Many of us reacted with dismay to the news that the BNP had won not one but two seats in the Euro elections. The irony of this happening on D-Day escaped no-one. Yet, the sun rose the next morning, and we are still here. It is time to wake up, collectively, see what has really happened, and work to set it right.
First, we must put the BNP success into context. If they were a worthwhile party with a positive contribution to make, we would no doubt be congratulating them on two seats. But they are two seats out of 69, and the BNP managed to attract just 6.2% of the national vote — less than the total of other minor parties. Even if you add the BNP vote to the UKIP vote (something which UKIP would strongly protest), 75% of the population still voted for pro-European, not anti-European parties. Looked at on its own, 93.8% of people voted against the BNP.
Second, we must understand that the BNP result is an artefact of our particular form of Euro-election system. When given the choice of systems, Britain opted for the D’Hondt system — the least proportional of all the ‘proportional’ systems on offer, and the closest available choice to the UK’s standard museum-piece first past the post system. Critics of proportional representation are bound to be saying that the BNP would not have got seats under a true first-past-the-post system. But, equally, they would have gained no seats under the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system which most believe to be the fairest and most obvious — at least to the voter. Under STV, each voter ranks the proposed candidates in order, until they have no further preference. Given the make up of the vote last week, it is fairly clear that the BNP would have picked up almost no second or third preference votes. Far from allowing the extremists in, STV would have kept them out.
Third, we must recognise that we have only ourselves to blame for this debacle. British politics has functioned on a constant diet of back-biting and sneering, both from the media, and by politicians themselves. We have lambasted each other as incompetent, destructive, and sometimes even as ‘evil’. Now that we are facing electoral success by a party that is neither democratic nor, in any ordinary sense of the word, benevolent, we need to re-calibrate our language.
I grew up in the Thatcher years, when we were inclined to refer to her party as ‘fascist’. But they were not fascist, and never would become it. The Conservative Home website has a long blog & comments denigrating the Lib-Dems, and accusing us of being ‘liars’. Lib-Dems are not liars. We tell the truth the way we see it—as we should do in a free democracy. Tories may not agree. But that does not make us liars. Everyone has been lambasting Gordon Brown. I was on a TV show on Sunday with a Conservative candidate who, before the show, accused Brown of destroying the British economy. Brown did not destroy the British economy. And, no matter how expedient it might be for us to suggest that he did, to do so plays into the hands of the real fascists.
Likewise, spurred on by the media, the public has been educated to accuse all politicians of being liars, cheats and free-loaders. Journalists may write tongue-in-cheek, but the man in the street believes it to be true. But even politicians who have been found to have cheated on expenses are only part-dishonest. I should certainly not like to see them returned to the House of Commons, and I believe that they should have cleared the air by resigning. But that does not mean that Mrs Kirkbride and Ms Blears have not been working hard for their constituents for a very long time.
Contrast this with the BNP. Just scratch a BNP leaflet or website, and you find deceit right beneath the surface. Dig deeper, and lies and violence, as well as the arbitrary suspension of the human rights of those of whom they disapprove, are written right through their rotten hearts. As a committed Christian, I find the way in which Nick Griffin profaned the name of Jesus Christ in his speech on Sunday night to be an abomination. He claims to be speaking for Christian values and a Christian country, but everything he stands for diametrically opposed to the teaching of the carpenter from Nazareth.
So where should we go from here? The BNP know exactly where they are going. They will use every opportunity to milk the European system for funds, publicity and credibility. They will demand air-time as their democratic right, even though what they will be advocating is the dismantling of democracy. Their strategy has been building up to this for years. Why else would they contest European elections, when their whole ethos is anti-European and anti-internationalist? Their smug victory was bitter enough, but the aftermath will be far worse.
Our response, then, must be equally coherent and consistent. Otherwise, they will build on this to put them in a position of even more appalling strength at the next election.
First, the forces for good in politics must reinvent and reinvigorate themselves. No matter how much they are depending on the income, Members and Ministers who have been irretrievably tarnished by the expenses scandal should go. Parliament should vote soon to create a mechanism for them to resign immediately without loss of their resettlement grants — no matter how much that might irk the public — in return for their swift exit. If this is genuinely impossible, and I do not really understand why it should be, then they should announce now that they will be standing down. We do not need public humiliation and hand wringing — that would only serve the BNP and other extremists — but we do need action.
For us, the candidates and voters for the new parliament, we must bind ourselves not only to a code of conduct in regard to our expenses, but also in regard to our use of language and our conduct of business. The bickering, jeering atmosphere of the House of Commons, since it was first put on radio and subsequently television, has done a great deal to undermine public trust. We must simply stop backbiting, stop running negative, personal campaigns, not digging up any possible piece of dirt (proven or otherwise) to vilify another individual whose only genuine crime is daring to stand for a party not our own.
Second, we need a new, albeit unwritten, contract between the media, the public, and the politicians. Newspapers are, of course, under tremendous pressure, since their means of revenue generation has been dramatically eroded with the rise of the internet. It is unsurprising that they have leapt to whatever means of pumping up sales and increasing publicity that they can find. But politics is not the same as reality TV, and the house under Big Ben is not the same as the house of Big Brother. The constant caustic attacks on everyone who dares to put their head above the parapet are burning away our national life.
I am not suggesting that our papers and broadcasters should become anodyne, saccharine, mouthing platitudes for the sake of the ill-educated. But the duty to hold government to account must be balanced with a duty to contextualise, to explain, and, above all, to propose workable alternatives.
Third, we need to redefine our national project. Since the 1980s, the direction of Great Britain has been — almost without a voice of dissent — maximised prosperity, at the expense of all other things. Anybody speaking out against greater prosperity would have been seen as a lunatic.
I am not, of course, extolling the virtues of poverty. I’ve been poor, and I’ve been rich, and I know which one I would pick any day of the week. But prosperity at all costs has placed an intolerable burden on government to deliver what is not in its gift. We relentlessly relaxed rules on lending, reduced supervision of the financial sector, made it ever easier for people to borrow and enter bankruptcy, and we made every possible arrangement to encourage people in the belief that you are what you own, and your only worth is financial worth.
The personal tragedy of Gordon Brown is that he was remarkably adept at stoking up the prosperity when the world was in boom, so that Britain was one of the greatest long term beneficiaries of the decade of plenty. And he has been — at least as far as international commentators are concerned — remarkably good at stitching together coalitions to limit the damage of the recession. But the public have no patience for this. The public want ongoing, endless prosperity, of the kind they have got used to. Even if the rest of the world was collapsing while Britain endured a mild slump, the public would still be calling for Brown’s blood, because we as a nation, and he, while chancellor, have programmed ourselves to see the success of a government solely in economic terms.
I do not intend to dwell on wasted opportunities. We are where we are. But unless we define our national programme in other terms — call it social capital, if you are on the left, or call it community spirit, if you are on the right, or call it spiritual renewal, if you are from a faith background — then we will inevitably and periodically return in each economic cycle to a point where the electorate believe the government has entirely failed them, see no prospect of better from the other mainstream parties, and are willing to entertain the claims of those who are quick to point the finger at scapegoats, and quick to advocate a simple ‘make sense’ plan, which (in fact) will not result in the return of the prosperity that the public seeks, and will further destroy the threads that hold the fabric of society together.
It is time for those of us who believe in a radically different agenda from that put forward by the BNP to begin long term, effective and altruistic political action.
Time to stand up and be counted.