With Brexit paralysis gripping Westminster & threatening to unravel the very fabric of politics in the UK (let alone the whole 400+ years of island union) & a sitting President in Washington who enjoys Twitter rants & international trade wars, rather than careful messaging & diplomatic recourse, you could be forgiven for thinking that the country which gave birth to western liberal democracy, & the ‘land of the free & the home of brave’, have both somewhat lost their way over the last few years.
Ignoring the daily Twitter tirades from the Oval Office & putting aside the increasingly convoluted state of affairs at Westminster for a minute, there are similarities to be found when trying to assess the causes for the situations we’re currently witnessing on both sides of the Atlantic — namely populism.
Whether it’s the election of a TV star; the support for unsubstantiated slogans on the side of a touring campaign bus; the election of an ultra-conservative President in Brazil; or the increasing rise of nationalist sentiment across continental Europe, as a direct response to the migrant crisis, there can be no argument that populism (manifested in a number of shoddily disguised right-wing guises), has grown significantly around the globe over the last decade.
While economists will site the growing economic divide between the top 1% of the global population & the rest, sociologists will highlight statistics around the increasing lack of social mobility as the root causes for populism — both would be correct.
The key to understanding the rise of populism, lies in not just recognising the root causes (at national & trans-national level), but acknowledging the apathy & feeling of disenfranchisement that these issues cause amongst populations in general, regardless of the flags they fly.
While we cannot & should not discount economic & social factors, it was this feeling of disenfranchisement that led many American & British voters to choose a vote of protest in 2015 & 2016 respectively, against what they perceived to be a lethargic, self-serving political elite, who were no longer representative, or working towards the best interests of the majority of their respective citizens.
From 1832–1918 politics in Britain gradually reformed & evolved into the envy of the world & the system we recognise today. At no stage over that 200-year period, however, has the House of Commons evolved to adapt to the real underlying social & technological advances of the times. What we now find ourselves with, is a first past the post parliamentary system that promotes the pursuit of individual & party power, over political compromise, the national interest, or the well-being of the most vulnerable in our society.
The cyclical, opaque nature of Westminster politics means that change is slow to come, if indeed it comes at all. All the while the disenfranchised become more disaffected & the calls from the extremes of politics become louder & more attractive to the increasing numbers of those who feel that internationalism & the political status quo has ‘left them behind’.
Increasingly, right-wing attitudes that once occupied the margins of public consciousness become mainstream, popularly held beliefs, as we’ve seen time & again across countries, continents & hemispheres.
Add into the mix opportunist, egotistical, power-hungry politicians, looking for self-aggrandisement & you can quickly see how messages such as; ‘regaining control of our laws’ & ‘build the wall’ can quickly gain momentum — resulting in the situation we find ourselves in today.
Whether you agree with Brexit or not, the referendum result must be upheld otherwise the entire foundation of 800+ years of democratic process (starting with Magna Carta), lies in tatters.
Regardless of what side of the debate you sat at the time, there are still positives to take from the wreckage of the last three years that we currently occupy: namely, the fact that the 2016 vote laid bare the state of political apathy amongst the electorate; it highlighted the broken state of British society & finally, it underlined the fact the current Westminster model is an outdated anachronism, no longer fit for purpose in a 21st Century society.
When members of Parliament resign because they believe they can do more for their constituencies outside the halls of Westminster, there is a problem with the system. When the Prime Minister of the country is prepared to bully his own colleagues & simply lie to members of the house & the British public with impunity, there is a problem with the system.
When the leader of the opposition is too indecisive to hold a public opinion on the greatest political question since WW2 & hold the government to account, there is a problem with the system.
When consecutive parliaments of all colours have been allowed to preside over decades of growing social & economic inequality, there is a problem with the system. When the House of Commons cannot put aside party political differences for the good of the country & is in a state of perpetual paralysis for more than three years, there is a problem with the system.
If the schism within the UK that has developed over the last 50 years & now manifests itself in the form of Brexit is to be healed, the country must find a way to make British politics fit for purpose again. In the process, British politicians & political institutions must find a way to win back the trust & belief of those who voted as much as a vote against the political establishment, as they did to leave the European Union…
The first-past the post system we have inherited is no longer fit for purpose, & the one thing the Brexit vote (as well as the last three years of impasse), has shown us, is that the people of Britain are crying out for a more relevant, more representative & fairer political model.
The answer may well be Proportional Representation.
While many within Westminster & the media will deride Proportional Representation for its inability to deliver majority governments & argue against it because of the potential voice it gives to the extremes of the political spectrum, these are surely two of its fundamental strengths, rather than weaknesses.
Consider this. The founding premise of Proportional Representation is the fact that it rarely delivers a majority ruling party, & this in turn means that compromises & trade-offs need to be struck by one or more parties. Had this been the case during the Brexit negotiations & a cross-party coalition representing the national interest (rather than bi-partisan party interests), been implemented, the paralysis in parliament that is currently playing out, could well have been avoided altogether.
With regards Proportional Representation giving ideas at the very edges of the political margins a voice; surely had more people felt that their voices were being heard & represented in Westminster, the ‘anti-establishment’ vote which framed many decisions to vote ‘leave’ would have not manifested itself & the decision to leave the European Union may never have actually happened in the first place.
I would also add one further key point here: while Proportional Representation has the potential to return more ‘extreme’ opinions to parliament, this is crucial counterbalance to the perceived lethargy of the main established parties & many MPs who can be guaranteed a seat in the House of Commons for life in certain areas, much as was during the 19th Century with the ‘Rotten Borough’ system.
For me the case is clear, if the traditional liberal, centrists who make up much of the current House of Commons want to keep extreme political views out of the halls of Westminster, the public must be able to place them under more scrutiny & be able to express their will more effectively.
Surely this type of accountability would concentrate the mind of sitting MPs on delivering policies & legislation that works for more sections of society, in a more timely manner. The happy bi product would surely be a less disaffected electorate & a more engaged political debate amongst all sections of society — not simply the perceived political elites.
If MPs in a lower house, elected on the basis of Proportional Representation dislike the opportunity the method affords political extremes, the answer is clear — work harder to deliver fairer, more representative policies as part of a ruling coalition of compromise, & neither extremism or ‘flash in the pan’ populism will be able to take root in the British Isles.
There can be no coincidence that possibly the most socially progressive & certainly, most economically stable country in Europe, Germany, operates a Proportional Representation model for its politics. The key to Germany’s success since unification is simple: strong, charismatic, pragmatic, yet flexible leadership concerned with the betterment of the population, rather than political manoeuvring & self-aggrandisement.
There can be no doubt that consecutive Chancellors have embodied these values over the last three decades & broadly speaking delivered better living standard for the 80+ million German population, while British politics, in contrast, has been on a steady decline over the very same period.
Over her long & rich history, Britain has been at the forefront of political, industrial, legal & social revolutions that have impacted & influenced (for the most part to the good), the world we see today.
It is time once more, that the British people step forward & demand from their politics & politicians the type of institutional change that will see the Britain of today through the next 800 years of change.
These islands have weathered many challenges: from Civil Wars, foreign Armadas, Industrial Revolutions & great battle in our very skies, to significant & great societal & cultural upheavals. It is for this reason that I believe in the British people to once more come through this recent adversity, & that one day soon, we can & will have a new parliamentary system capable of delivering the type of fairer, more representative Britain we can all, once more, be proud to call home.