Bill Jamieson: I'm no longer sure our democracy can survive

Nothing is as it was, nothing is as it seems, and democracy is the biggest victim, argues Bill Jamieson.

Into every life a little rain must fall. But today it is a relentless downpour.

Search in vain for any break in the mist that swirls around us: rising discontent, falling incomes, social division, a Brexit nightmare, a government on the brink, a slowing economy and on almost every evening news bulletin angry disputation and ritual bludgeoning of politicians at the hands of interviewers.

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Truly a deluge has descended, and with no break in sight. So it is time for a reckoning, and I must fess up and put before you a mea culpa, a grand admission for having believed, it seems, absolutely the wrong things for more than 40 years.

Now I have believed in many things over these years, or if not fully believed, largely gone along.

I believed in a steady, if gradual improvement in things; that problems were capable of solution; prudent finance and living within one’s means; that I lived in a country with a shared culture, an underlying cohesion and a definable identity.

Most of all, I believed that we had a democracy that, for all its faults, was capable of amicable change that would ensure its preservation, as it had done for more than 300 years.

Now I am not sure of any of these things any more, or of the continuance of the democratic system as we know it.

That may seem strange when in political conversation today no commitment is expressed more often and more loudly than our regard for democracy. “The will of the people must be respected” – this, founded on the unalienable right of voters by majority vote to determine how we are governed.

But how deep is that respect? And how many have an unshakeable belief that it ought to be so?

Few expressions of democracy in recent years have caused more disputatious mayhem than the outcome of the EU referendum.

This was held to settle a persistent and growing argument over our membership. The referendum, we believed, would clear the air, settle the argument and allow us to move on. I seriously believed this would be the case.

Instead, it has resulted in the most fractious political arguments for decades.

There is no settled opinion on whether indeed we should leave as the referendum majority wished or whether we should opt for a transitional “half-way house”.

There is even serious disagreement on what it was we thought we were voting for.

I, along with “Leavers”, thought we were voting for a restoration of sovereignty and control over immigration from the EU.

But did we really grasp the awesome complexity of leaving?

That even on an issue as apparently straightforward as guaranteeing the citizenship rights of EU nationals resident here, the EU would insist their position in the UK was to be under the watch of the European Court of Justice?

This is before the substantive negotiations begin on trade.

Already the Remainers have sown such doubt as to what it is the majority voted for that “the will of the people” may prove to be no such thing.

It is not the only referendum outcome that has been challenged with the ink hardly dry on the voting papers.

In 2014 Scotland voted against independence. But the result, far from being respected, has now been followed by demands for another referendum, albeit delayed until 2019 when the outcome of the Brexit negotiations are clearer.

So what is the point of having referendums if the governing party doesn’t like the result and seeks another one? And how much more “respect” will be shown to the outcome of this vote if it does not meet the approval of the administration?

Today we are struggling to come to terms with the aftermath of the general election and a hung parliament.

The Conservatives received 13,669,883 votes, or 42.4 per cent, against Labour’s 12,878,460 votes or 40 per cent. Yet by general belief, Theresa May lost and Jeremy Corbyn won.

The Conservative-voting majority may baulk at this assessment.

But what is now in prospect?

The party has traditionally drawn support from those who believed it would keep taxes down and, at the least, not allow borrowing and debt to rise, lest we return to the same financial debacle as in 2008-9.

But no such programme is likely now.

Instead we are on course for Corbynism Lite.

Frustration over central and local government spending limits, worries over health and welfare budgets and now the urgent need to install fire-resistant cladding on hundreds of tower blocks and public buildings in the wake of the horrific Grenfell Tower blaze will involve remedial work likely to run into billions of pounds.

But public spending and borrowing across the board will almost certainly rise.

And now there is every likelihood that the Conservative government will resort to tax increases.

Yesterday we heard former Conservative Cabinet minister Sir Oliver Letwin MP say that “well-judged and careful tax increases” would be levied on a “large number of people”. That is a somersault on previous Conservative declarations. At least we are to be spared ill-judged and careless tax increases.

Whatever happened to the party’s long predisposition towards lower taxes and a smaller state – or the notion, set out by the father of conservatism, Edmund Burke, that parties represent “a body of men united by their joint endeavours … upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed”?

What is that particular principle, exactly?

Blasted to the four winds, I fear, along with the commitment to a balanced budget.

As for the Bank of England, an institution for which I once had respect, it is hard to keep a straight face listening to the Governor, Mark Carney, as he urges restraint on personal borrowing.

This admonition, it seems, is not to apply to Bank policy, which has slashed interest rates to record lows precisely to encourage spending and borrowing, or to the public finances, where we have a record debt pile of £1.8 trillion. Should I have worried about this? Not a bit, it seems.

More than ever I have come to appreciate the wisdom of the Scots historian Alexander Fraser Tytler (1747-1813), joint professor of civil history at Edinburgh University and judge advocate of Scotland, buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard. “A democracy,” he wrote, “is always temporary in nature; it simply cannot exist as a permanent form of government.

“A democracy will continue to exist up until the time that voters discover that they can vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury.

“From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that every democracy will finally collapse over loose fiscal policy, (which is) always followed by a Dictatorship.”

As I hear the raucous exchanges every night on television, how wrong I have been on everything, from sound money to low tax; from sovereignty to coherent administration, from respect for the majority to democratic government. Wrong, it seems, wrong on everything. Sing along if you will to Je Ne Regrette Rein. Me? Je Regrette Tout.