Forget the cheesy celebrations to mark 60 years of the Eurovision Song Contest. Ponder instead another kind of continental scoreboard. Bottom of the table, with a paltry five, lags the United Kingdom. Ireland edges forward with 10. Well in front, on 18, comes Sweden. Surging ahead with 54: the Netherlands. Germany weighs in with an impressive 85. Hold the fanfares, though, because after a giant-killing performance and a record score of 139, hail the victor: Belgium!
Between poll results and swearing-in, those are the number of days it took to form a stable government in assorted European states within the past five years. I owe that table to Akash Paun of the Institute for Government, whose new report on “Westminster in the Age of Minorities” calms with clarity and logic the roiling cauldron of speculation that now greets the likelihood of a multiply-hung parliament.
However scrambled the aftermath of 7 May, it still seems improbable that we will have to wait as long to meet the new boss (same as the old boss) as the voters of Germany did in 2013. Then, Angela Merkel laboured for almost three painstaking months to engineer a roadworthy GroKo: grand coalition. But has her authority at home and (even more) abroad suffered at all?
Here, Parliament will reconvene on 18 May. The Queen’s Speech is scheduled for 27 May. By that date, a government of some stripe should be ready to submit its programme to the Commons in the hope of securing a slender majority. Should that vote turn against some ramshackle alliance, the fun really begins. Our home-brewed hiatus may last one day, one month – or one year. Whatever the interval, we could use this dream time not to fantasise about the smack of firm government but to indulge in another shade of speculation.
The suspension of government-as-usual could act as a spur to think the unthinkable. In the event of a muddled outcome, look forward to lamentations about impending chaos or “anarchy”. If the doomsters mean social breakdown, then that prospect does not loom. No constitutional firewall between the executive and legislature will paralyse the state, as happens in the US. The skies will not fall and killer zombies will not roam the unpoliced streets. Pensions will arrive; schools will teach; hospitals will treat and public-sector wages will be paid. Paun points out that, in Canada, Prime Minister Stephen Harper weathered a full five years – 2006 to 2011 – as leader of a “pure minority” government with no coalition pact.
So consider any interregnum not as a crisis but as an opportunity. Rather than mourning the demise of strong leadership, contemplate what government should and should not do. Above all, perhaps, we could look straight into the face of that bugbear labelled “anarchy”. Some of us might even learn to like it.
TV leaders' debate 2015
TV leaders' debate 2015
1/8 The leaders' debate 2015
Green Party leader Natalie Bennett, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, Ukip leader Nigel Farage, Labour leader Ed Miliband, Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Prime Minister David Cameron during the 7-way debate
2/8 David Cameron
David Cameron: "People who come here and work hard help make this a great country, but we do need immigration that's controlled and fair."
Getty Images Europe
3/8 Ed Miliband
Ed Miliband says that work 'doesn't pay' in Britain and says Labour would change that. He says David Cameron is talking rubbish.
4/8 Nick Clegg
Nick Clegg says there's "good immigration and bad immigration". "I want Britain to be open for business but not open to abuse".
Getty Images Europe
5/8 Nigel Farage
"Sixty per cent of [people with HIV] are not British nationals... I know there are some horrible things happening in many parts of the world, but what we need to do is put the NHS there for British families," says Nigel Farage
6/8 Nicola Sturgeon
Nicola Sturgeon says the PM is acting like a "petulant schoolchild threatening to leave".
7/8 Leanne Wood
Leanne Wood has a proposal: "I recognise there are many problems with the EU but Wales benefits from being a member".
8/8 Natalie Bennett
Natalie Bennett: "UN has asked us to take in Syrian refugees, we've taken in 143 Syrians, we should do more and our fair share"
Any British general election is a carnival of centralism. Politicians go wild with rash offers of legislation and intervention. Something must always be done. As polling day nears, not only the old-guard left and right but Greens and nationalists too embrace the strong state in one guise or another: as patron, as protector, as nanny, as policeman, as overseer, as security guard. This clamour of competitive promises silences even the lip service to localism that squeaks out at other times. On 8 May, however, our little emperors may look more nearly naked than at any time since the stalemates of the mid-1970s.
In which case, we could celebrate the weakness of the party-political state and consider again the mutualist path towards a better and a freer life. From the Co-operative movement to housing activists and credit unions, the self-help Britain that grew up to shelter people from the icy blast of industrial capitalism has always known how to reinvent itself. True, corporatism now itches to suppress any alternatives to the unholy alliance of the bully state and the rampant market. Symptomatically, the poor old Co-operative Bank swooned, after its near-death experience in 2013, into the greedy arms of the hedge funds. The Co-op movement itself now holds only about 20 per cent of its stock.
