Common Weal director Robin McAlpine argues that the collapse of the British state is at least 40 years in the making – we shouldn’t try to save it
HA! You didn’t fall for that did you? One thing, one single thing, that can save the Westminster system? You’re kidding right? Do you really think I can distill such a complex social failure into a single, facile, off-the-shelf solution? What do you think I am, a Lib Dem?
What we are seeing at Westminster is not the shock of the sudden but the accumulation of decades. If you really want to boil it down to ‘one thing’, the closest you’d get is that it gave up on a politics that was really about the interests of the public and installed instead a politics which had proxies for the public.
And those proxies were all big businesses. They were the ‘job creators’ so what was good for them was good for everyone – even when their profits came from cutting jobs and reducing pay and security.
They were ‘bringing prices down for you’, but again, in part by reducing the proportion of national wealth going in wages and in part by ‘off-shoring’ production, again replacing good jobs with bad.
The post-war politics was about structural reform to make people’s lives better, and yes it had run out of steam by the mid-1970s. But it was replaced by ‘marketed politics’, a politics in which the trick was not what you did but how you sold it.
If you want to know what I’d pick as an indicator of the problem I might actually pass over the right to buy your council house (‘but no-one told me my children would be forced to live with me until they retired because there are no houses!’) and settle on the Blairite deregulation of gambling.
I would like to suggest that flooding our TV screens with crass adverts persuading you to buy a harmful and addictive product has made no-one’s life better other than people who own gambling corporations. I would definitely argue that no-one (no-one at all) except the owners of gambling corporations was asking for it or wanted it. But they got it anyway.
And then the Blairite machine kicked into gear; an utterly cynical and entirely damaging policy had to be sold to the public as ‘go on, you know you like it…’.
Out here among those who don’t own gambling corporations, the impact has been almost wholly negative. It has destroyed lives, syphoned away wealth and benefited none. And yet, with no support whatsoever, Westminster makes it happen. Nationalising trains had lots and lots of support but doesn’t happen.
Now I’m not suggesting that the Westminster system is falling apart because the British public is engaged in a forensic class-based analysis of the UK ‘constitution’. What I very much am suggesting is that the scrapheap of indicators that the Westminster system is not working in the interests of most of the public is now 40-years high.
One of the most useful pieces of advice I ever got was ‘friends come and go, enemies accumulate’. The UK’s political system has accumulated an awful lot of domestic enemies. There are now so many categories of people who have been screwed over one way or another by the era of ‘government for corporations’ that listing them is futile.
But from someone on zero hour contracts who can’t live in dignity to someone on a family income of £100,000 who was persuaded to ‘upgrade’ house, car, domestic appliances, summer holiday, kids schooling and now has no money, its a big coalition.
And that coalition looks at who DOES have their money – to discover they’re not even paying their tax. They may not be able to articulate it, but people aren’t stupid and know when something isn’t working for them.
Westminster is particularly culpable; the signs it was all going wrong stretch well back but have all been ignored. By the time of the expenses scandal, many people thought the penny had dropped. Well, that penny was quickly picked up and put in a fixed-odds betting terminal and business continued as was.
Which is how we end up with the excruciating sight of people at their place of work, the centre of our democracy, making homemade placards and engaging in singalongs. (‘But why don’t they take us seriously?’)
The reality of Britain’s broken politics seems no closer to seeping into political conciousness. If you fell for my fake headline then that would just put you in the same category as half of our politicians.
One half think that if only we could get Brexit done, everything would quickly go back to normal and Remainers will vanish into thin air. That’s daft, but not as daft as the Remainers who think that scrapping Brexit will put and end to things and people will go back to normal. Because immediately at that point Farage et all will disappear…
We’ve heard about the ‘coup’ and of course Johnson is entirely at it and twisting the UK constitution in directions it wasn’t meant to go. But at the same time the Remainers are develop a new constitutional approach too – democracy without voters.
They didn’t like the referendum outcome so they tried to find a way to reverse it in parliament. That failed so they wanted a reversal-referendum. Then they saw the opinion polls and decided that wasn’t a good idea and so wanted to go back to a parliamentary route. That didn’t work so they talked about an election.
When they realised there was a good chance it wouldn’t go their way they changed their mind and went back to the parliamentary route. But not the conventions of British politics where you back a government or remove it, form an alternative or call an election. They don’t want Corbyn to gain anything so they’ve invented a new system.
This one involves not forming a government but changing the laws of the land to compel the one you have to take dictation and post the letters you want – under threat of jail. Think through the implications of that; pro-indy parties lose an overall majority in Holyrood in 2021 but form the government and a unionist parliament starts making laws dictating what that government must do (or go to jail)?
So let’s just set this out in clear terms. One side wants to push through their agenda by suspending parliament and preventing a vote. The other side wants to push through their agenda by continually manipulating the democratic system until it is wholly rigged in their favour. Neither is actually suggesting they can or should carry both parliament and the public will with them.
‘So what would you do?’ people ask me. You know what I would do; Britain is broken and Scotland must leave for its own sake. I know that doesn’t really answer the question, so I’d then not run government in Britain the way it was run for the last 40 years.
And since that doesn’t help, I’d simply say ‘there’s a long way to go, lots of reform needed and much contrition to be shown before this system could be saved – but as a way of getting started, can we finally get some very serious regulation of the UK’s terrible media?’.
No political system really collapses in one go. Even systems that collapse in one go don’t really collapse in one go, because if you look closely you’ll see that something was eating away at the foundations for a long, long time.
It’s not like Westminster wasn’t warned; the failures of its system and the politics it produces has been the subject of decades if not centuries of analysis. I put it to unionists during the independence referendum that the signs of approaching crisis were clear.
I was told in no uncertain terms that the UK was the definition of stability and its greatest strength was not having a written constitution (honestly, I faced that argument a number of times in debate). Like the Roadrunner, we can see that there’s no longer anything solid under their feet, but they’ve not noticed yet.
Westminster can be saved, eventually. My friends at Compass spend a lot of time trying to do just that. Perhaps they will succeed. Federalism for England would help. And most certainly Scotland can escape and build a much better political system.
So can I come up with one thing that might be worth doing? How about this. How about the SNP’s Westminster contingent stop propping up this rotten, stinking institution, let it collapse under the weight of its own stupidity and then finally let the real rebuilding begin as we exit the ruins.
That might work.