Leading Article: The deeper malaise

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The Independent Online
THE tribulations of the Christian Democrats in Germany and popular rejection of constitutional reform in Canada are further examples of the weakness afflicting all members of the Group of Seven, or G7, those leading industrial countries that supposedly direct the economic affairs of the world. The United States, Japan, Germany, France, Italy, Canada and Britain are all struggling with recession. All their political leaders are unpopular. None of their governments could win an election held tomorrow.

Is this merely a cyclical phenomenon, a transitory reaction to economic stress, or is something gnawing at the deeper foundations of the leading industrial democracies? Global recession was, of course, bound to put severe strains on them and their governments as the bills came in for the boom of the Eighties and the huge debt overhang it created. People do not like getting poorer, and they blame the politicians, who are quick enough to claim credit for the fat years. Even popular, well-led governments would have had trouble coping. Weak, badly led governments are paying a heavy price, made heavier in Europe by the shared costs of German unification.

It is difficult, however, to dismiss suggestions that a deeper malaise is hampering effective responses and driving voters to reject not only their present leaders but establishment politics altogether, turning instead to fringe movements or outsiders such as Ross Perot. Part of the trouble is that mainstream parties no longer represent coherent ideologies or class interests but are more and more seen to be (as many of them always were) coalitions of diverse interests brought together only for the purpose of winning elections. Party loyalties therefore become looser while more issues, such as the Maastricht treaty, cut across party lines.

Furthering this trend is the growing helplessness of governments in the face of global economic pressures. National responses either have little effect or are counterproductive if they involve protectionism or inward-looking fiscal policies. The nation state comes to seem an inappropriate instrument for dealing with such problems, especially as weak governments find international co-operation more difficult - see the Gatt negotiations. The search for larger units is then counteracted by people seeking identity and community in smaller groups defined by ethnicity, regionalism or single-issue politics.

Mainstream politicians, baffled by the trend, find refuge behind protective walls of bureaucracy, allowing themselves to be driven by officials instead of listening to the confusing and often confused voices of their voters. As a result they lose touch and aggravate their problems by producing impenetrable documents such as the Maastricht treaty, entirely forgetting the need to make them comprehensible to the public.

The constitutional reform that the Canadians have just rejected was also a complex compromise among interest groups, not the expression of an overarching political vision that might have united people instead of dividing them. Similarly, Helmut Kohl is paying the price for not being honest with his people or the rest of Europe about the costs of unification. Only in his speech on Monday did he start to make amends. The moral is that if politicians distrust or ignore their voters, the voters will reciprocate.