It was Winston Churchill who said “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others” and he’s right. Our democratic system is facing huge tests and appearing increasingly dysfunctional to some, whilst distasteful to others. Most Western democracies are likewise challenged with declining participation and rising populist parties. But, what’s the alternative?
Notionally to be fair, all appears reasonably healthy in the UK, according to recent statistics. Membership of Labour is currently standing at 540,000 – not what it had in its heyday but still a reasonable figure. The SNP is at a remarkable 125,000, though much seems predicated on a declaration of faith by people on the constitution, as much as a commitment to the party itself. But, still, far healthier than the Tories on 124,000 across the entire UK.
But, drill down and the figures become much more troubling. More than half are social class ABC1 and the average age for the members of all three major parties is in the 50s. Young people and the poor seem either marginalised or demotivated and that’s not good for the body politic.
It is, perhaps, understandable when you consider the current political position. A UK Government riven with dissent and unable to agree on the most important issue facing the entire country in more than a generation. Not only can they not agree on Brexit but the animus is palpable, making a nest of vipers look positively benign.
They can neither agree what Brexit is – witness the contempt shown by Davis and Johnson to the supposed Chequers Agreement that they initially signed up for – nor can they put forward any coherent alternative proposals.
Whilst Boris Johnson may be scheming to bring Theresa May down, it seems more a case of simply trying to install himself in Number 10, than change the position on Brexit. As the EU stiffens its resolve, it’s hard to see how even his apparently more belligerent position would achieve a different outcome and he shamefully cannot even detail it. The disaster of a no-deal Brexit therefore looms ever closer and, as with our system of government, it seems it’s about obtaining the least bad option.
But the options are limited. A Tory Party coup looks as if it would simply change the incumbent rather than solve the problem. Whoever inherited the position would likely face similar discontent just from a different wing, as the slain faction sought revenge. The dysfunction would simply continue under new leadership.
In a democracy, there’s supposed to be an alternative. In this country, geared towards a two-party system, an election was supposed to offer an opportunity to change the democratically elected regime. From the corn laws to tax and the welfare state, Tory faced Liberal, then Labour who offered a clear alternative.
Yet, an election – viewed by many as more likely than another vote on Brexit – wouldn’t necessarily or perhaps even likely solve the problem. Current polling would have the Tories returned though further depleted, the impasse remaining even if under a new leader. The alternative would be a minority Labour administration which still might not offer a solution.
They’re led by someone who appears to be a closet Brexiteer and, as a party, are equally riven by dissent and discord, appearing incapable of agreeing what their position on Europe is, other than condemning the Tories. Whilst, as the adage goes, it’s governments that lose elections, rather than oppositions that win them, this is still a charade with little, if no, alternative being offered on Brexit. A minority Labour administration would be no more capable of steering a way through the parliamentary morass than the current incumbents.
The solution often invoked in such times is to simply take the issue to the people, rather than put the parties before the electorate. But, yet again, referenda on the major constitutional issues may also be equally incapable of fully resolving affairs. There seems to have been a swing away from Brexit and a rerun may see Remain win, as referenda are usually won by the side most motivated. Many Leave voters may simply stay at home, disillusioned if not dissuaded, but any majority would be far from overwhelming, leaving deep disaffection with the democratic process, even if it saved the country from falling off the cliff edge.
The situation on Scottish Independence is likewise unclear; the majority who backed Yes in a recent poll may not have considered the possibility of a hard border which could frighten many. The impasse of two finely balanced sides still appears to remain on the Scottish constitutional question. No side getting a clear lead and the position arguably more uncertain.
So, democracy’s being challenged, as well as undermined and distorted – whether by Russia’s Putin or populists. It’s not yet a crisis, but it’s not good. It’ll trundle on as Northern Ireland did despite the absence of a government and as Belgium was previously required to do. Bureaucrats running the state and life going on regardless for ordinary people.
But, it’s not healthy for democracy. It’s still better than all the other forms of government but it needs to be cherished. The right to vote for women has rightly been celebrated recently and whilst researching an aspect of Scottish history I was humbled to come across stories of those transported to Botany Bay, simply for the audacity of seeking the franchise.
As a politician, I always found it dispiriting when people said they didn’t vote and encouraged them to do so, irrespective who for. The independence referendum at least engaged people in politics as public debate, as not just the turnout showed. But, I can sympathise when it’s the body politic itself that seems dysfunctional.
Our current democracy isn’t vibrant and, increasingly, politicians are being held in contempt by the public. There’s no quick or simple fix but political alternatives and, fundamentally, solutions need to be offered by democracy. When that fails, people turn away and that’s compounded by the behaviour of politicians and parties.
It’s not a fascist coup that threatens our democracy, but the rot that’s spreading from within.