Andreas Whittam Smith: Don't be surprised if a protest movement flowers in Britain

British voters feel hostile towards the political class for a variety of reasons

Share
Related Topics

That a Republican candidate can capture a seemingly super-safe Democratic seat in Massachusetts has resonance for British politics as well as American. As the reasons for the surprising loss of the late Senator Kennedy's citadel are studied, a read-across to our circumstances emerges. While we don't have anything comparable to the American "Tea Party movement" that played such a big role, we share the same disgust with what is perceived as a dysfunctional political system.

The Tea Party movement opposes wasteful government spending, which it sees as being derived from the unnecessary growth in the scope and scale of government. It disapproves of plans to stimulate the economy. It doesn't like high levels of national debt nor does it approve of tax increases. It has been created as if by spontaneous combustion and unites all those who oppose President Obama, who oppose the Democratic majority in Congress, and who reject plans to reform healthcare. The Tea Party movement took its chance in the special senate election in Massachusetts and succeeded magnificently.

In Britain there are also many reasons why voters are hostile to the political class. Heading the list, albeit muted for the moment, is public disgust with MPs' exploitation of expenses.

The two theatres of war, Iraq and Afghanistan, are lumped together as a cause of discontent. Voters see them as one incident, although they are logically distinct in numerous ways. Between them they combine needless loss of live, government deceit, poor planning and absence of vital equipment. Political insiders once believed public opinion would soon "move on" from Iraq. Yet four inquiries in six years have failed to achieve closure; hence the establishment of the Chilcot Inquiry now taking evidence. On this subject, too, the electorate remains extremely angry.

In addition, there is a general sense that the very competence of government, central or local, has deteriorated. In the past few days, for instance, we have learnt that Doncaster children's services department missed 31 chances to intervene in a situation that led to two boys being left critically injured as a result of sustained assaults with a sexual content by two brothers, aged 10 and 11. Doncaster has been subject to seven separate inquiries into the deaths of children since 2004.

Nonetheless, the Tea Party movement in the US has deeper roots than British exasperation with its political establishment. For there is a persistent distrust in the US of all forms of government that, while normally held at the fringe of politics, can come into the centre as it did with stunning effect in Massachusetts on Tuesday. There is no similar root-and-branch opposition here. Nor is there the same hatred of the so-called metropolitan elites that animates American protest.

As David Brooks put it in the New York Times a fortnight ago: "The educated class believes in global warming, so public scepticism about global warming is on the rise. The educated class supports abortion rights, so public opinion is shifting against them. The educated class supports gun control, so opposition to gun control is mounting. The story is the same in foreign affairs. The educated class is internationalist, so isolationist sentiment is now at an all-time high. The educated class believes in multilateral action, so the number of Americans who believe we should 'go our own way' has risen sharply."

For us the acid test is what makes people take to the streets, a comparatively rare event. Iraq and MPs' expenses have both had that effect. The first led to one of the largest protest marches in London ever seen. The second set off numerous local demonstrations. There are other straws in the wind, too. A Power2010 deliberative poll that took place 10 days ago had, as its second most popular demand, after the strengthening of Parliament, that voters should be allowed to mark their polling papers in a general election with "none of the above". Since then, Power2010 has put the propositions that found favour in the poll to all its supporters, asking them to select the five which they like the best. Some 14,000 people have taken part so far.

So, making all necessary qualifications for the differences between the two situations, can we have a Massachusetts moment? I believe it is possible. At the general election, there may well be shock results in individual constituencies. There is also just time, aided by the internet, for some sort of protest party to emerge that will put up candidates. The Tea Party movement is barely a year old and already it has captured a Senate seat. In politics nowadays, anything is possible. Stand ready for some surprises here.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Tony Abbott: A man most Australian women would like to pat on the back...iron in hand

Caroline Garnar
Australian rapper Iggy Azalea performs in California  

Hip hop is both racial and political, and for Iggy Azalea to suggest otherwise is insulting

Yomi Adegoke
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there