I wish the despair I feel about our enfeebled democracy today could be written off to exhaustion after a long night following events in Iowa, and to the striking contrast with the vibrancy of democracy over there.
But it’s deeper than that. Something more concrete than fatigue-driven hysteria underpins the sense that Britain is shuffling on its Zimmer towards one-party statehood.
If that sounds like deranged hyperbole, have the courtesy to ask yourself this. How long do you think it will be before a party other than the Conservatives is in position to form a government? Can you imagine it within two decades, or three? Can you envisage it in your lifetime at all?
The obstacles between Labour and taking power as anything other than a Tory tribute act on 1997 lines were colossal after the catastrophic loss of Scotland in May. The likelihood of the party vaulting them under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, admirable in many ways as he is, seems to lie in direct inverse proportion to the enthusiasm he excites among a narrow but zealous fan club.
Add in the proposed boundary changes expected to boost the Tories by 20 English seats, and an economically left-leaning government becomes virtually inconceivable. It is half a century since a left-of-centre manifesto decisively won a general election. Since Harold Wilson’s 1966 landslide, the best Labour could do was a dead heat (twice in 1974) before Tony Blair’s triumph as a centre-right shapeshifter.
And now this Government wants to lengthen the odds further by trimming not just what all political parties receive from the state for parliamentary costs, but by using its vindictive Trade Union Bill to halve what Labour gets from the unions.
I won’t insult you by wasting time considering the theory that the motivation is to clean up political funding. Even as skilful a performer as Cameron would have to bite his bottom lip until his shirt was streaked with blood to have a 50/50 shot at claiming that with a straight face.
He continues to whore himself to vulgarian donors with a blatancy that would be hilarious if it were a physical possibility to belly laugh when bent over the bowl channelling one’s stomach contents towards the U-bend. As a Times columnist acerbically notes, the Conservative’s annual Black and White Ball – you know, the one where the hedge fund beauties and derivative instrument sweethearts fight for the right to pay £250,000 for the privilege of clipping Theresa May’s toenails – is imminent.
What is so depressing about the plan to stack the electoral odds even further against a change of government isn’t that it speaks of cheap political gangsters – psephological numbers racketeers in Savile Row suits – who are pathologically unable, New Labour-style, to see politics as anything grander and nobler than an Us vs Them combat sport. After all, the Tories’ brazen contempt for the democratic process has been plain from their increasing reliance on statutory instruments (SI) to sidestep debate and voting in the Commons.
Also revealing has been Cameron’s descent into Blairish autocratic centralism: when the House of Lords overturned Osborne’s cack-handed raid on the working poor’s tax credits (itself enacted by statutory instrument, lest the Commons vote it down), he reacted with the oblique but unmistakable threat to flood the Lords with so many new Tory peers – many doubtless Black and White Ball auction bidders – that such a defiance of his authority could not be repeated.
What is so incredibly depressing about all this is not that the PM and Chancellor are out to destroy Labour for good and assure unbroken Tory rule. It is that no one gives a damn. This is partly because nothing bores the pants off the populace like constitutional matters. This is unsurprising in a country which, since its leaders have always avoided writing the rules down because that would curtail their power to subvert them, has no real constitution at all.
Say what you will about politics in the United States. Say that it is a gigantic psychiatric ward full of unreconstructed racists and religious maniacs, staffed by megalomaniac chancers and grifters. So it is. Any country in which Marco Rubio, a pretty virulent right-wing ideologue, is cast as a calm and centrist Eisenhower Republican by the shadow of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz has big problems of its own.
But my God, you could burst with jealousy when you see Iowans gathering in schools, community centres and their own homes to argue and caucus for their candidates. Their passion for politics, raw and sometimes filthy as it may be, is magnificent. So is their love for a Constitution which, more even than the NHS is to us, is their one shared religion.
The mighty intellects who framed the US Constitution had many ambitions, but their overriding aim was to make it impossible for the tyranny imposed on them by an English King to thrive. Its flaws go beyond the enshrinement of slavery. You doubt Jefferson and the gang would admire the legislative gridlock so frequently created by the complex series of checks and balances they wrote into it. But you assume they would regard paralysis in Washington as a small price for avoiding even a genteel form of tyranny.
They understood that, since even the well-meaning inevitably become corrupted by the temptation to accrue more and purer power, true democracy can only be safeguarded in perpetuity by the formalised separation of power. Here, where there are no written rules to separate power, it is dangerously concentrated in unscrupulous hands.
If mistaking a narrow plurality of the popular vote for a ringing mandate to misuse that power – by sidestepping the Commons with statutory instruments, or threatening to shove scores of their bankrolling mates into the Lords while starving their opponents of what they need to conduct effective campaigns – counts as democracy, then you really, really wouldn’t want to live under an elective dictatorship.
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