Just 9% of British people think politics isn’t broken – and I’m one of them

Britain might be facing challenging questions, but its political system is working just as it should

John Rentoul
Wednesday 27 February 2019 17:35
Chuka Umunna: 'Politics is broken. It doesn't have to be this way. Let's change it'

YouGov asked an interesting opinion poll question last week: “Would you say that British politics is working well or poorly at present?” This is likely a response to the launch of the Independent Group of breakaway MPs, who proclaimed during their launch last week that British politics is “broken”. As you might expect, 82 per cent of a sample of Great British adults replied “poorly”. What was fascinating, however, was that 9 per cent said “well”.

When I reported this finding, the response was nearly unanimous. “Who are these 9 per cent?” Well, I’m one of them. I think British politics is working well. We are a nation struggling with a huge question about what our relationship should be with continental Europe, and we are engaged in a long, democratic and open discussion about it.

I don’t know how it will be resolved, but whatever the outcome, it will be the least bad in the collective judgement of our elected representatives assembled in the House of Commons. That is British politics working as it should.

It is not the fault of our political system that leaving the EU is difficult; or that our main party leaders are flawed. I have my disagreements with Theresa May, and she is not an inspiring leader, but I don’t know that a prime minister with the historical grasp of a Churchill, the forcefulness of a Thatcher and the negotiating skills of a Blair would have done much better – although an exceptional communicator such as Blair would have been able to give a better account of himself.

Any prime minister would have struggled to reconcile a popular vote to leave the EU with the implemention of it by a House of Commons, three quarters of whose members voted to remain. Any prime minister would then have found it even harder to construct a majority out of a parliament split three ways, reflecting public opinion split three ways. At every level, the nation is split between those who want to leave without agreement, those who want to leave with an agreement, and those who want to stay.

It is not a fault of British politics that people hold strong and mutually incompatible opinions. You can say that it is taking too long to resolve these disagreements, but that is a feature of an open, flexible and democratic system.

You can disagree with decisions politicians have made. Indeed, there is a catechism of the anti-politics that runs as follows: “I believe that David Cameron was wrong to hold the referendum; that he was wrong to run away afterwards; that Theresa May was wrong to invoke Article 50 when she was not ready; but also and oppositely that she was wrong to commit the crime of having red lines; that all politicians are totally useless and my cat could run the country better.”

Chris Leslie: 'British politics is now well and truly broken'

I don’t agree with any of those – with all due respect to people’s cats. I think the referendum was the right and inevitable response to democratic pressure to reconsider our relationship with the rest of Europe. The idea that Cameron should have clung on as prime minister having lost the referendum is self-refuting. The UK had no choice but to invoke Article 50 because the EU refused to negotiate until we did. And May’s negotiation was a surprising success – it achieved a compromise that should have been acceptable to a majority in parliament, except that Jeremy Corbyn and Keir Starmer found excuses for voting against it for petty, partisan reasons.

I don’t agree with them, but that’s the British political system, and that’s how it works. The parliamentary deadlock is the system working well.

The 82 per cent who say British politics is working badly ought to be able to say how it would work better. And YouGov suggested a number of possible remedies. Only four suggestions secured the support of more than half of the public. The most popular was: “Parties and politicians trying harder to work together and reach compromise” (73 per cent). This was unfortunately contradicted by another one: “Parties and politicians trying harder to stay true to their core beliefs” (57 per cent).

And the other two were: “A different type of people becoming MPs” (59 per cent) and “The public to become more politically engaged” (58 per cent). Which amount to basically the same thing, and I agree with it: if you think British politics doesn’t work well, get involved and change it.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments