My name is Sam Tyler. I had an accident, and I woke up in 1973. Am I mad, in a coma, or back in time? Whatever's happened, it's like I've landed on a different planet. Now, maybe if I can work out the reason, I can get home.
Actually, I don’t think I can get home. Not from here. We don’t seem to be in Europe anymore, and no one wants to buy our cars. Young people are listening to Donovan instead of Frank Ocean. I don’t know what I did last night but I feel sick and there’s this loud bloke in my ear: “Now is not the time to have a one-night stand with your conscience.” He says he’s Gene Hunt, and I need to stick with him because the rest of them are “fucking useless.”
He’s holding a car door open for me. “Get in and let’s go privatise something.”
When Gandhi was asked what he thought of Western civilization, he said “I think it would be a good idea.” I feel the same about Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of Labour Party. Corbyn’s transformation from rebel to the ultimate insider reminds me of the story of Lech Walesa, the leader of the shipyard workers in Gdansk who spearheaded the civil resistance movement against the communist regime in Poland. After the fall of communism he had the misfortune to be elected the first president. He saw the country safely join NATO and the EU, but he didn’t have the skills or experience to be able to deal with bureaucracy, or to lead or delegate. The outsider style that served him well as an activist caused clashes with his former allies and he ended up surrounded by people the public saw as incompetent or disreputable. His reputation was permanently damaged and he served only a single term as president.
The Conservative party are pretty cocky about Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, but it’s not clear why. It’s not wise to dismiss the hundreds of thousands of people who have joined the Labour Party since he became leader when your own ageing party membership could fit in the back room of a Cotswolds pub. A few months ago the crew in the snug of The Blue Boar came within a hairsbreadth of electing a Brexit chatbot to lead the party. Before Andrea Leadsom self destructed like Microsoft’s Tay, Theresa May’s chances of winning the leadership election in Brexit Britain were no better than even.
I was so sick with the uncertainty of leaving the EU after 40 years, that the whiff of competence May exuded, like the scent of carbolic soap after a nurse has left the room, filled me with reassurance. It didn’t last. May’s reputation as safe pair of hands is based on avoiding mistakes, principally by doing nothing. The only May “success” I can think of is the extradition of Abu Hamza to stand trial in the US. May thought that leaving the European Convention on Human Rights was a fair price to pay to make that happen. She strikes me as the sort of person who would use a bazooka to put up a shelf. Brexit not only requires May to do something, but to do the impossible, so we should all get ready to duck and cover.
Coming into my political majority in the 70s and 80s had its ups and downs, but even (I hope) allowing for the nostalgia of hindsight, the politicians of those days (Benn, Healey, Callaghan, Castle, Foot, Heath, Thatcher, Williams, the many Davids...) seem like titans compared to the current lot.
Cameron, Milliband, and Clegg are the three worst leaders of the major parties that I have known in my lifetime, and like three buses they all came along at once.
Cameron ended up on top because he was stupendously lucky. When the luck ran out all he had to show for 6 years in office was the legalization of same sex marriage. Not that this is negligible, but adding a flourish to the existing civil partnerships legislation is not a major legacy when on the debit side you have broken the economy, dumped your country out of the EU, put both your manufacturing and services industries at risk, destabilized the peace process in Northern Ireland, thrown the union with Scotland into doubt, and crippled British science - amongst other stuff.
Clegg’s party had hungered for power for so long they were unable to control themselves in coalition, and gorged on the amuse bouche of front bench seats and ministerial cars and had no stomach for the main course of implementing policies, such as voting reform, which had sustained them through decades in the wilderness. They saw the promised land in the distance and hung a louie for obscurity instead. Success beckoned; they choked.
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As for Milliband, his mission was to not be his brother, and break with the Blair / Brown version of the Labour Party. He was partially successful.
Shit was it in that dawn to be alive, as Wordsworth might have said. No wonder people, especially those who only recently got the vote, don’t have respect for politics and politicians.
As a teenager I realised that I believed in democracy without knowing why, so I started reading: Plato’s Republic, The English Civil War, The Condition of the Working Class in England, Joad’s Introduction to Philosophy, The Territorial Imperative... To cut a long story short I ended up accepting Churchill’s dictum that “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” The question then became: what about parliamentary democracy, with elections every 5 years, and no choice over the candidates the parties present you with? Again I made peace with the accepted wisdom: through the democratic vote you delegate the ability to make complex decisions with all the associated conflicts and unintended consequences, to someone who has the time, inclination, skills, values, intellect, knowledge and good faith that you do not. That’s the Faustian pact: politicians absolve us of our indifference, and in return we give them power.
