A year of fear for British political leaders
And it’s set to get worse as the 2015 General Election approaches.
Against all the odds, in 2014 British politics finally got interesting. Unfortunately not in the sense of interesting debates between the major party leaders; politics within the Westminster bubble (and the Holyrood one) remained moribund.
No, politics got interesting in the sense meant by the famous (if apocryphal) ancient Chinese curse: ‘May you live in interesting times.’ That refers to times of uncertainty and insecurity as well as opportunity. The UK’s political leaders certainly found themselves living through increasingly uncertain and insecure times this year.
As a result we saw the other face of the politics of fear: the apprehension and incomprehension in the eyes of the political elite when they look at a disaffected electorate whom they fear and loathe. And worse is to come for our leaders as they look forward in barely disguised horror to the 2015 General Election, when they will have to go out and plead for the votes of the public whom they all now privately perceive as revolting plebs.
Two political trends reached a new intensity around the major events of 2014 :
The implosion of the centre
The referendum on Scottish independence starkly revealed the hole where the centre of UK politics used to be. The Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties all backed the ‘No’ campaign to retain the United Kingdom. Yet none of them were able to offer a positive argument for the historic Union, or a coherent case for the benefits of being British. So pathetic was the resistance they offered that many feared the referendum might be lost. When Scotland finally voted ‘No’ by 55 per cent to 45, it was a testament to the good sense of the people rather than the politicians.
The Scottish referendum campaign proved an extraordinary case study in the implosion and isolation of the political elite. The major party leaders’ last-minute trip north to ‘win over’ voters said it all: Tory David Cameron went to Edinburgh to address an audience of everyday, er, bankers, and got teary and sweary because that’s the language these Scots are supposed to understand; meanwhile, Labour’s man-o’-the-people Ed Miliband braved the mean streets of Glasgow, only to be caught in a moment of complete consternation when one of those people not only approached but actually spoke to him in the street.
The elite’s response to the traumatic referendum campaign was to withdraw further into its hollow shell, making more plans to move the constitutional deckchairs around on the listing ship HMS UK, with top-down devolution for all, whether we want it or not. Amid all of these bureaucratic shenanigans, the fundamental political question facing Britain’s major parties in 2015 – ‘why should we vote for any of you?’ – remains unasked, never mind answered.
The fringe goes mainstream
One side-effect of the implosion of the political centre has been the way that once-minor or fringe parties can achieve new influence by capturing the disaffected spirit of the times.
The Scottish National Party has played this role successfully in recent years, coming to power in the Scottish parliament on an anti-Westminster ticket. The SNP looks set for further success in the coming General Election, with the ‘victory’ of the Union having done nothing to persuade Scottish voters of the benefits of staying loyal to their old Labour masters.
The biggest shock to the British political elite in 2014 has been the continued rise of the UK Independence Party, with Nigel Farage’s one-man outfit winning two parliamentary seats in by-elections and doing consistently well in national opinion polls.
The response of the mainstream has been either to ridicule UKIP voters as racist fruitcakes, or more often to patronise them as being temporarily ‘angry’, as if adult members of the electorate were merely toddlers having a tantrum. All of this has only made matters worse for the political elite, confirming as it does the deep contempt in which it holds the public.
Even if UKIP were somehow to disappear from the political map as swiftly as it emerged, it would not alter the public state of mind that it has come to embody: a widespread concern, not just about immigration or the EU, but about the way that our rulers disparage the lives and opinions of millions of people.
More than 150 years ago, Benjamin Disraeli, father of One-Nation Conservatism, described Britain split between ‘two different nations… as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets’. Today Britain again looks like at least ‘two nations’ (no, not just England and Scotland) divided not simply by wealth but by clashing ways of life and cultural values. Unlike Disraeli, our fearful elitist rulers show no inclination or ability to connect with the rabble who dwell on ‘different planets’ such as Rochester or Rotherham.
These trends make it hard to predict the precise outcome of the 2015 General Election. It seems certain, however, that there will be no going back to the certainties of the old order, when the Tories and Labour shared the vote and took turns to form stable governments.
The fear with which the UK’s political leaders view the electorate became clear after the last General Election in 2010, when the Conservatives and Lib Dems agreed to pull up the Westminster drawbridge and passed a law to ensure there would not be another election for five years. As predicted on spiked at the time, despite all the crises and fallouts the Coalition government has held on – because the one thing they all dread more than each other is the electorate. No doubt there will be further attempts at clinging together in the parliamentary lifeboat after next year’s election. Much good may it do them.
None of this is enough to usher in real political change. That will require the rebirth of Politics with a capital P, the clash of alternative visions of the future which remain noticeable by their absence. For now, however, we can at least look forward to living in increasingly interesting times.
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