Independents like Margo MacDonald and Martin Bell showed how good politicians could be, says Brian Monteith.
Another Christmas is over and so we hurtle to the end of this year, it having been only slightly less calamitous than the one before.
In 2016 we had the deaths of an extraordinary number of famous people that had shaped the previous century; Hibs won the Scottish Cup; the SNP lost its majority at Holyrood while Labour came third behind the Tories; we voted to leave the EU; and, the United States elected Trump as its next President.
That train of events was always going to be hard to beat for drama and history but 2017 gave it a run for its money; the Brexit process started with Article 50 being invoked in March; the SNP decline continued, this time at the local council elections; Theresa May called an early general election and lost a 20-point lead and her overall majority; the SNP lost 21 MPs while the Tories became the largest Unionist party in Scotland for the first time since 1955 with 13 MPs; Scottish Labour had to elect its fourth leader in three years; Celtic racked-up an unbeaten run of 69 domestic games; and, the SNP broke its manifesto pledge by announcing an increase of income tax for those earning over £26,000.
Now 2018 promises to be just as much a rollercoaster ride; despite suppressing Isis in Syria the domestic threat from terrorism still hangs over us; despite “austerity” we continue to increase public spending and pile on the national debt that will have to be paid for by our grandchildren – and the Brexit process continues to drag on while the UK Government hangs on by its fingernails. The British economy remains an enigma. Along with the best unemployment figures since the mid-seventies and record manufacturing orders for 30 years, there is slowing GDP growth, unresponsive productivity levels and pressure on disposable income – although the statistics for the latter two measures are now increasingly unreliable. Housing has at last been recognised as a serious problem across the whole country and in Scotland public education shows little sign of reversing its scandalous decline in standards, while the NHS looks fit to burst.
Yet when we look to our politicians to tackle the challenges we face we are continually given fine words with little delivery. So many promises have been broken and so many commitments betrayed – all delivered with the usual divisive tribalism of party politics that circulates blame like pass the parcel.
You can tell people are sick and tired of this political charade because every so often there is the cry that we need a new party to put things right. It is a cry for help but it would be as much use as throwing a marble lifebelt to a drowning man. How many political parties do you think there are in the United Kingdom, eight, maybe a dozen, maybe two-dozen? Actually the Electoral Commission lists 314, including a number of new additions this year.
The big parties are decidedly in control and will remain so unless there is a major schism in Labour or the Conservatives that involves sitting MPs forming a new block at Westminster. Until that happens the media will simply not give any attention to new parties forming from the ground up, for it sees their advocates as cranks on the margins of reason. Contrastingly, holding electoral office gives even stupid ideas a degree of credibility so the media will give some coverage and winning a large number of seats and sustaining that performance attracts more coverage. But being new is considered amateurish.
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Instead of looking to parties to come to our rescue, we should turn the telescope around and look through it the correct way. Parties are the problem, not the solution, we don’t need more parties and we cannot trust existing political parties to change. The new campaign launched recently by Unify-uk.org, which calls for our elected representatives to become autonomous of parties, looks more attractive by the day. If MPs and other politicians in national and local chambers can work co-operatively in committees then why can they not do so across the floor of the House or the Holyrood Chamber?
Wishful thinking? I don’t think so. I think Unify has a point, it is not difficult to see instances where political parties have said one thing and then after gaining power done another (Liberal Democrats and tuition Fees? SNP and writing off student debt?) Nor is it difficult to take a step back and consider that much of what is pitched to us serves a party’s interest rather than the national interest. The survival at all costs of the current government and the contrary opposition of Labour is a daily reminder of how parties work for themselves.
When we consider the politicians we most respect I wager that amongst anyone’s list there will be those who demonstrate they are able to stand up to their party machines, often voting against the whip by putting their constituents or consciences first.
And if you doubt my thinking on this just ask yourself was the House of Commons a better place for Martin Bell being there as an independent? Was Holyrood a better place for the late Margo MacDonald being there as an independent?
If you agree the answer in both cases is yes then consider just how much better these parliaments could be if we had more Martin Bells and more Margo MacDonalds? The crossbencher Lord Digby Jones – who led by example as the only non-party government minister in recent times – has thrown his weight behind the Unify campaign calling it “exciting and hopeful” and “the genesis of a better way.”
If, as Unify argues, governments allowed free votes on all issues except manifesto commitments, MPs are subject to recall by their constituents, and candidates are elected through open primaries, surely the bitter divisiveness in politics would recede?
Being independent does not mean you have to give up your socialism, your nationalism or your conservatism – but it does mean you are not beholden to a party machine that puts its vested interests before the national interests. If 2018 were to see a reduction in party political tribalism and more autonomous behaviour by our politicians through co-operation in delivering Brexit, reforming our schools and building new homes would it not make for a better political climate – and a more harmonious country?