Is British politics in crisis?

Photograph: 'Westminster Palace' / Pexels
Photograph: 'Westminster Palace' / Pexels

British politics entered 2015 battered and bruised. With only a few months until the General Election, it is widely acknowledged that nobody really knows what to expect. What is certain is that democracy in the UK is entering into a period of crisis. It is a crisis that can be viewed from two perspectives – those on the outside of the political bubble and those on the inside.

The use of the word ‘crisis’ has become somewhat of a political cliché. Party leaders suffer crises for one reason or another on an almost weekly basis. But the ‘crisis of democracy’ transcends this rather bland and meaningless use of the word. The phrase was coined in the 1970s by the US Trilateral Commission to describe the troubles facing Western democracy during the 1960s and 70s. This was preceded by a rise in participation in the democratic functions of the West, women’s rights movements, worker’s unions and youth groups all trying to jostle for position and influence. In a stark reminder of the cyclical nature of history, the commission stated that a feeling of disgust towards the ‘corruption, materialism and inefficiency of democracy and with the subservience of democratic government to “monopoly capitalism”’ was a key component to the crisis.

These feelings of anger towards politicians and government are recurring again in our own time. Examples include the euphoria that gripped Yes campaigners in Scotland during the recent referendum. A young empowered generation saw this as an opportunity to say no to negativity, a capitalist driven Westminster and sought to bring a true sense of democracy back to Scotland. To the South there is another side to the coin as voters in England turn to the publican charisma of Nigel Farage – the unlikely poster boy of anti-establishment elitism. In a bid to upset the two party system voters are throwing their lot in with an unpredictable party that has a troubling tendency of telling people what they want to hear.

As in the 1960s, the government and its functionaries are seen to be kow-towing to their business masters, neglecting the people who have given them their power.

Chronic apathy is giving way to anger and frustration. People are awakening to a political system that is disconnected from reality. Politicians are now being viewed as corrupt, materialistic and untrustworthy individuals who are not representative of the public. As well as dissatisfaction with politician’s, unemployment, a lack of opportunities, inherent inequality and the feeling of exploitation at the hands of unscrupulous individuals in charge of the economy, among many other things, is driving a backlash of discontent against Westminster and the UK Government. In a response to this voters have become increasingly dissatisfied with the status quo.

Back in October it was reported that only one quarter of people polled (around 1600) stated they trust their MP to represent them in Parliament. An Ipsos-Mori survey of party leader satisfaction was also enlightening. All three Westminster party leaders received negative net ratings – Nick Clegg received -53%, David Cameron -48% and Ed Miliband -56%. This is a damning cheap accutane acne indictment of the depths to which our political system has plunged. We are in an era of highly trained media friendly politico-bots capable of churning out party line after party line in reply to any question.

We have established the fundamental side effects of the looming crisis of democracy from the perspective of the voter, a lack of trust in MP’s, anger at perceived exploitation and the rise of anti-establishment figures. However, we should not mistake the symptom for the disease.

To peel back the layers of this undemocratic system we need only look at the layout of the Houses of Parliament. It is designed in order that Her Majesty’s Government are directly opposite to Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition. It is a system founded upon the principle of confrontation and the idea of strong government, rather than one of cooperation and compromise. From this simple feature spreads many corrosive elements, the two party system that has dominated British politics for so long perhaps being the chief among them. Rarely do we see the two main parties agree upon an issue or act unilaterally in the pursuit of the good of the country. The cross-party opposition to the Scottish Yes vote was one such moment, but the brief and fleeting political unison shattered only moments after the No victory was assured.

It is for this reason that the coming year presents such a crisis of democracy for British politicians, as the next General Election is widely tipped to be unpredictable in its result. For the next four months political analysts will be stating this fact. The phenomenal increase in membership of both the SNP and the Green party suggests that Scotland will be a key battleground for Labour’s chances at achieving a victory, while rumours of a Conservative-UKIP coalition will likely only increase as the weeks tumble away.

But while any number of minority or coalition government concoctions are predicted, the two main party leaders stand by the line that there are really only two choices – Labour or Conservative. It is within their interests to return to the two party systems that gave them such comfort. For the politicians of the two main parties in Britain, the crisis of democracy is therefore a realisation that the next General Election may actually kick start a cycle of change in British politics. Nothing will be certain as new actors emerge in the system bringing fresh ideas and new challenges.

When the word crisis is used it often conjures up images of disaster and catastrophe. When speaking of the crisis of democracy that looms ahead for Britain however, it may in the end prove a good thing. For the crisis of democracy in Britain will be a true reawakening of its democratic principles. This possibility is striking fear into the hearts of the politicians who will be held accountable by the electorate in an election year will provide choice and an opportunity to shake Westminster out of the state of stasis that has led us to this point.


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Sean Mowbray 9 Articles
Sean is a History & International Relations graduate from the University of Dundee. He blogs on a number of political issues and writes short stories in his spare time. A lover of travel, he is always counting down the days until the next adventure begins.

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