Burning down the house? What could ‘a new politics’ look like?May 20, 2009 at 9:48 pm | Posted in British Politics | 13 Comments
When tens of thousands of concerned citizens converged in London for the G20 protests, their dreams, motivations & irritations were as diverse as the city itself. Some came to cause a ruck; others to plea for peace. Some were driven by the dire state of the economy; others by a feeling of peril for the planet. Some came to claim their right to the most modest hopes – a decent job, decent pay, safe communities to live in – whilst others proselytised for whichever radical ideology would make Thomas More proud.
But if you could identify one thing which united this cast of thousands, it would be the feeling that democratic politics just isn’t working. In only 10 years, we’ve been visited by three era-defining crises: 9/11 and the ensuing war on terror, the escalating threat posed by climate change, and the global financial meltdown. In each of these crises there were multiple warnings several years before they became emergencies, yet our nations’ governments either responded when it was too late or have still to produce an adequate response.
Taken together, these issues have combined to undermine the traditional argument for the state’s legitimacy; to protect its citizens from harm. Without being able to satisfy that most basic of requirements, politics is in real trouble.
The expenses scandal has superceded all of this, of course; turning the discussion away from politics’ structural malaise and towards the self-serving, insular & arrogant habits of our politicians. It’s in this context of disgust and despair that The Guardian has launched a series of opinion pieces on how best to conduct root and branch reform of Westminster to ensure that not only can politicians no longer claim expenses for non-existent mortgages, but to repair the damaged marriage between the public and its servants.
A very noble cause, of course, and there are several suggestions there which deserve further debate. My own take on this question offers fewer specifics than those from writers who know the workings of Westminster. Instead, I’ve been thinking about how it could be possible to strike a better balance between the state’s ability to anticipate and reduce threats to public safety, and the need for the public to become much closer & more involved in politics.
The first thing that needs to be said is that whilst the expenses scandal should be used as an opportunity to demand reform, it shouldn’t be seen as the sole reason why reform is needed. As I’ve already noted, public perception of politics and its practitioners was low even before the expenses scandal, and simply fixing the system so that an MP’s can’t live quite as luxuriously won’t do anything to resolve those structural flaws discussed earlier.
So what will? Well, there are some good proposals like reform of the House of Lords, proportional representation or the need to enshrine our liberties in law, but overall I think we need to talk about Westminster’s power can be squeezed. There needs to be more effective early-warning systems to spot long-term dangers to our economy & society, whether in the form of oversight committees or regulatory agencies. They need to be everything Westminster currently isn’t: independent of party politics, rigorous, forensic and capable of making unpopular recommendations to the government of the day. Our establishment should have been able to see the dangers of the credit economy far sooner than it did, should have been able to see the dangers of our overseas wars sooner than it did, and should’ve begun implementing steps to reduce our carbon footprints far sooner than it did. To regain public trust, the state must respond quicker to problems on the horizon, and that might require the reduction of Parliament and the state’s primacy as the auditors of our national health.
But whilst responding quicker and better to incoming crises would restore the public’s faith in the state’s basic functions, it’s not enough to increase their engagement in politics. For that, we will have to look again at ways of substantially increasing localisation. If more of our public services – everything from education & health to prisons and welfare – were not just delivered locally, but administered locally and became more accountable to local people, I think you’d see not only greater public interest & activism, but also better, more efficient ways of seeing those services delivered.
Obviously, the ideas expressed here are a little vague and deserve far more than what’s been sketched out in a meagre blogpost. All I would say to conclude is that if our poltics is to enter an age of reform, we should have the capacity to imagine far more than a few new Parliamentary procedures. If not, that long-delayed reconciliation with the public may remain some way in the distance.