“England is the mother of parliaments”: so the radical reformer, John Bright, famously said in a speech in Birmingham in 1865. What would he make of the state of parliament today? Bright would conclude, I reckon, that England – or, more accurately, the United Kingdom – had been a particularly neglectful parent.
Take the findings of a new mega-poll commissioned by Tortoise from Deltapoll, reflecting the views of 10,000 respondents, that shows truly disturbing levels of discontent with our democracy and our political system. Step back from the current travails of Boris Johnson – should he stay or should he go? – and the grotesque antics of partygate, and look at the deeper rot which his misdeeds have compounded.
Only 52 per cent say that Britain is “very” or “fairly” democratic – and 34 per cent (which is to say, more than a third) think our country’s political system does not pass what you would imagine might be a pretty minimal test of citizen confidence. Even worse, a full 30 per cent think “Britain these days needs a strong leader who can take and implement big decisions quickly without having to consult Parliament”.
Just savour that sentiment for a moment: having seen what self-styled “strong leaders” such as Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orbán do with executive power, three out of ten Britons think a hefty dose of autocracy is exactly what this country needs.
Why? There are many probable reasons, not least the pain of years of austerity, the lingering divisions of Brexit and the polarisation of opinion around so-called culture wars, seriously turbocharged by social media: all these are forces that magnify the appeal of populist leadership which promises actions not words and scorns the fiddly, protracted processes of Westminster. Technology has made us impatient and sharpened our desire for instant gratification. Government has failed to keep up.
At the same time, MPs have done themselves no favours in recent decades: from the Tory sleaze of the Nineties via the cash-for-honours and parliamentary expenses scandals of the New Labour era, to more recent falls from grace. The by-elections in Tiverton and Honiton and in Wakefield on 23 June are happening because of vacancies caused by, respectively, the Conservative MPs Neil Parish, who was caught watching porn in the Commons, and Imran Ahmad Khan, who was found guilty in May of sexually assaulting a 15 year-old boy.
The long-term consequence is that 54 per cent in our poll think one of the worst features of British democracy is the quality of MPs in Westminster; and 66 per cent believe that most MPs are mainly out for themselves. The entire British political and constitutional system depends on the perceived probity of the House of Commons (technically, the “Queen-in-Parliament” is sovereign). So these are alarming figures by any standard.
There has long been a tendency in this country to be smug about the evolutionary fashion by which our institutions have developed – especially Parliament. We congratulate ourselves on the way incremental reform has kept revolution at bay on these islands. We celebrate convention, informal understandings and tradition rather than rules, laws and explicit regulations.
But the time to be sanguine is over. How is it possible – to take a topical example – that the ministerial code does not already have statutory force? How can it be that the prime minister has so cavalierly rejected the request of his independent adviser on ministerial standards, Lord Geidt, to be given the right to initiate his own inquiries?
How, looking back to 2019, was it possible for the prime minister to mislead the Queen into granting a prorogation of Parliament that the Supreme Court found to be unlawful? The case for conventions and evolutionary systems grows weaker every day, just as the case for a codified constitution grows stronger.
Our poll shows that the public hold the NHS in the highest esteem. They value freedom of speech as one of their most precious liberties. Yet, according to 59 per cent of respondents, our democracy is marred by the fact that the rich and powerful have more influence than ordinary voters. Four-fifths feel they have little or no say in how the country is run. By a margin of two to one, they think it doesn’t matter which party is in power.
Again, these are precisely the sort of views that pave the way to autocratic leadership. When voters plunge into cynicism and apathy, the appeal grows correspondingly of a strongman figure who will cut through the waffle, speechifying and tedious processes of Parliament and get the job done (or at least claim to – populist leaders tend, in practice, to be better at bombast than successful action).
And if that’s not enough to worry you, consider what lies around the corner: soaring inflation, energy prices biting even deeper into household finances, and interest rates – and therefore mortgages – starting to creep up. No aspiring strongman (or strongwoman) leader could ask for a more propitious context.
By tradition, discussion of constitutional and democratic reform tends very quickly to turn into highly technical discussions about Lords reform or the respective merits of different kinds of electoral systems or the usefulness of “citizen assemblies” in the settlement of policy decisions.
These discussions have their place. But it is vital, right now, to acknowledge that the light is flashing red. Our poll shows that a clear and present danger faces the democratic system as a whole: and, as any brand manager can tell you, there is nothing harder to win back once it is lost than trust.
This is why it is so important that the present drama being played out in Downing Street be seen as more than a battle of personalities or the failure of a particular party, and rather as a symptom of a much deeper sickness.
Our poll is an indispensable diagnostic tool for those who grasp the urgency of the matter and wish to address it. What can be said with confidence is that only radical action will make any difference now. The days of polite committees, “good chaps” and learned seminars producing unread reports have got to end. And the first step, as with all maladies, is for the patient – that’s all of us – to acknowledge the seriousness of the problem.