If you really want ‘new politics’, step forward
The shake-up of Britain’s political system represents an opportunity for pushing new, exciting ideas into the public realm.
Many people experienced the post-election deal-making as passive observers. Millions of us voted last Thursday because we take seriously our role as active, engaged citizens and we want to make an impact on the political make-up of Britain. Yet after the election we were frustratingly reduced to audience members at a piece of political theatre, trying to catch glimpses of Nick Clegg’s notepad or waiting for announcements from Lib Dem officials we had never heard of before in order to find out what was going on.
The disparity between the enthusiasm with which many people voted in what was described as ‘the most important election in a generation’ and the passive roles we were assigned after the election is a striking one. It points to a tension – a potentially fruitful, rewarding, game-changing tension – between many people’s desire to be politically engaged and a political elite which tends to regard us as the mere providers of bargaining chips for its behind-the-scenes power-broking. This tension makes today’s increasingly fluid political era not simply disorientating, but also more open, more unpredictable, and more susceptible to being shaped and changed by new ideas.
What we can say for certain about the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat government is that it does not, in David Cameron’s words, represent the ‘new politics’. There is little new in a political programme that can only address a key issue such as economic downturn by proposing various tax tweaks, or which promises to make Britons ‘more socially responsible’. Furthermore, the willingness with which Clegg in particular shedded what some people fancifully described as his progressive ideals – from his opposition to Trident to his opposition to a cap on migration – suggests some members of this new government are more interested in power than ideas. They’re more wedded to their desire to get into the Cabinet Office than they are to pushing forward a properly new politics.
But can we say that the new government represents the end of the old politics? Possibly. Certainly the increasing hollowing-out of the old parties, the rupture that has occurred between the parties and their traditional social bases, has impacted on the way that mainstream politics is conducted and experienced today. Very often, the appearance of institutional continuity – where we seem to have the same old parties running for office and winning office – can disguise profound changes and discontinuities from the past. The fact that neither of the two big parties, the Conservatives or Labour, managed to win an outright majority, leading to the need to form a coalition government for the first time in 70 years, suggests that the old politics is at the very least ailing.
The question now is: if the old politics is weak and the new politics is not embodied in the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat government, where does politics go from here? We appear to be caught in a kind of limbo between the old politics and a new politics, yet this does not have to be experienced as any kind of political purgatory in which we thrash around like disoriented souls waiting for blessed release – on the contrary, it presents an exciting opportunity for developing new ideas and encouraging real, substantial debate about the future of politics, life and liberty. Many observers are already claiming that Britain is ‘settling’ into a new political era of coalition and consensus; in truth there is very little ‘settling’ taking place, and things remain fluid and changeable, and unresolved issues are already coming to the fore and will continue to do so.
For those of us who are not particularly sorry to see the old politics walking off into the horizon, and who are not convinced that the new government represents a ‘new politics’, the aim now should be to harness people’s desire for change and purpose and to come up with new political ideas and solutions. We don’t have to wait to see what is scribbled on Nick Clegg’s notepad when he emerges from his first Cabinet meeting – we can start writing our own agendas and programmes, our own treatises for freedom, progress and a new politics, right now.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.
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