Monday, 14 January 2019

No leadership, childishness and deception - how MPs are destroying the trust that's central to democracy

Trust. That's it, the central, essential requirement for democracy to work. People have to trust that their friends and neighbours will behave responsibly and that the people who we send to parliament as our representatives will do, more or less, what they said they'll do. I know, I know, I can hear you: "Simon, what are you drinking, people never trust politicians...": or words to that effect. I suspect, however, that this probably ain't so - there's always been a loud minority who thought politicians were selfish, on the take, charlatans but most people, if they ever gave the matter thought, saw politicians as grand but essentially decent folk.

Yesterday I concluded that we're pretty close to the point where this trust, always a fragile thing, collapses. Three things led me there - watching "Brexit: the uncivil war", seeing interviews with Harlow residents on Sky News and reading Dominic Grieves 2017 election statement. And before we start this isn't about Brexit right or wrong but about whether the people feel able to affect change in a democracy - can trust those they elect to respect how they vote.

I won't go into a whole review of "Brexit: the uncivil war" - suffice it to say that I enjoyed it but felt it was (other than a truly dire scene supposedly set in Jaywick - it's always Jaywick isn't it) too focused on the battle between teams of Westminster insiders rather than on an amazing campaign mostly conducted by regular voters without reference to politicians. It was also spoiled by a silly bit of text at the end suggesting the leave campaign did something evil and malign (it didn't).

Anyway, the important bit isn't the accuracy or otherwise of the drama but the final minutes set in a future inquiry where Dominic Cummings played by Benedict Cumberbatch rants about how nobody had the intelligence, initiative or aspiration to take hold of the 2016 vote and shape it into a real change for Britain. The Cummings character, close to camera, says that a vote to change how we did politics was seen as just something to be managed within the existing political culture. Politicians - leave and remain - were unable to grasp that voters, including scruffy ones in ramshackle shacks by the Essex seaside, were telling us the way we do politics needs to change and that maybe we'd get better government if we paid them some actual attention.

Meanwhile, Sky News had toddled off to Harlow - Essex again as it's not too inconvenient as they can get back to West London to take Jocasta to dance class - where they did vox pops with voters. Sophie Ridge, the presenter, shared clips on social media and these told the same tale as we heard from that end piece in "Brexit: the uncivil war". Politicians are useless buffoons, they need to get on with the job and stop behaving like children. And (trust me on this one) this sentiment is repeated everywhere by leave and remain voters alike. It's accompanied by a growing view that, not only will Brexit not happen but that people will have less power in future because they had the audacity to vote for something their lords and masters didn't want.

Yet despite this, MPs have, time and time again, voted (by slim majorities admittedly) to stop any resolution to Brexit that didn't conform to their view - incidentally, given they are mostly remain supporters, a view that is directly contradictory to the way the majority of the people voted. Every possible variant of legal and procedural sophistry has been employed, all with the intent of stopping the government from implementing the result of the 2016 referendum. And this brings me to the third thing from yesterday because it features Dominic Grieve, one of the leading confounders of that democratic vote in June 2016. There are plenty of others to choose from but I happened to read what Grieve had said to his electorate in the 2017 General Election - here's a chunk:
As someone who has always advocated a close relationship between the UK and the European Union, I accept the result of the 2016 Referendum. I therefore strongly support the Prime Minister’s determination to secure a negotiated arrangement for leaving the EU and for forging a new trading relationship for the future, providing certainty for trade and business whilst giving us control of migration and releasing us from the direct effect of EU Law. I also believe that the people of our country will benefit from a close continuing relationship with a strong EU and I will work to help build these important links for our future. I very much hope, therefore, that the Prime Minister will be able to achieve something close to the goals she set out in her speech at Lancaster House in February.
I challenge anyone to find in this, or indeed in the rest of Grieve's message, anything that justifies how he has behaved in parliament since that election. The address in question - especially given how clear the Conservative manifesto was on the matter - is a colossal act of deception because, as subsequent events have shown, Grieve had every intention of spending the forthcoming parliament manipulating rules and procedures to try and prevent Brexit.

These three examples all speak to the relationship between the electorate and their representatives with the public justifiably exasperated by what's gone on, irritated by the childishness of MPs (and their friends in the mainstream media) and desperate for somebody to grasp the opportunity of reframing the relationship between voter and politician in favour of the voter and away from the tribal elites in the Westminster bubble.

As I said at the start, trust is central to democracy. It seems that, unless something dramatic happens pretty soon, politicians in Westminster, by repeatedly ignoring voters concerns and interests, will finally have lost the last vestiges of respect as well as the public's trust. What will happen at this point isn't clear - I'm not expecting thousands to take to the streets as they have in France but I do expect a new sort of politician - blunt, cynical and populist - to arrive. And the first place they'll arrive is in local Conservative associations.


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