“Massive money laundering  and a major tax haven; failing police effectiveness including official as well as unlicensed corruption; insufficiency of judges, too few prosecutions that are often ill-prepared; insanitary over-crowded prisons with endemic drug-taking and rioting; use of drug-pusher children; and epidemic of teenage knife crime; foreign assassins; declining health provision; too few schools with growing teacher shortages; crumbling railways; increasingly deficient regulatory system with conflict -of -interest ‘revolving door’ hop-on hop-off recruitment; lack of effective party leadership; government reliant on a bunch of crony unaccountable fixers; growing demagogic populism carrying ever-more fascistic overtones; increasingly impotent representative bodies at all levels; and many more deficiencies besides.”

This is a fair description of many third world countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Yes, but it also defines contemporary England and especially its capital London.

Thus throughout the UK varying degrees of chaos threaten the very essence of what have been accepted as the canons of representative democracy. A brief survey is revelatory.

In Northern Ireland the devolved administration at Stormont has been suspended (yet again) for approaching two years – last time it was for five. In the EU Referendum the majority voted Remain while the DUP was and is adamant about Leaving; it also opposes the legalisation of abortion and gay marriage and as such is clearly out of step with the rest of Ireland, all other parts of the UK and most of Europe. Currently, the DUP’s only political function left is to prop up Theresa May’s minority Tory government at Westminster. Whether in future the DUP can convincingly re-boot itself seems very doubtful.

The situation in Wales is not so baleful as the devolved Assembly in Cardiff continues to operate and with some powers added to its original remit, but the minority Labour administration has to rely on Coalition support of the one remaining Lib Dem AM. Wales originally voted for devolution with a majority of under 1% in 1997 but things may be changing. First, in the EU referendum it recorded a Leave majority while, secondly, Adam Price the newly-elected Plaid Leader wants full independence for Wales but his party has only twelve AMs. The Tories have eleven and UKIP lurks around with seven. By any measure, then, Wales, is hardly a stable, confident polity.

For its part, Scotland is not what it was. It voted to Remain and the SNP government in Edinburgh wants to stay in the EU should Brexit occur. Labour is not a threat, nor are the Lib Dems, though the Tories have recovered some of the ground they previously lost so dramatically in 2012. The SNP has had its own travails with policy failures, while Alex Salmond, its previous Leader and First Minister, is facing legal problems over sexual harassment and has felt obliged to resign from his party membership.

That leaves England, the largest nation in the UK, which is as chaotic as the others. Both main parties are deeply divided, the Lib Dems are much reduced and while UKIP has lost much ground it hangs around in a ghostly fashion always threatening to re-surface as a wrecking influence.

 The gravity is beginning to be addressed with speculations abounding, including a realignment of the party system, calls for a re-assertion of moderate politics and for a new Centre Party. Unfortunately, these speculators include, John Major, Tony Blair and Nick Clegg, who arguably through the collectivity of their commissions and omissions, were among the main authors of the present state of affairs. Their voices are heard, however, despite this provenance, but a younger generation is required to lead the debate on what needs to be done to restore democracy. Vince Cable is acutely aware of this. As he sets sail to relinquish his party Leadership he wants his legacy to be helping to prepare the ground for a wider political renaissance. It is important that Liberal Democrats contribute to this process with innovative ideas, drawing on past classic notions, but which are presented with a renewed and urgent relevancy. They must nurture a new set of policy positions of a kind Grimond initiated in the 1960s.

It is commonly said that politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum and, presumably more so, given the many vacuums apparent throughout the UK. Party leaderships have endeavoured to address the problem to be seen in their use of wide rhetorical appeals.

In The Symbolic Uses of Politics (1964), Murray Edelman brilliantly distinguished between the various languages employed in politics. The two most important are what he calls “Hortatatory” and “Bargaining”: the former is directed at the wider public in general, while the latter is reserved for communicating with smaller specific communities, mainly pressure groups.

There are many Hortatatory examples to hand. For instance, on assuming office both Thatcher and May invoked the words of St Francis of Assisi. For his part, John Major offered a pastoral balm, talking of old ladies cycling to church and the sound of leather balls on willow cricket bats. The Blairites emphasised novelty with their stress on “New Labour”. David Cameron sought to mobilise more voluntarism with his occasional utterances about “The Good Society”. Rather desperately, Ed Miliband stole from the Tories the Disraelian notion of “One Nation” in the forlorn hope of propping up his appeal as a unifier of a fractured UK. More recently Theresa May has laid claim to providing “strong and stable” government, while the Corbynites are drawing on the leftish appeals of Clause Four socialism.  

Another way of filling the void has been the increasing recourse to plebiscitary decision-making. In essence, this has occurred by default that has fanned the flames of widespread populism but which, in its way, paradoxically restores public participation while simultaneously inhibiting the restoration of the erstwhile system of representative democracy: the two are antithetically opposed as democratic models.

So, with reliance on what I’ve previously called a  nomenklatura of fixers, the practice of government limps on as best it can, Bargaining over the exigencies of the moment, rather than adopting longer-term perspectives. This, of course, only serves to store up future troubles which may well become full-blown crises.

