In my previous article I referred to the anger which has recently been expressed by a substantial number of the UK’s leading church-persons. The anger concerned the direction of government in pursuing its austerity programme – increasing cuts to welfare benefit, a hands-off approach to the wealthy and the maintenance of a low wage economy all were all a part of a general critique of this coalition government.
The anger over government policy and practice is not, however, confined exclusively to the clergy. In a poll conducted by The Guardian/ICM towards the end of last year, it was found that large numbers of the British population are disillusioned about, therefore disengaged from, the political process. This is what apparently lies behind the often-stated “apathy” of the British electorate and which, as voiced by politicians and pundits in harmony, seeks to be the explanation for the low voter turn-out at election times. It could also be one reason why politicians of all colours tend to dismiss the opinions of voters who honestly offer their opinions – to their detriment, as more than one politician has discovered in recent years.
The Guardian/ICM poll showed that voters are not apathetic; they are angry. Their anger is directed towards a previous Labour government that did the conservatives’ job for them. The Blair-Brown years were notable for the idea that you look after everyone by championing the concerns of the wealthy. The “trickle-down” effect has resulted in no flows and very few, if any, actual trickles!
Then there is the Liberal Democrat contribution to the present coalition government. They have sought to laud themselves as a third force in British politics but, as their activity in government has shown, they have, somewhat blindly, been loyal followers of the Conservative majority. They have tampered with the edges, but have failed to make an impression at the core. Despite the fanciful challenge of UKIP, British politics is still an historical two-party, adversarial system – perhaps more entrenched than ever. Prime Minister’s question time in parliament is a singular and lamentable expression of this fact.
What, then, did The Guardian/ICM poll reveal about how people feel about the state of UK politics? Amongst other things, it showed that 25% are “bored”; 16% are “respectful”, but only 2% said they were “inspired”. Interestingly, 46% of poll respondents believed that “MPs are just on the take” (not surprisingly in view of a succession of scandals involving Westminster).
I consider that, in spite of my previously stated view that politics is still important for the ordinary person and that democracy is worth fighting for, the British voter is, nevertheless, increasingly powerless to alter the direction of government in the country. It would seem that governments of whatever persuasion are able to exercise only limited control over events. These are mainly in the state sector. Real power is in the hands of financial institutions, multi-national business, the wealthy power-brokers who lobby and control governments, as well as those in advertising and the media who shape public perception about the world in which we live.
Of course people are angry. Their own vote has little or no power, because politicians insist that they can only control the public sector. This sector operates in ever-decreasing circles due to the privatisation programmes being undertaken by successive British governments – and most expressly by the current coalition government. The private sector is feeding-off the public domain, through government contracts to private firms, tax cuts for the wealthy and austerity programmes being paid for through extensive cuts to welfare benefits – all justified in the name of an ideology that says that we need as a country to live within our means, especially if we have little to our name and circumstances in the first place. No change here, then!
Politics, in the UK as elsewhere in the world, remains, indeed is becoming more, secretive, elitist and centralised. In a democracy we elect the peoples’ representatives and expect then to govern with the wisdom and practice of established precedent and institutions. However, in the words of one writer on the subject, “Power is still an alibi for avoiding responsibility while the ‘little people’ bear the brunt of ever more intrusive surveillance, on-the-spot fines, increasing laws and regulations”. It would seem that established democratic precedent and institutions can no longer protect the people of the United Kingdom.
In a recent interview about several of his upcoming politics-related television productions, the British playwright, Sir David Hare, commented on the seeming lack of democratic control over the security services (not to mention the judiciary). He said: “I think it’s partly because government has failed. People no longer believe in government. The crisis in politics has coincided with the conjuring of, as it were, this universal enemy that appears to want to destroy our way of life, so there isn’t a buffer any more between the security services and us.” He goes on: “Apart from anything else, the war on terror has been the biggest criminal racket for the past 10 years”. In this situation, Hare believes that we, the ordinary British citizens, are powerless.
Several years ago Hare considered that the British people had lost faith in all but three institutions – the BBC, the NHS, and the monarchy (in view of my on-going experiences with the NHS over the past few years, I still retain some faith in the worth of this institution). He now seems to think that such faith is gone, to be replaced by the unfailing deference to “the mysterious imperative of national security”. The state now uses this institution in an exploitative manner tantamount to blackmail.
In this context and with reference to the decay in democracy and the development of digital communications, Heather Brooke, in her book “The Revolution Will Be Digitised”, says that “One of the biggest problems is the selection process. In the current setup, people gain political power not through merit but most often because they have sucked up to the right powerful people. Deference and patronage still rule the day: politicians and public servants gain and maintain their power not by doing their jobs well, or even competently, but by staying in favour with those who appoint them. This has to change.”
With this I concur. The people may be angry, but how angry do they have to get before this change can occur?