You really, really couldn’t make it up. Just months ago, the Scottish National Party (SNP) was urging Scots to leave the United Kingdom. By May, the SNP could be running the whole thing.
According to seemingly well-informed observers, the movers-and-shakers in Britain’s establishment parties may even be giving serious consideration to something that hitherto has been unthinkable – a “grand alliance” between Labour and the Conservatives, designed to prevent the SNP from becoming the king-makers after May’s election.
The democratic deficit
The basic problem is a simple one. Essentially, Britain’s supposedly “democratic” political system is nothing of the sort. A skewed electoral model entrenches the power of the establishment parties, customarily enabling one or the other to form, on the basis of one-third of the votes cast, an “elected dictatorship” with a stranglehold over legislation as well as the executive. Some parties with big popular support can be left unrepresented, whilst others, with small but concentrated electorates, can garner disproportionate influence.
Two trends have compounded this constitutional weakness. First, most of the checks to power that regulated the system back in the 1950s – including mass party membership, local decision-making, local government, party conferences, the cabinet and the senior civil service – have been neutered by a relentless process of centralisation.
Second, the forces of “corporatism” have staged a coup-by-stealth, taking over almost all of the levers of political and economic power.
Smoked out by Salmond?
The electoral arithmetic shows how easily the king-making role could fall into the hands of Alex Salmond and his colleagues. Based on recent projections, Labour (with 34% of the national vote) is likely to win 301 seats – 25 short of a majority – whilst the Conservatives (32%) may secure 265. The SNP, with a projected 46 MPs, could thus put Labour into government, enabling Scots to determine government policy in a way unprecedented since the accession of James I (of England, VI of Scotland) in 1603.
Both major parties, it is said, fear the price that the SNP might demand for its support. Even if the SNP did not demand a re-run of the independence referendum, it would be certain to insist on the devolution of further powers to Scotland.
If the SNP wanted to do such a deal to put Labour in power, they could be pushing at an open door, since Ed Miliband, like David Cameron, signed up to additional powers for the Scottish Parliament during their parties’ undignified panic in the days before the referendum. Additionally, the SNP might push Labour further to the left than its leaders really want to go.
The tail wagging the dog
We need to step back here and look at what this really says about the British system of government. The very idea that the government of the country could be determined by a party with less than 4% popular support shows just how far from real democracy Britain actually is.
To win 46 Westminster seats – 78% of Scotland’s 59 constituencies – the SNP needs to secure 43% of the Scottish vote. That isn’t even a majority in Scotland – and in Britain as a whole it is just 3.7%. Yet UKIP, at a projected 14% of the national vote, can expect to win just one seat. Even the hapless Liberal Democrats, with a share of the vote projected to slump to less than 8% from 24% in 2010, could expect to hang on to 15 seats, vastly more than UKIP and the Greens (21%, 2 seats) put together.
Might it be time for real democracy?
The simple solution, of course, would be to introduce a fully democratic and proportionate system of government. This need not involve severing the valuable geographical basis of representation, since a system of single transferable votes (STV) would, in each constituency, return the candidate with the largest share of first-, second- and third-preference support.
Yet the very idea of STV is anathema to the two major parties, as well it might be – on this basis, there would have been few if any one-party majorities in Parliament since 1945. Coalitions, then, would have been the norm – and experience elsewhere (most notably in Germany) suggests that this might have been a better way of governing.
After all, the current coalition has performed pretty well in staving off the economic consequences of the last single-party administration, and is also the first government of modern times with majority electoral support (even Labour’s 1945 “landslide” fell just short of 48%).
A system subverted
Of course, the skewed electoral process – well described by one writer as a “system of government by hypocrisy” – isn’t new, and neither is the lamentable lack of a separation between the legislature and the executive.
But recent decades have witnessed the demolition of almost all of the previous checks to “elected dictatorship”. Thanks to party centralisation of policy and of candidate selection, and the stripping of decision-making powers from conferences, the multi-million membership parties of the 1950s are long gone, as is much of the autonomy of local government. In an era of spin machines and centralised “sofa government”, even the cabinet has lost most of its ability to restrain the leadership, whilst senior civil servants have been sidelined by the imposition of political “advisers”.
As I have explained before – in a mini-series beginning here – the real battleground in British politics isn’t “right” versus “left”, but “corporatist” versus “individualist”. In parallel with the relentless centralisation of power, the corporatists – in a broad sense which is by no means limited to private enterprise – have accomplished a stealthy coup, handing wealth, power and virtual immunity from consequences to the “Directorate”, that group which controls the big private- and public-sector power blocs.
This explains why no senior person ever seems to be held to account for banking, corporate or public service disasters. It also explains why the innocuous label “miss-selling” is applied to corporate actions which, if carried out by a small business, would be treated much more seriously.
Seen in evolutionary terms, then, what has happened is that a quasi-representative system, shorn of its checks and balances, has concentrated power whilst taking away many of the liberties of the individual, a process accompanied by increased surveillance and restrictions on the right of free expression.
If it were not so serious, there would be a delicious irony in the possibility of the system reaching a logical conclusion where a party with less than 4% of the popular vote dictates government policy and, quite conceivably, furthers the break-up of the United Kingdom.
The dangers of the democratic deficit
There are two main consequences which may follow from this impasse.
First, government may be rendered incapable of dealing with the most pressing problems facing the country.
The first of these problems is dealing with an economy which remains addicted to spending more than it earns, and depends on overseas borrowing, and the sale of a dwindling net asset base, to plug a 6% hole in its GDP. Obviously, this habit of living on tick is time-limited by the deterioration of Britain’s net international investment position (NIIP), which now stands at –26% of GDP and continues to deteriorate rapidly.
The second problem is a grave miss-match between the public services that people expect and the limited ability of the economy to pay for them.
The third imperative is tackling a dangerous run-down in defence, a process whose consequences are worse even than purely numerical measures may suggest. The final, related challenge is the threat posed by Islamic fundamentalism and the ambitions of a newly re-assertive Russia.
If policy challenges are one consequence of the breakdown of the system, the other is the gap between governing and governed.
A truly representative democracy offers a safety-valve for public discontent, which is why Syriza was victorious in Greece, and why both Podemos in Spain and the FN in France are making major political progress. If Syriza fails, Greek voters really will have no-one (other than foreign lenders) to blame but themselves. No such logic operates in Britain.
As outlined in my final article on corporatism, a charter movement may be one way to restore accountability. A second would be for the incumbent parties to opt for a proportionate system of representation, though I won’t be holding my breath on that one.
If neither of these things happens, then the prospects – in politics, economics and defence – do not look good.