From the archive: The end of politics as we know it?
Douglas Carswell’s defection last week to Ukip from the Tories, to stand in a by-election next month that he seems likely to win, has set-off a lot of debate in and around the Conservative Party. Comment has understandably centred on Europe, Euroscepticism and David Cameron’s promise of a referendum on British membership of the European Union after the general election, but there’s also been a lot of discussion about what it says about the state of the Party and politics more generally.
Explaining Carswell’s decision to leave a party that could win the next election for one that won’t, Charles Moore writing in the Daily Telegraph argued that the former Conservative MP has jumped ship to a “popular movement with grassroots enthusiasm, unlike the Tory party”. Rejecting the superficial and actually elitist ‘modernisation’ of the Conservative Party, Carswell instead decided to act on his long-held thinking about where politics is going, at least according to Moore’s interpretation:
“If thousands of people can be galvanised to give their time freely to a cause they passionately believe in, they have something that the mainstream parties have now lost. For all their incoherence, they renew political life. Douglas Carswell saw this earlier than most of his colleagues, long before he thought of defection. The internet age is gradually forcing itself upon our leaders.”
Whether or not you can bring yourself to agree that Ukip represents a modernising force in British politics, Moore is surely right that the main political parties have become so hollowed out as a result of their rigid control by the political class that they are no longer able to mobilise their members with the energy, let alone the numbers, that they once were. Carswell agrees with this analysis. His 2012 book The End of Politics and the Birth of iDemocracy makes the right-libertarian argument that the “age of big government is over” and speculates that, thanks to the internet “…there is a big future in politics without hierarchical parties, and perhaps even without parties.”
Ukip could be regarded, in its lack of traditional organisation at least, to represent a kind of ‘non-party party’, but for the moment Carswell seems to be clinging somewhat to the past rather than say standing as an independent.
Of course, Carswell’s views reflect a widespread public dissatisfaction – dejection really – with ‘mainstream’ politics and government. As Carswell has written on his own blog:
“[Britain’s] problems can be fixed. But they can only be addressed if we have meaningful political reform. Those who make public policy must be made accountable to the public. Until government answers to Parliament, and Parliament answers to the people, we will never get a government that is on our side. Too many decisions are made by little cliques in London. No one seems to want to take responsibility. When things go wrong they hide behind process and procedure.”
However, in his article about Carswell, Charles Moore fails to mention another debate that is taking place at the moment, one which also represents a modernising force in politics but which he finds himself on the conservative side of – the Yes campaign for Scottish independence.
One reason why the polls are tightening in the run-up to the referendum vote is surely that the Yes campaign represents a more positive and hopeful view of the possibilities for Scotland, in contrast to the dessicated ‘visions’ being offered by the UK’s main political parties. As George Monbiot wrote in the Guardian, flipping the independence question on its head:
“Imagine the question posed the other way round. An independent nation is asked to decide whether to surrender its sovereignty to a larger union. …To vote no is to choose to live under a political system that sustains one of the rich world’s highest levels of inequality and deprivation. This is a system in which all major parties are complicit, which offers no obvious exit from a model that privileges neoloiberal economics over other aspirations. …Broken, corrupt, dysfunctional, retentive: you want to be part of this?”
For Monbiot, and many others, independence for Scotland “…offers people an opportunity to rewrite the political rules.” At the same time, in part the Yes vote is also a conservative response, in the sense of seeking to preserve a distinctive Sottish political culture in the face of an English-led ‘modernisation’ (neoliberal) project. As the historian Sir Tom Devine noted, explaining his decision to support independence:
“The Scottish parliament …represents a Scottish people who are wedded to a social democratic agenda and the kind of political values which sustained and were embedded in the welfare state of the late 1940s and 1950s. It is the Scots who have succeeded most in preserving the British idea of fairness and compassion in terms of state support and intervention. Ironically, it is England, since the 1980s, which has embarked on a separate journey.”
Whichever way the Scottish referendum vote goes, as many commentators have suggested, politics in the UK may never be the same. The independence campaign, declining allegiance to the main political parties, the grassroots groups campaigning for change and even the rise of Ukip, all suggest that the old certainties are crumbling. What happens next is difficult to predict. Of course, as the computer pioneer Alan Kay once remarked, the best way to predict the future is to invent it.
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