abiding, why we tend to pay our taxes and why we are relatively uncorrupt – at least we thought we were until the scandals of News International and the bad behaviour of the banks erupted into our midst. But if the government of the day loses authority, then the country risks falling into the same situation as Greece or Italy, where inconvenient laws like building regulations are habitually ignored, where tax dodging is a national sport and where government officials must be bribed before they will do anything. That both these countries are now governed by technocrats rather than by democratically elected leaders shows the sort of fate that can follow a loss of trust in a country's political institutions.

The explanation for the growing disillusion with our political system is twofold: incompetence and trust betrayed. There is a haze of incompetence that envelops Government ministers. So bad has it become that we have even had to invent a new word for it: omnishambles. Examples are the botched reorganisation of the NHS, the recent budget that penalised pensioners and charities, the petrol crisis that wasn't. How can you feel confident in people who frequently bring forward half-baked policies that have to be substantially changed within a few weeks of their announcement? But worse than all this is an economic policy that allows no hope for the future. On some forecasts, unemployment will go on rising for the next five years.

So far as trust is concerned, how can we forget that four MPs plus two members of the House of Lords have recently been imprisoned for dishonesty? In other words, out of the 1,500 members of the 2005 – 2010 Parliament, Commons and Lords combined, six turned out to be criminals. At the same time, some journalists working for the national press, whose activities intertwine with politics in various ways, face a series of criminal charges.

Also widely noted is the way the political parties say one thing when they are seeking votes and then do the opposite when in power. To some extent, the Tories and Labour have always behaved like this, but it seems to have been more blatant since the 2010 general election. The Lib Dems joined in. They made a manifesto pledge to abolish university tuition fees within six years and then, once in government, Lib Dem ministers voted to maintain them at a higher level.

We can either accept a continuation of this – not get too fussed – or we can do something about it. Not to act is likely to have a number of adverse consequences. Younger people would increasingly wonder what was the point in voting in general elections. Instead they would turn to street protests to express their views. As trust continued to drain away from our institutions it would be harder to get things done. Governments would become more authoritarian to make good the missing respect. That is what awaits us.

But think of the advantages that are available to those who would try to turn this situation round. Britain has a strong democratic tradition, perhaps the most deeply rooted of any country. Creative use of digital media could equal, if not exceed, the power of the political parties to raise funds and organise elections. And there are plenty of people who care. Indeed, there are plenty of people outside Westminster who have the Olympic spirit. In an article tomorrow, I am going to describe how these strengths might be combined together to rescue our democracy and ask for your participation in exploring this route out of the crisis.

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