Hugh Andrew | The joy of democracy

Who among us does not have an extra spring in our step at Theresa May’s announcement of an early General Election?

Regardless of the reasoning behind it, there is a curious fact about Britain’s democratic orgy over the last few years (and in Scotland, we’ve had, I think, seven plebiscites or polls since 2010).

All the endless consultation about what the people want has neither settled anything nor tracked any clear path. Indeed, the government has largely halted in the last few years in the ceaseless build up or wind down from one vote to the next. The Scottish Parliament has no legislation before it and – before the Prime Minister’s announcement – the sole topic of interest seemed to be another referendum.

What, one wonders, was the point of the first exercise in popular voting?

For the UK, the Brexit vote has and will absorb all the energies of government for years to come, not in any creative act, but merely in a sterile process of disentanglement.

It is, of course, really since 2014 that the process has accelerated, but it would, I think, be difficult to dispute that the last four years have been about anything other than running on the spot while endeavouring to convince the populace of forward movement.

One might suggest that perhaps all this is an unfortunate accident and ‘normal service’ will be resumed shortly. I would suggest something much more disturbing has, in fact, happened: the beating hearts of political parties are now empty voids engaged in forms of sterile positioning, legitimised or delegitimized for a period by some form of plebiscite.

These, of course, are not designed ever to ‘settle’ an issue but as an excuse to endlessly revisit it in further requests for ‘mandates’ and legitimisation. They are thus not designed as springboards for action but as coat hooks on which endless procrastination can be hung. They disguise the fundamental emptiness of the movements that espouse them. Note too that the two great issues of independence and Brexit are not about how power is exercised, but merely where it resides.

Interestingly enough, there are consequences our political masters do not see in this. The first is that the move away from a politics of economic and social redistribution towards one of the more abstracted constitutional principles is one on which the Labour Party is singularly ill-fitted to fight.

Already the announcements from Corbyn and Co. have all the sound of something heard on a crackly radio from the 70s and 80s. It is, in fact, ground much more suited for a serious Liberal re-emergence. The short, sharp and complete destruction of Labour in Scotland shows how quickly a dramatic realignment can take place.

Corbynite Labour resembles a dinosaur so uniquely thick that it does not notice the asteroid strike that has destroyed the rest of its kind. I would suggest that the Conservative Party has become rather too lazily accustomed to taking on a Labour Party where self-immolation is the order of the day. In the destruction of Labour, they should be careful what they wish for. It is a fragile lead that is simply based on the ludicrous unelectability of your main opposition. Equally, the endless requests of the Tories for validation increasingly build an impatience in an electorate who rightly could say it has been given a mandate.

However, my fear is that the never ending recourse to a democratic process is not the strengthening of that principle, but the slow running of it into the ground in exhaustion. It’s this fatigue which gives an increasing opening for seductive and dangerous siren songs from people and parties whose views lie very far from what most of us would regard as the democratic norm. Let us hope I am wrong.


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Hugh Andrew 7 Articles
Managing Director of the Scottish publishing house Birlinn Limited.

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