When Tony Benn retired from the House of Commons in 2001, he said he was doing so in order to spend more time on politics. Certainly the body which is supposed to represent the mass of the population has increasingly detached itself from reality over the years. In part this is a result of the electoral system in the United Kingdom; today’s “safe seat” is essentially a pocket borough with good PR, that is to say whoever is nominated by the party that owns the seat will be elected regardless of their fitness for the post.
This sort of thing was supposed to have been done away with by the Great Reform Act of 1832, but something so convenient to the governing classes was always likely to find its way back sooner or later. In the years of agitation leading up to the passing of that Act, Thomas Love Peacock wrote the satirical novel Melincourt in which an orangutan is elected to the House of Commons by these means. Surveying the current government, I’m not sure an orangutan wouldn’t do a better job.
A good deal of nonsense has been written about the unwritten constitution of the United Kingdom. It’s generally supposed to be a good thing, although it’s noticeable that when we gave constitutions to various bits of the Empire as they gained independence we always gave them something in writing. It does have the issue that there is no clear way of resolving issues that arise.When I was younger, whenever there was some knotty constitutional problem the cry would go up “Let’s ask Norman St John-Stevas!” but as he died in 2012 we would need to hold a seance.
So it is not definitively unconstitutional that the Prime Minister and his most senior minister are now convicted criminals, having broken their own laws. It is hard to square the Prime Minister’s claim that he wasn’t clear about the meaning of those laws with the fact that he was appearing nightly on national television to explain them to the rest of us. If he did know what they meant, then he knew he was breaking the law and therefore his statements to the House of Commons that he wasn’t were, to put it baldly, lies. Even if he misled the House unwittingly, he is supposed to correct the record, which he has not done.
It is usually considered a resigning issue for politicians to lie to the the House. Or at least, it used to be. But it doesn’t seem to be written down anywhere, apart from in the Ministerial Code which has already been broken with impunity by other ministers (I’m looking at you, Home Secretary). Meanwhile, Mr Johnson has a majority in the House of Commons and as far as he is concerned he can just carry merrily on.
The written constitution on which we are now relying to sort this out is that of the Conservative Party, which he leads. That does include a mechanism whereby he can be removed from that job and therefore from his office. But it depends entirely on Conservative MPs, who are not on the whole the kind of people you would want on an ethics committee. (Imran Ahmad Khan MP is merely the latest example.) It’s fair to say that they will be moved largely by self-interest rather than any high-minded desire to save democracy.
Not so very long ago, Anthony Eden resigned as Prime Minister just on suspicion of having misled the House over the Suez Crisis. Today, apparently, the Right Honourable Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson MP feels no qualms about remaining in office.
I’m not saying this, incidentally, because I believe a Labour government would solve all our problems. The most that can be said for such a government is that it would probably do very little, which might be a small improvement on a government that intends to send asylum seekers to Rwanda and to suppress meaningful political protest. First, as Hippocrates is supposed to have said, do no harm. But I am under no illusion that they would respond meaningfully to the many crises of our day, even if they were to be elected, which still seems unlikely even now.
The deeper issue is that the UK system has long ceased to furnish us with competent governments who had the interests of the governed at least somewhat at heart. It never really did, if we’re going to be honest, but at least we used to have Ministers of the Crown who could string a sentence together. Now the system has zero incentive to deliver politicians who actually represent the electorate at large.
Nor is this uniquely a British problem. Where in Europe will you find such a government today? Where, indeed, in the wider industrialised world? Leonard Cohen sang in “Anthem” of “the widowhood of every government” and you can see what he meant. Calling yourself a democracy doesn’t make you one, as witness the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. It is a truism that government is only possible with the consent of the governed; nowadays this is apparently taken as a given. It will be interesting to see how far this can be pushed without serious blowback. I suspect we are going to find out, and sooner than we would like.
Ancient Chinese thinkers developed the notion of the Mandate of Heaven to explain the otherwise inconvenient fact that every so often the divinely-ordained emperor was given the heave-ho and another dynasty rose to power. I am no expert, but it seems to me that more than one government in the industrial world has now lost that mandate.
I say this with some sadness, because I don’t think what will immediately replace the current order will necessarily look very pretty, nor will the transition to it be smooth and painless. I also say it with apprehension, because current issues with food supply are likely to get worse, not better, next year. High food prices are of course a classic precursor to violent uprisings, as was seen in France in 1789, Russia in 1917, and more recently the Arab Spring. Many of those same countries in the Middle East and North Africa are already feeling the pain from the current war in Ukraine.
The systems of government we have in place are not designed to provide us with leaders who can cope with this kind of thing. Justin Trudeau’s abject handling of the Canadian truckers is par for the course. Back in the late 1960s and 1970s there were various coup plots in the United Kingdom against the Wilson government, not all of them confined to Wilson’s fevered imagination. We may well be heading into a period of history that will look like the 1970s on steroids, not least because of increasing inflation.
I don’t know what the actual inflation rate in the UK is right now, but even based on the official numbers it ain’t going down. Food is going up; fuel is going up; energy is going up; the cost of accommodation is going up. As has been said before, that which is not sustainable will not be sustained.
This won’t be the end of politics, of course. As Aristotle said, politics of one sort or another will always be with us. What will end is the kind of politics we are used to. Time will tell what will replace it, but you wouldn’t bet against Caesarism. And then all bets are off.
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