It is common knowledge that up to 60 Tory MPs are standing down at the next election. More than 40 have already announced their intention to do so. And at the time of writing, after Sunak has played what is probably his last gamble, attacking environmental policies, the Tories have managed a minor uptick in the polls (for the moment), but the gap remains, from their point of view, stubbornly and consistently wide at 16%.
The everlasting electoral cycle
Among the reasons given by some of those Tory MPs for standing down is the “electoral cycle”. They misuse the term. What they mean is the swing of the pendulum; there is a recognition (reportedly even voiced by a cabinet minister) that they have had their time. The country is fed up with them, and most will vote Labour, or vote in ways intended to damage the Tories. It’s Labour’s turn, and nothing much seems likely to change that.
So the country, without great enthusiasm or conviction, will give Labour their turn. Let’s not be too downhearted; if Labour prove to be competent and use “joined-up thinking” it will be a vast improvement on the present government. But most of us can see that Labour will inherit a country in the doldrums, with crumbling infrastructure, deep-seated economic problems, and an increased antagonism to politicians of all stripes.
How long will it be before the pendulum swings back? Much too early to say, but if nothing in the “system” (sic. It’s not a system at all but an inherited jumble of old ideas) changes, right now most people believe Labour will be lucky to get two terms. We are that disengaged from how the country is run. So any achievements Labour does succeed in making, the other lot will be able to get in and take it all apart again. Is this a sensible way to run a country? No. Would it be a sensible way to run any business, switching between two management teams with completely opposed ideas at irregular intervals? No.
Trapped by a binary choice
Our political arrangements are a blight that is destroying the country slowly, but surely, from within. Vladimir Putin need not trouble himself about making an effort to bring the British down, they’re doing that themselves. It is becoming ever more obvious to the outside world. One of the first things an old European friend said to me when we met face to face after many years was, “What has happened to Britain?” Another, speaking on the phone not long ago, “you seem to have completely lost your way; how will you get it back?” I had to admit I wasn’t sure we could.
Nothing guarantees any continuity between governments. Any path to the future set out is subject to change because a new set of politicians happens to have different bright ideas. And they don’t even need to put it in their manifesto, because, once elected whatever they decide to do is “The will of the people”. There has been quite a lot of comment recently about the cost in engineering terms of redesign (HS2). The cost of national redesign in political terms is even higher.
Is this what most people in the country want? No. But they are trapped in a system that gives them a binary choice every five years. Stick with the present bunch of corrupt incompetents, or give the other lot a go? Civil servants used to have a role providing continuity, but that role has been destroyed by the present government. The civil service is “unelected” and must therefore do whatever stupid bidding a political master decrees. No wonder they are also demoralised (and quitting).
No longer any guarantee of UK competence
The blight affects our ability to act on the international stage. Only a few days ago, the British Home Secretary stood in front of a small audience in Washington and suggested, in all seriousness, that an international convention that has stood for 62 years should be rewritten because her government now finds it inconvenient. It doesn’t matter what a new British government proposes, because there is no guarantee the next will not immediately repudiate it.
Anyone seeking to partner with Britain, now or in the future, has to consider that possibility. The old understandings that provided guarantees have gone. It does not matter if the next government shows itself to be a serious, well motivated partner internationally, if there is no guarantee of what follows. How can that be replaced? The most obvious way is with major constitutional change in the way we elect our governments, to prevent us being pulled from one extreme to the other. There may be others.
Perhaps Keir Starmer judges that he needs to get into power and prove to the country he can run a dull, competent government before he begins the conversation about the need for radical change. I hope so. What can we, the ordinary citizens do? Build up the pressure for change. There is a better way, if we can force our politicians into it.
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