The Lib Dems should begin their renewal by examining how previous policies, which stood them in good stead through happy times and bleak, could be readapted. Take, for example, the notions of co-ownership and staff participation in business. The very nature of the labour market has changed dramatically with the rise of the gig economy and widespread self-employment. Not all of this is authentic, but much is, though income levels have remained static at best and mostly nose-dived. Hence the rise of poverty amongst employed workers, ever-increasing recourse to food banks, extortionate short-term pay-day usurers and the demand for free school meals. How may the communal values, which are at the very heart of the values inherent in industrial participation, be refashioned so as to accommodate the new situation? Higher taxation – including the introduction of Land Value Tax (a long-time Liberal policy), improving the rights of the self-employed, minimum pay levels including a universal payment to all, a reduction in the working week, are all beginning to be contemplated. Growing robotisation and the use of Artificial Intelligence will accelerate such developments. But instilling a greater sense of community, particularly among a generation brought up on the blogosphere which reinforces the isolation of individuals from actually having physical contact with one another, calls for a degree of imaginative thinking which is quite unprecedented.

The other effects of the workings of both the domestic and international economy need re-analysis. Free trade has been a classic Liberal theme for nearly two centuries. The monopoly capitalism bequeathed by Thatcherism in which a shrinking number of cartels manipulate the market should be seen as the travesty it is. The contemporary situation cries out loudly for very radical reforms. Shareholder governance remains largely a myth despite a rise in revolts, though the success of the Unilever one may be a portent. Regional wealth disparities fester. The Robber Barons are back with a vengeance stealing astronomical and totally unjustifiable top management remuneration packages. Gender and racial imbalances stagnate in terms of both promotions and associated remuneration. And so it goes on as the stale, male, pale redoubts maintain themselves in power. It is beyond belief and Liberal Democrats should make the creation of a fairer, freer system of market capitalism (that permits nationalisation where appropriate) a major priority.

Housing carries a host of problems. Sky News has identified five different regional ones. They include chronic shortages and exorbitant prices and rents, particularly in London and the South-East and empty derelict dwellings elsewhere. The selling off of Council houses did not lead to a greater property-owning democracy as Thatcher claimed, indeed quite the reverse happened. Successive governments have promised to deal with the problems of housing but nothing has been done. It needs the determined leadership of a Harold Macmillan, who built over 300,000 new homes in 1952/53 when Housing Minister, to get to grip with the problems. Liberal Democrats need to help devise new policies. Pre-fabricated houses helped to solve the housing shortfall caused by Luftwaffe bombing in the immediate aftermath of WWII. Pre-fabrication needs to be re-visited now with the same degree of urgency and imagination.

Rental policies should also be radically reformulated, including the vexed problems associated with leaseholds. It is abundantly clear that renting will increase and longer-term tenure provision, as in Europe, should be re-appraised. The Lib Dems should initiate a wide-ranging review of future housing policies that has been sadly lacking. Despite the enormous problems presented, it is amazing how little attention has been given to this whole crisis area by all political parties.

Finally, I return to the vexatious problem of a re-alignment of the party system. Much will depend on what happens between the UK and the EU. The fall-out will affect both Labour and Tory parties but the scale of it will be important. At the time of writing, the ripples of disaffection within the Tories are likely to be more pronounced. It is not just divisions over Brexit that poses difficulties but also the fact of the appalling Tory record in government since 2010. That will come to haunt them. If Labour cannot capitalise on this, that will add to the problems facing the overall picture. What must not be entertained is any notion of a Centre Party. Such a political entity would, by its very nomenclature, be a half-way compromise espousing a rough average between the policies of the parties on the left and right of the spectrum – and that is a recipe that leads nowhere.

The depressing fact remains that there is likely to be no radical democratic renewal of the politics of the UK of the kind that could be encompassed with a Progressive Party. The first-past-the post voting system has engrained inertia; preoccupation with Brexit reinforced this; and the intellectual quality across Parliament is altogether too feeble to inspire either the initiation of implementation of much-needed change. Most likely, after a fudge on Brexit, the UK as a single nation-state will unleash continuing centripetal forces that will further fragment an increasingly insignificant island offshore from the mainland of Europe.

Trevor Smith is a Liberal Democrat life peer. His memoirs, Workhouse to Westminster, which tracks the ups and downs of the Liberal Democrats since 1959, have just been published at https://caperpress.com/product/workhouse-to-westminster.


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  • I agree with the statements in the piece but how do we get people interested enough to be involved? Less than 0.25% of people belong to a political party and the prevalent view is that politics is something that happens to them not that they are in control of. The Liberal Democrats have a proud record in local politics but local government is emasculated with central control. My Tory controlled District Council and County Council (and MP) just toe the party line and don’t represent the people. People complain but when election time comes around the electors troop through the polling stations and put their cross in the blue box. PR may help but until people actively become involved and realise that their vote counts and makes a difference the apathy will continue.
  • Agree with every word. Leaders don’t create movements, movements create leaders.