“Th’ whole worl’s in a terrible state o’ chassis”
Captain Boyle, Juno and the Paycock
We’ve been getting lessons from all over Europe in the old new wine in old bottles constitutional problem arising in almost every state. Voter volatility in Britain and Ireland mean that the customary parties of government will struggle in their respective upcoming general elections to hit 30% and 25% respectively.
The causes are only partly party political, more greatly economic and hugely constitutional, both formally and informally.
In a penetrating report from the Rochester byelection grounds for the Today Programme this morning (approx 2.22.45), Norman Smith probably put his finger on it towards the end, that “immigration has become a catch all issue for a wider discontent with Westminster and Whitehall”.
In a constituency heavily reliant on migrant workers and an unemployment rate of just three per cent UKIP’s policy if implemented would, at least in the first place, likely have a detrimental effect on the local economy.
As Dan O’Brien points out Enda Kenny is now “just the sixth longest serving leader among the 28 member countries of the EU”, as the reasonable centre of politics is being consumed by fragmentation of less reasonable (and less policy literate) extremes.
The strongest evidence pointing to a collapsing centre in Irish politics is Fianna Fail’s performance. Not only is it failing to pick up any of the support the Government parties are losing, it is losing support itself. The most recent poll in this newspaper showed that it has lost almost one-third of the support it had earlier in the year. Now, on just 20pc, one of the most electorally successful parties in Europe over almost a century is only winning slightly more support than it did when it suffered an unprecedented drubbing at the last general election.
It is probable that if faced with a snap election tomorrow, more voters would support the mainstream when choosing a government in the ballot box than they do when answering pollsters’ questions. The state of the economy is another factor that could aid the centre ground. If the recovery continues on its current very positive trajectory, at least some of the disgruntled and disillusioned who now support Sinn Fein and Independents should switch back.
But the weakness of the three mainstream parties in opinion polling looks so consistent, and the trend towards vote fragmentation so strong, that even in the best case scenario for Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Labour, it is increasingly hard to see them winning 60pc of the vote combined. If that were to happen, Ireland could well be heading for ungovernability, as this column first argued last April.
Ungovernability. That’s the key word. And it’s not hard to see why. Over the last forty Britain and Ireland both in different ways have been slowly centralising power within their respective states. The one notable exception to that has been the UK’s devolution project which runs in an exactly the opposite direction.
Gordon Brown (who has zero power to deliver it) now sees the problem for a Scotland he desperately wants to retain membership of the UK: ie, the salami slicing of constitutional power (largely at the expense of local government) at the whim of the UK’s sovereign parliament.
Economic collapse has given rise to a large scale collapse in the trust of strangers to take care of local business. 45% of Scots no longer trust English MPs to look after their political interests.
After the next general election, we can be pretty sure a much larger proportion of English MPs will not trust a European Union determined to flex its fiscal muscles over its smaller, less strategically important nations.
In Ireland as Fintan O’Toole perceptively puts it…
…the crash taught us that stability can lead to catastrophe: keeping the same shower in power for too long entrenched stupidity and corruption. The 2011 general election was not just the most volatile in Irish electoral history; it was the third most volatile of all the general elections in western European democracies since 1945.
A point well made. Elsewhere, as Nassim Taleb points out, the problem with such artificially suppressed volatility is…
…not just that the system tends to become extremely fragile; it is that, at the same time, it exhibits no visible risks… These artificially constrained systems become prone to Black Swans. Such environments eventually experience massive blowups… catching everyone off guard and undoing years of stability or, in almost all cases, ending up far worse than they were in their initial volatile state.”
This is the real nub of the problem. Not how to avoid unavoidable change, but how to steer directly into it in such a way that the country comes out of the flux the other end in a better rather than a worse state. The international aspect of this further complicates the problem.
What happens to Ireland if the UK leaves the EU? What happens to the UK if Scotland leaves? Volatility is fast becoming the new normal, and few other than the habitual opportunitists appear to have anything that looks like a plan. That’s in part because underneath there is an ongoing crisis of authority
Each new report tells the people they cannot trust anyone who had been heretofore entrusted with public faith. So An Garda Siochana, racked with a series of reports on its own shortcomings stood by whilst an angry mob (insisting on its own peacefulness whilst using placards to keep a government minister trapped in her car for three hours…
Mick Clifford in the Examiner calls it a drift from democracy…
There are many problems with the water-charge fiasco, but among the main ones is the failure of government to sell the concept to the public as a positive reform for the provision of water. There was no engagement. The hope from on high was that in an improving economy, this charge could be slipped in with as little fuss as possible.
On radio yesterday, junior minister Aodhan O’Riordain accused Murphy of acting in a Paisleyite manner by whipping up a crowd and then stepping back when matters began to turn ugly.
The same accusation might be made of the Government. Incrementally and by stealth, they have been chipping away at democracy, refusing the engage in parliament, not bothering to do so out in the public square. Having created a democratic vacuum, they can hardly now ascend to heights of righteous indignation when others take advantage of the vacuum.
Water itself is not the problem, but it does constellate the actual problem very clearly. The bridge between the people and the state is atomising, not bit by bit but almost all at the same time. More of the same old routine will only speed up greater disengagement from the centre, whether that be Dublin, London, Brussels or indeed, in time, Edinburgh.
So not quite Weimar yet. But a functional reversal won’t be short term. Nor can it involve a smart return to the status quo ante. As John Kellden notes: “all policies are symptoms of larger issues. Large, top-down, technocratically perfect, agency-spun policies all fail”. Not least any unrooted attempts at public reform.
If we fail, of course there’s always the Brownshirts. To reverse paraphrase Brian Eno, not everything that proceeds from enthusiasm is necessarily good.
Aimsigh do thobar féin, a chroí, óir tá am an anáis romhainn amach: Caithfear pilleadh arís ar na foinsí.’
An Tobar, Cathal Ó Searcaigh
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty