Last week I tweeted: “The nation is ungovernable. A stable old democracy is being demolished by populist politicians. It’s worse than an army coup… What will become of us?” I was expressing leftie despondency, consuming Remainer fixations and an inchoate anxiety too. I sleep restlessly, dream about mass deportations and soldiers banging on doors. Our stormy political times are bringing up subliminal memories of Idi Amin’s coup and military dictatorship which I lived through in the early seventies. Bizarre maybe, but not irrational.
Lord Sumption, a gentleman judge and this year’s Reith lecturer, said this in a Sunday Times interview this weekend: “Advanced democracies are not overthrown. There are no tanks on the street, no sudden catastrophes, no brash dictators, no baying mobs. Instead, their institutions are drained of everything that once made them democratic…the rhetoric of democracy will be unchanged, but it will be meaningless.”
This distinguished peer, a close ally of Keith Joseph, Margaret Thatcher’s political guru, wrote a chilling section in a speech delivered by Joseph in 1974: “The balance of our human stock is threatened by the relatively large proportion of babies being born to women from social classes four and five.” This was eugenics writ large. Egalitarians were understandably horrified. In 2010, Sumption, QC defended the Labour government and MI5 against allegations of complicity in torture of Binyam Mohamed, an Ethiopian-born British resident who ended up in Guantanamo Bay for several years. He was released in 2009. Sumption still argues that the release of classified intelligence files was “profoundly damaging to the interests of this country”. As a human rights activist I cannot see how patriotism matters more than justice.
Yet here we are in 2019, and even political foes share an intense concern about the future of our democratic edifices which seem to be undefended as cynicism, cultural volatility and herd behaviours change British society and political norms. According to Sumption, our parliamentary is precious and “amazingly adaptable”. But that does not mean it will easily survive this age of rage.
A good democracy needs an incorruptible civil service, a fair and impartial criminal justice system, rules to keep the elected in line, a diverse and largely reliable media, clear official information, regulation and an informed population. Getting these requisites right is an endless challenge, but official vigilance and the crawl towards probity kept democratic ideals and commitment burning. Now that flame is low and in danger of going out.
According to the Hansard Society, barely a third of voters trust MPs “to act in the interests of the public” while more than half want “a strong leader who is willing to break the rules”. These findings indicate a tolerance of, even an admiration for wilful, irresponsible conduct. Leave UK was found guilty of unlawful spending. Corbyn’s hoods regularly intimidate female Labour MPs and most of our elected members of parliament are now too terrified to take on belligerent voters.
When did the structure and faith start to crumble? Who shall we blame? Who and what can save us?
Ten years ago, Britons learnt about the illegitimate expenses claimed by some MPs. That led to widespread disillusionment and a crisis of trust. An open wound is easily infected. Millions have been persuaded that elected men and women – even those who are dedicated public servants – are the “elite” and “out of touch”. Cynical politicians, commentators and journalists pushed out a subsequent, equally damaging narrative of a “broken system”, “betrayal” and the “forgotten people”. The system was, in fact broken by these naysayers and the real traitors are those who are currently embarked on a project to demolish this liberal democracy.
MPs are encircled by hideous, howling hounds near Westminster. Judges are attacked, civil servants and academics too. A Zimbabwean friend emailed me this week: “Mugabe politics come to Great Britain eh? Shall we send some observers?”
Not funny, I thought. We need reform. Proportional Represenation would be a start. Ukip and other extremist parties would cause less havoc than they do now if they were in the Commons. Well managed public meetings in local areas would revive political engagement. The Lords should be modernised. Corruption must be properly punished. Traditional media and the internet must be better regulated during elections. And so on.
Comrades, don’t be stupefied or scared. Fight the rogues and liars. Stand up for the nation in its hour of need. Since the 13th century, the British parliament has survived terrible wars and turmoil. In a few tumultuous years that resilience will be undone and the irreplaceable institution that holds us together will be gone. Over to you.