The future of liberal democracy?

Speaking to a special St Antony’s Seminar on 21st Century Democracy and the Challenges to Political Parties, Lib Dem Peer, Lord Tyler said:

I decided I was a Liberal on the night of the 29th October 1956 – my birthday, as it happened – when we discovered that the Israeli army was invading Egypt, apparently encouraged by the British and French Governments to seize control of the Suez Canal.

As the truth emerged it became obvious that the Eden Government had secretly plotted this outrageous breach of international law.  For me it seemed like a throw-back to 19th Century gunboat diplomacy.  The first political reaction which expressed my own feeling of dismay and disillusion came from the newly-elected Leader of the Liberals, Jo Grimond.

My new party allegiance was scarcely ambitious.  The Liberals had achieved only 2.7% of the popular vote in 1955, with just 6 MPs, of whom Jo was the only known figure, and he was hardly recognised before Suez.

However, the wider significance of that 1955 General Election was that it had produced the ONLY single party Government to come anywhere close to 50%, in the whole period since the Second World War.   At 49.7% it could almost claim to have achieved “majority rule”.

Moreover, the combined votes of the Conservative and Labour Parties represented 96.1% of those who expressed a choice between the two alternative governments = a binary choice indeed.

Since then the trend has been steadily away from such a two party duopoly.

In 1997 Tony Blair swept to victory – with 418 MPs compared with 165 Conservatives – on just 43.2% of the total vote.   These two parties barely clocked up 74% together.

The pattern has only once been interrupted:   the two parties who made up the 2010 Coalition could claim the support of 59.1% of the voting public.   Their exceptional agreement could be said to have produced the only “majority rule” of this period.

2015, of course, reverted to normal.  The incoming Conservative Government achieved 36.9%, and – with turnout at 66.1% – that represented less that a quarter of the eligible electorate (24.4%).  They and Labour could only manage 67.3% of those who voted.

60 years ago my canvassing often revealed stereotypical responses:
My husband’s belongs to a union, so we’re Labour
We’re in business, so we’re Conservative
or in Cornwall:
Our family have always been Methodists, so we’re Liberal
and just occasionally:
We’re not interested in politics, we’re Conservatives

Party allegiances and voting behaviour were affected by the constitutional constipation of the First-Past-the-Post electoral system

In the intervening period the public have never-the-less moved on, despite all these artificial constraints, breaking out of the binary choice.

However, this development can now be seen to have taken two very distinct and divergent paths.

On the one hand, today’s Sixth Formers are far better informed, more thoughtful and discriminating than their grandparents ever were, or indeed still are.   Party support is no longer inherited or casually adopted for outdated notions of class.  Younger generations refuse to accept second-hand politics.  That was the basis of my partially successful attempt to extend the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds.

On the other hand both Brexit and Trump have blown to smithereens the hope that representative democracy – at least in the UK and the US – has become exclusively more rational;   a hitherto largely silent minority (or majority ?) is indulging in scapegoatism, echo view sharing and thoughtless rejection of facts and “experts”.   Every day reveals to us a new example of “post truth” politics.

I read recently a very stimulating analysis of the difference on the one hand between lying – where the liar implicitly acknowledges the truth, perhaps even sometimes deliberately telling a “white lie” – and what on the other hand the writer called “bullshitting”, where the perpetrator has no concept of or concern for truth, but is yet confident that what is said or written will have a gullible, believing, hungry audience.  “Alternative facts” = falsehoods.

The ludicrous xenophobic claims we witnessed in 2016, on both sides of the Atlantic, clearly fall into this category.

Others have already adopted my original suggestion of a title for this talk:  have we entered a new “Age of Unreason ?”

Historians among you may well counter that Europe has had many a taste of this before, notably during the 1930s.  Paddy Ashdown made this point in the Lords last week:  “a surge of nationalism, free trade withering away, protectionism on the rise, vulgarity succeeding over decency, the ugly voices heard over the voice of reason.”

The dangers are exaggerated by global economic challenges.  We may be approaching what has been described as a ‘T Junction’ for the world’s economic decision-makers, whose tendency towards an irrational, nationalist approach could be fatal:

“Renewed growth, lower inequality, genuine financial stability” in one direction, but “periodic recession, growing inequality, unsettling market disorder” in the other.   And a continuation of reliance on central banks, in their present role, likely to lead to the latter.
[ Dr El-Erin, Chief Economic Adviser to Allianz ]

At the beginning of the year my colleague William Wallace summed up the challenge for liberals: “ Liberal democracy is about continuing discussion and debate, with respect for different opinions and conflicting evidence.  That’s now under active populist attack, including by cynical media groups that promote nationalist unreason while avoiding national taxes by transferring their profits offshore.  We have to be as active in defending the politics of reason, and reminding the public where irrational populism has led before.”

Just before Christmas the ‘Economist” issued a similar call to the colours:

“Rather than ducking the struggle of ideas, liberals should relish it ……The illiberal solution was to install someone with sufficient power to dictate what was best – by slowing change if they were conservative, or smashing authority if they were revolutionary.  You can hear echoes of that in calls to ‘take back control’, as well as in the mouths of autocrats who, summoning an angry nationalism, promise to hold back the cosmopolitan tide.   Liberals came up with a different answer.  Rather than being concentrated, power should be dispersed, using the rule of law, political parties and competitive markets.   Rather than putting citizen at the service of a mighty, protecting state, liberalism sees individuals as uniquely able to choose what is best for themselves. ….. The task is to harness that restless urge, while defending the tolerance and open-mindedness that are the foundation stones of a decent, liberal world.”  The Economist, 24/12/2016

Amen to The Economist!

24th January 2017

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