John Humphrys - The political system survives; happy?

December 20, 2019, 6:00 PM GMT+0

Christmas is a time of clichés. Indeed some cynics would say that the mouthing of clichés of goodwill is all that Christmas now amounts to. Well, if that’s so, perhaps I may be forgiven for resorting to the hoariest political cliché I know and adapting it a bit for current circumstances. It turns out that fifty-two weeks is a very, very long time in politics. This time last year I wrote a column here asking what at the time seemed a very urgent question: ‘Is Britain’s system of government cracking up?’ Now, just a year later, it seems a rather bizarre question, because the answer is so obvious: of course it isn’t. We’ve just had an election that has produced a government with a majority of eighty and that looks set to run the country for at least the next five years. Stability and (relative) certainty have been restored; the system has anything but ‘cracked up’. So the question now, perhaps, is whether we are happy that our system of government has weathered its crisis or whether, in the terms of that other old cliché – ‘never let a crisis go to waste’ – we have missed an opportunity to change it.

Just a year ago our prime minister, Theresa May, had suffered the indignity of a vote of confidence by her own Conservative MPs in her leadership. She had won it but the victory seemed pyrrhic. Her rebels were still plotting to ‘get’ her, one of them threatening to go as far as backing a Labour attempt to unseat her. Parliament was in gridlock. There seemed no way Mrs May could persuade MPs to back her deal for leaving the EU, but nor was there a majority for any other way forward. Meanwhile, all other government business had virtually ground to a halt. You could say that government had ceased. The distinguished constitutional historian, Peter Hennessy, described it as a ‘Grade-One listed crisis’, the worst he had ever seen in Britain and one that posed a severe risk of causing a total loss of faith among the public in the country’s institutions of government. If that faith were lost, who knew where the ensuing turmoil would lead us.

But now all those fears would appear to have evaporated. No one speaks of ‘crisis’ any more, still less of a crisis with a Grade One listing. Continuity, predictability and stability would seem to have returned almost as though they were the natural, inevitable condition of our politics. We have had an election; a party has been elected with a more-than-comfortable majority; the business of government can resume; and the rest of us can get on with our lives without having to think too much about politics over the next five years, except when we want to complain that government has done those things it ought not to have done, or not done those things it ought to have done. We’ll get plenty of both.

You might say that such an account gives a rather complacent view of our politics even if it would also seem to offer an all too accurate description of most people’s attitude. What’s striking, though, is how widely a version of such an attitude is shared across the political spectrum. Committed Conservatives, of course, are likely to adopt it for the simple reason that their ‘team’ won the election so they are happy to let it get on with governing. Similarly, committed Brexiteers are content that Boris Johnson can now ‘get Brexit done’. But you’ll hear people on the other side of the arguments – people who wanted a Labour government or hoped Britain wouldn’t end up leaving the EU – expressing sentiments that aren’t all that different.

The phrase you’ll hear such people using is that the result of the election was ‘the least-worst outcome’. What they seem to mean is that since the outcomes they positively favoured – a majority Labour government, say, or a route to a sustainable reversal of the Brexit referendum result – were unavailable, then a government with a solid majority was the least-worst option, even if had to be a Conservative government that would most certainly carry out Brexit. And the reason it’s the least-worst outcome, in the eyes of such people, is precisely that it restores stability. The system is saved; government can start governing again; and opposition parties can begin the long haul of making themselves electable again so that next time those who don’t support the Tories won’t have to put up with a ‘least-worst’ outcome but can strive to bring about something they would actually favour. In short the system is worth saving even if it produces outcomes we don’t like.

But widely as such a view may be shared, it certainly isn’t universal. To some it would have been better if Professor Hennessy’s ‘Grade-one listed crisis’ had run its course and there had been the widespread loss of faith in our institutions of government he saw coming. That’s because, in their eyes, there is one big flaw in the stable, resilient system that has restored itself over the last year: it isn’t really democratic. They argue that there was never a proven majority of the British people in favour of Brexit as a whole – simply a majority of those who bothered to vote. And most votes cast in the last general election was for parties that favoured a second referendum. Boris Johnson may have won a handsome majority of parliamentary seats, but he didn’t win a majority of the votes cast at the election, still less a majority of the adult population of the United Kingdom.

There is, of course, nothing new about this critique of the first-past-the-post voting system that underpins our system of government. No government, however large its parliamentary majority, has ever commanded a majority of votes cast. When Margaret Thatcher won re-election with a boosted majority of a hundred in 1983 she did so on only 42.4% of the votes cast. Similarly, when Tony Blair was swept to power with a majority of over one hundred and seventy in 1997, he secured only 43.2%. By these comparisons, Boris Johnson did better, winning 43.6% of the vote for his majority of eighty. Only the coalition government put together by David Cameron’s Tories and Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats in 2010 could make any claim to having the backing of a majority of voters, since the combined vote share of their two parties was 59%. But even that claim is challengeable since neither Tory nor Lib Dem voters in that election knew beforehand that they’d be voting for a coalition and might well have changed their votes had they known.

In short, say the critics, the political system which has been saved from ‘cracking up’ over the last year has proved resilient only because it depends on a voting system that militates against ‘true’ democracy. If we had what they see as the more democratic system of proportional representation, then parties at elections would know they wouldn’t end up governing alone, would have to give some indication as to which other parties they would or wouldn’t be prepared to do deals with, and Britain would end up with governments that did command a majority of votes cast as well as of parliamentary seats.

Last year’s crisis was a crisis of the first-past-the-post system in that it produced a result that caused gridlock. That was the moment when there was a chance for change but now that moment has gone. The two main parties will continue to defend the system because both see it as the only way of providing them with the opportunity to govern alone.

All these arguments are terribly familiar; indeed they are as hoary as Harold Wilson’s cliché about a week being a long time in politics. But the extraordinary change in the political outlook over the last year brings them all back into acute focus. It could be said that our system has avoided breakdown and proved its resilience only because the first-past-the-post system was there to be exploited and because Boris Johnson used his political talents to exploit it. If we value above anything else the order and stability that has been restored, then the democratic shortcomings of the system may seem a price worth paying. But to some it will seem a price too high. It will seem that we ‘wasted’ a crisis. We could have exploited it to create what they see as a much more democratic system that could, in time, have produced stable government too.

What’s your view? Are you pleased that the political outlook is so much more stable and predictable than it was this time last year, or are you dismayed that our way of conducting politics didn’t, in the end, ‘crack up’?

Let us know what you think.

A merry Christmas and a happy New Year!

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