By Gerry Stoker. Gerry Stoker is Professor of Governance at University of Southampton and Centenary Professor of Governance at the University of Canberra (Twitter).
The last week of June 2016 was the worst week for politics of my lifetime. I was born in 1955 and some terrible political events have unfolded since then but never before have all the vices of our politicians and our political system been so blatantly on display.
First we saw in the EU referendum campaign the most unashamed dishonesty in argument from both sides and then an incredible acceptance of that dishonesty in the aftermath of that result. Many politicians have a different approach to truthfulness from the rest of us with a view that telling lies is fine as long as it’s about winning an argument. Moreover they then compound the errors of the campaign with a new set of lies about how the message from the British public is clear so that they can claim the mandate is whatever they want it to be. Can we really be that sure what citizens meant to say when they voted? It’s the casual nature of this fraudulent posturing that is breath-taking.
Second, politicians appear to be resolutely committed to making promises that they know they cannot keep. This behaviour was a key feature of the EU campaign and it had continued in its aftermath. You cannot have both national control of immigration and economic regulation and full access to European markets. You cannot spend money twice. If any public funds are saved from leaving the EU they cannot be stretched to save the NHS, give us tax cuts and be spent on a myriad of other things. You cannot deliver economic development to “left behind” parts of Britain through speeches or even legislation. At best you can work up several policy tools — and back them with sustained finance over decades — that may stand some chance of success against the forces of global capitalism. They are no quick fixes to the uneven and unequal economic geography of Britain.
Third, politicians have displayed and continue to demonstrate astounding short-termism. To call a referendum to fix a row in your party or to campaign for an exit from the EU without any clear plan of how to do it was staggeringly irresponsible. The Conservatives may blame Corbyn for his weak campaigning, but the referendum and the campaign was born of politics learned on the playing fields of Eton and the oak-panelled halls of the Oxford Union. Their approach appears to have all the hallmarks of the casual and cavalier attitudes bred in our elite. Politicians are now focused on positioning themselves in the aftermath of the EU result and offered next to nothing in terms of longer-term vision or practicalities.
Fourth, and connected to the above, politicians have really outdone themselves in their commitment to being self-serving. Neither the national interest, nor even their party’s interest in many cases, appears to have figured in their thinking; just plain and simple personal ambition and ego. Corbyn and McDonnell join Gove and Johnson in getting top marks for their truly self-serving displays. But there are many other contenders.
Fifth, we have been assaulted by a series of stupid cults of celebrity and personality that have led followers to the abandonment of evidence and reasoned judgement. We have had Farage the pint-loving Dad’s Army sergeant with his loud-mouth version of “They don’t like it up them those Europeans”. We have had Boris the polymath and wit who turns out to be a total wally? We have had Corbyn the Messiah whose initials might be J.C but in reality is an out of his depth, old-style sectarian politico.
Sixth, the clumsiness and limitations of our simplistic majoritarian way of thinking about politics has been horribly exposed. We are told that Leave won plain and simple. Whereas what I see is a country terribly divided and that continues to be run by a government voted for by only a quarter of eligible electors. You might argue that being able to kick the government out if it fails gives a crude accountability to our system. But where is that after a referendum result? If Brexit proves to be a disaster do we ask all those who voted to Leave, well to leave or never vote again? What’s the seventh vice? After all, sins are supposed to present themselves in seven deadly forms. The last vice I am going to reserve for us as citizens rather than the politicians. It’s the vice of fatalism. I confess to be suffering from it. Everything I have just argued about the state of our politics would indicate that giving up on it would be a reasonable response. But I want to end with an attempt to break from the path of sin.
Insert here please your favourite cliché — such as the darkest hour comes before the dawn and then move from despair to a commitment to helping bring about change. Abandon the social media comfort zone where you tweet, Facebook and share your views with those who think exactly like you and go and join a political party or political movement. Although of course still use social media to promote this blog! Remember that change in democracies comes about through mutual adjustment. We don’t need to like each other or even understand each other but simply hold that every citizen needs their interests addressed, even if their concerns can only be met partially. We need a politics of learning, trial-and-error rather than a politics of “I know” given the overwhelming uncertainties facing us. We need multiple small changes so that losers — and there will be many — can accept their position without abandoning democracy. We need new thinking and policies to make Britain a better place.
Politics done in this inclusive but unflashy and restrained way might just help to restore our faith in its capacity to help rather than hinder. A week may be a long time in politics but this last week is going to take years of effort if we are to overhaul the flaws in our political system that it has revealed.