The public expect politicians to lie and, within limits, we’re happy when they do. We need them to simplify complex topics to sound bites, to present a rose tinted view of the world - if they didn’t we’d never get anywhere. But the deal is that, despite their simplistic sloganeering, underneath it all they still understand how the world works, and that if elected they have a plan that might not get us to the rose tinted uplands, but will be good enough that we won’t be too disappointed.
The problem is that politicians have spent the last 20 years reneging on that deal. The most obvious example is Tony Blair taking the country to war in Iraq. Everyone knew the prospectus for war was dodgy, but even those who were most opposed expected the government to have a plan to deal with the aftermath of war: we trusted Blair, even if we didn’t believe him. After the war was won, the fact that there were no weapons of mass destruction was a surprise to no one, and an outrage to a few. The real war crime was that there was no plan for postwar Iraq, and as a result the country went to hell. What was supposed to make people in the UK safe from terrorism had the opposite effect.
Most people hate Blair not because he lied, but because he couldn’t be trusted. Big decisions are rarely pure and never simple: it’s possible for two people, neither of them fools, to come down on different sides of a difficult argument in good faith. That’s how life is, and we accept it. Making good decisions is hard, and often requires a large slice of luck, but planning for the possible consequences of a decision is not hard, it’s just a piece of work, and there is no excuse for not doing it.
We’ve seen the same scenario repeat with Brexit. Despite the faux outrage of Remainers, no one was surprised when 350 million pounds disappeared like fairy gold the morning after the referendum, along with a bunch of other cool stuff we were promised: everyone knew it was all sound bites and spectacles. What corroded public trust was the revelation that the most influential Leave campaigners didn’t understand how the EU worked, even at the most superficial level. And neither side had a plan for what should happen if the country voted for Brexit. We were making the most important political decision of a lifetime, which would affect the lives of our children and grandchildren, and Leave and Remain served up a shitshow.
People also suspect that many of the key players on both sides, most notably Boris Johnson, but possibly May, Corbyn and others, chose their side in the debate based on their personal ambitions or the needs of their party, rather than what was best for the country. Identifying the best interests of the country with your own best interests is autocracy, and with the interests of your party is dictatorship. For understandable reasons the public have a particular respect for politicians who are seen to put the country first, and disdain for those who mostly clearly do not.
Whatever’s the case with those particular individuals, it is obvious that the deal in which politicians provide knowledge and skill and good faith in exchange for power, has been well and truly broken.
|Photograph: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images|
In the circumstances it’s not surprising that many people who voted Leave are now insistent that the government immediately implement what they voted for (whatever that was). When politicians know no more than you do, when they have no plans, when they have (in business jargon) no value to add, there’s no point in deferring to them: they are merely an instrument to do your bidding.
There is good evidence that referendums, instead of being its finest expression, actually erode the form of democracy that has been practised in the UK for the best part of a century. Theresa May is currently presenting the Brexit referendum as a mandate that established the “firm conviction” of the public on a multitude of complex issues that were barely raised, much less properly debated, during the campaign. Rarely has so much interpretation been read into one tiny cross. Of course the same thing happens in a general election, but parties are obliged to create detailed manifestos explaining what they will do in power, which come under forensic examination by their opponents and others. It’s far from perfect, but it is better than what just happened. Nevertheless, politicians haven’t helped themselves: the wholesale “reform” of the NHS appeared out of nowhere after the Conservative’s election victory in 2010. Pulling major policies out of thin air, not in response to unpredictable events but on a whim, put another nail in the coffin of 20th Century democracy.
We have a system of democracy that is incapable of making anyone happy (whether leave or remain) and which has lost the power to create consensus. It has been systematically undermined by the democratic politicians who should have nurtured it, if only out of blind self interest.
If you add in the fact that the world is becoming increasingly complex and technocratic, and that politicians, in general, aren’t very well informed (at least as far as I can judge in the areas I understand reasonably well like the internet, medicine, and science), you have to wonder what use they are these days. They need to work a lot harder to justify their existence and they have been freewheeling for decades. No one is going to stand for that.
The principle of democracy is as valid as it ever was. The way we have chosen to implement it through parliament is broken and not fit for purpose. I don’t know how it needs to change or if it should be replaced. Although politics is currently failing us, in the past politicians have helped us be better than we are, outlawing sex and race discrimination, insisting on equal pay, abolishing the death penalty, introducing the invalid care allowance, and much, much more. I’m not convinced that Facebookocracy is a workable replacement for that sort of democracy, and I’m not sure that the people promoting it think that it is either. They’re probably younger than me, and with some justice think that any change is better than none. I’m old and all I can see is how that sort of experiment could go badly wrong and take 30 years to sort out. I don’t have the time, energy, or optimism to take that risk, but I hope that others will.