Last week was a terrible week for Liberal Democrats. Let us hope that it was not also a terrible week for liberal democracy. We have a new government which pressed home its claim during the final weeks of the election campaign to provide continuity from the coalition. It must now develop its own conscience if it is to do so.
The key issues facing Britain have not changed. They remain:
- In a time of return to prosperity, the most vulnerable 20% have seen the least restoration of living standards, while the wealthiest have seen the greatest
- We live in a representative democracy which is demonstrably not representative, and in danger of losing its right to be called a democracy at all
- Contrary to all sound evidence, we have developed a national narrative of distrust of immigrants and a willingness to blame them for an implausibly broad range of problems, thereby absolving ourselves of tackling the underlying issues
- We fail to leverage Britain’s underlying economic strengths, so our manufacturing base continues to slide and we are returning to a reliance on the financial sector which offers easy profits in the short term
- Our international engagement, both in Europe and on the issue of Climate Change, is faltering, and we are retreating to an island mentality where we expect others to solve the world’s problems.
While an election campaign should help the public to hold government to account, our recent election campaign — and this has been observed by many — has had the character more of appealing to people’s prejudices and fears than offering them a vision of a common good.
Britain’s democratic deficit is now worse than ever. A party that commands half of the votes in Scotland gained all but three of the seats. In Britain as a whole, a party that commands little more than ? of the vote has carte blanche to do whatever it wants for five years, including changing the electoral boundaries to assist its future efforts. Another party which garnered 1/6 of the votes has just one MP. Given that this party represents a large proportion of people who feel disenfranchised and believe that their concerns are not taken seriously by politicians, this bodes ill.
Compared to five years ago, there is a strong consensus across Britain for voting reform. However, the government now in power is firmly committed to preventing it.
We have seen the customary post-election protests in central London, but these are unlikely to have any more impact that previous protests. If anything, they strengthen a government’s resolve to stand on its democratic mandate. However, based on vote share, that mandate is non-existant.
If this were Formula 1, or cricket, or tennis, then the governing body would quickly move to change the rules so that the artefacts of the system could no longer produce a result which was so palpably unjust. Even in football, with all of its much discussed governance problems, there would now be a major outcry. However, since government is its own master, there is no mechanism in Britain for achieving this.
David Cameron’s new cabinet has a slender majority of twelve seats — just one more than John Major had. They face a very significant internal battle over Europe, which is expected to have wide and negative implications for the economy as a whole.
Nonetheless, the task of government is first of all to manage affairs in the best national interest, and only second to pursue its own manifesto commitments. Assuring itself an additional term of office should come a very distant third.
David Cameron made many promises before the election, and wrote ‘personally’ to a large number of voters in key seats to explain why continuity from the coalition was vital. He must now honour his promise of continuity, and work first to tackle the nation’s problems.