Angelic healing, the Hamiltons, and why parliament may only have five years left to re-invent itself
A week is a long time in politics, and a week in the annual silly season of July-August is not only long, but also frequently bizarre. While the Hamiltons are busy fundraising for UKIP in possibly even less salubrious company than their own, a UKIP prospective parliamentary candidate has quit in Somerset on the grounds that the party has been overrun by the occult. In other news, a UKIP councillor branded a peaceful Islamic procession a ‘call to war’, and a council hopeful, in the ‘Description’ box, where she was supposed to write ‘UKIP’, wrote ‘Blonde, curly hair, gray eyes‘.
I do sympathise with the PPC driven out by occultists. I‘ve never personally suffered that fate, but it is certainly a tough call to fight a seat at a General Election, and candidates finding their support evaporate are in a wretched position. The ‘blonde, curly hair’ was probably either just a mistake (and who is free from those?), and may yet garner more votes than otherwise.
What is really disturbing about all these things is that they probably will not matter to UKIP’s showing at the next election. People mock them, laugh at them, call them nutters, or ‘kippers’, but they will continue to gain votes for as long as MPs do nothing to restore faith in politics.
The rise of UKIP is not simply a rise in reactionary, poorly-informed, anti-Europeanism. Britain has always had its pockets of xenophobia, ready to be ignited by any threat to our interests, or even to our pride. We can take comfort that UKIP’s strong showing at the polls this year went hand in hand with a collapse in support for the BNP. UKIP is also not the only protest party to have garnered votes. The Greens did extremely well, and independents have been gaining ground in council elections.
The real problem is not with UKIP or UKIP voters, but that the public has despaired of MPs. We are now well-used to MPs coming at the bottom of the annual polls in trustworthiness, where nurses come top, doctors come second, and MPs, estate agents and used car salesmen at the other end, with typically around a quarter of people trusting them.
This has comedic value, of course, and no comedian short of a joke can go wrong making one at the expense of politicians.
And yet, and yet.
It is one thing for us to have a robust, disrespectful view of our elected representatives. It is another to think so poorly of them that we are prepared to dismiss everything we are told as lies, assume the worst of all their motives, imagine that they are all in the pay of multinational corporations or foreign governments, and rise in fury when there is even a hint of them being paid the same as nursery school head teachers.
A reasonable amount of disrespect is, I think, absolutely necessary if we are to hold them to account. Complete dismissal, however, does not strengthen us as voters, it leaves us liable to the charms of anyone with a pleasing manner and an opportunistic personality.
I don’t seriously think that Nigel Farage is a particularly reprehensible individual. He is cavalier with facts, and very willing to pull the wool over the eyes of the unwary, as we saw in the Farage-Clegg debates where he described a made-up figure as ‘our estimate’, and when his subsequent interview on LBC revealed some things about his attitudes that he evidently preferred to keep hidden. Farage though — to briefly bow to Godwin’s Law — is no Hitler in the making, and he never will be.
What’s more, UKIP’s poll ratings are now contracting, and it’s unlikely that they will win seats at the next General Election, though they may retain more deposits than in the past, and their attritional effect is almost certain to give David Cameron and Grant Shapps some sleepless nights on the way.
Fast forward five years, though. If nothing is done, if we have five more years of expenses scandals — which, notwithstanding pledges, have not gone away —, MPs in court over sexual harassment or perverting the course of justice, U-turns on manifesto pledges, cat-calling in Prime Ministers Question time and questions about cash for honours and cash for access, then the corrosive work of one-guilty=all-guilty media reporting will have taken us close to the point of no return. No party can claim to be innocent of all these things, least of all UKIP. Quite possibly it will not be UKIP in 2020 which is rounding up the disaffected votes. It could be anyone, or anything.
What is the first duty of an MP? To serve their constituents? To fulfill their election promises? To turn up and vote? Surely the very first duty of an MP is to preserve and promote confidence in democracy itself. Nobody should burn the platform on which they stand.
To win back public confidence, MPs must change their own behaviour. No matter how much shenanigans people enjoy watching on TV soap operas or reading about in the tabloids, they expect something different from their MPs. We need to end the public school style bullying in the chamber of the House of Commons. Party whips need to be much, much tougher on MPs caught redirecting their expenses in non-legitimate directions (aka fiddling). Ministers need to quit fast when their departments fail, as they did in the old days, not leave civil servants to take the blame.
MPs are not the only ones who need to take a look at themselves. The vast majority of MPs were never implicated in the expenses scandal, and yet ask any person in the street and you will hear the words ‘they’re all at it’. This is a direct result of the way news is reported. Newspapers have long argued that freedom of the press is essential in a democracy, and they are right. But where freedom is in danger of destroying that democracy, the time has come for newspapers to express restraint. It is not the reporting of the news which is at fault — if something has happened, it should be reported. Rather, it is the barely veiled insults, character assassinations, insinuations and inferences which are used to leave readers to ‘draw their own conclusions’.
We, the voters, also need to take a look at ourselves. We get the government we deserve. We expect political parties to do the work of campaigning and informing us at election time, but we treat them with contempt when they do, and complain that it isn’t election time if they disturb us at other times of year. We are happy to Like, Post and Share on Facebook and retweet accusations and evidence which we haven’t even taken the slightest effort to verify.
This is not about blame. Voter apathy, media complicity and politician complacency will kill our democracy just as effectively as democracies were destroyed in the mid-twentieth century, without even the necessity of insurrection.
In the words of TS Eliot, ‘this is the way the world ends, not with a bang, but a whimper’.