That self-help Britain has always stood at a wary tangent to the centralised state. The rising Labour Party folded some of its components into the parliamentary congregation – but not all. Many clubs and causes with Liberal or Nonconformist roots stayed outside the Labour church, especially in areas such as East Anglia and the West Country. Even where convergence did occur, the joins still sometimes show. In the parliament dissolved last Monday, 27 MPs (including Ed Balls) sat as “Labour Co-operative” members. The tag is historical evidence of an alignment that never quite became an amalgamation.
Many from this sturdy tribe of self-organising radicals refused to sign up to the almighty state, even when a benevolent version of it triumphed after 1945. In its gentle, low-key way, genuine anarchism too tilled its own ground here – in some respects, literally. My guide to our home-grown mutual-aid tradition was the late Colin Ward: the genial godfather of post-war British anarchism, and a supremely creative all-round thinker-activist. In one of his many books, he took the humble allotment movement as a model for community self-help.
A secular saint of the awkward squad, Colin – an Essex boy by birth – found inspiration in the scruffy and unrespectable backyards of odd-job, DIY, off-the-books Britain. Among marginals and mavericks, he sought and found solutions to the failures of top-down, Whitehall-knows-best administration. Colin’s Britain, you might say, could never be broken, because he’d always know a bloke who could fix it (cash in hand, of course).
From the skill-sharing, favour-swapping tinkerers, repairers and moonlighting multitaskers who lived and worked around the Suffolk village where he settled, Ward fashioned his vision of a shed-and-yard utopia. Here, prefab-dwellers, allotment-diggers, squatters, fixers and converters would show in practice how an ungoverned community might grow from individual self-help into collaborative mutual support. Some of them would no doubt have driven white (if somewhat mud-bespattered) vans. Especially on Colin’s East Anglian patch, a fair few of their heirs will now be thinking hard about Ukip. How did it ever come to this? Spare a thought for the takeover of this noble strain of bloody-minded self-sufficiency by cynical chauvinists and xenophobes.
In Colin’s favourite metaphor, the potential for a state-free society always lingered within human hearts “like a seed beneath the snow”, just waiting for the chance to sprout. He also had some robust responses to the Fabian argument that anarchistic self-help might work well enough within tiny groups, but that complex societies always called for the stamp of bureaucratic authority. As he wrote in his manifesto Anarchy in Action, so-called “primitive” communities often run themselves in more flexible and subtle ways than any state: “It is not anarchy but government that is a crude simplification of social organisation.” Above all, Ward shunned homogenising uniformity. “The anarchist alternative,” he wrote, “is that of fragmentation, fission rather than fusion, diversity rather than unity, a mass of societies rather than a mass society.”
Gridlock in Westminster will by itself not open the door on a spring festival of joyous self-help. More’s the pity. Still, even a short interregnum can clear a space for thought. Into that space should go not yearnings for omnipotent regimes with 180-seat majorities but fresh ideas about the local actions that might boost a sense of freedom in everyone’s backyard.
As the political class crowds into a huddle, the rest of us might ask where government should start – and stop. As I learned from Ward, there’s nothing innately reactionary in this debate. It might, however, call for partisans to jettison some shibboleths. Why, for example, do people who lean to the left dismiss the idea of free schools? (Ward himself was a keen advocate of self-managed education.) On the other side, why do temperamental conservatives have any truck with the party that rips up every planning protection and tramples over local wishes whenever a shiny new toy – such as the HS2 line – will please their business paymasters?
In place of delusions of grandeur, it would be good to hear from candidates who longed to surrender power – and not merely to regional assemblies that mimic all the faults of their Westminster parent on a miniaturised, Legoland scale. Hard-headed politicians write off the co-operative autonomy that Ward pursued – micro-devolution, if you like – on the grounds of its impracticality. Well, let’s take a perennial problem that drove much of his most innovative work: housing.
In the late 1940s, Colin had defended former soldiers and their families who, homeless after demob, took over vacant military bases. So began his lifelong immersion in the twilight zone of squatters, self-builders, smallholders and unofficial occupiers. He championed a sleeves-rolled, DIY approach to the quest for affordable homes that now feels more urgently relevant than ever.
One example: the old Welsh tradition of Ty unnos, also found in other cultures. It says that, if you build your own house in one night on common land, then it’s yours – with freehold rights. On a million doorsteps, vote-seekers might find that this brand of resourceful punk politics would go down better than the bland bubblegum tunes of the big parties. Anarchy in the UK? Bring it on.