Of all people, it was perhaps Jeremy Paxman on his retirement from BBC Newsnight who put his finger on the problem causing such disillusion with politics – it is the nonsense that all politics is binary. He said in an interview that it was utterly ludicrous to suggest the Conservatives have all the answers to the country’s woes and Labour has none of them; and equally ludicrous to suggest Labour has all the answers and the Conservatives none – and everyone knows it!
Thus, electoral politics has become a complete facade. The UK will have a Conservative or a Labour Prime Minister, but both are presenting an outright lie – that they have all the answers and the other hasn’t; that their party has a near unblemished record in government and the other is at fault for all the country’s woes. It’s nonsense. And we all know it’s nonsense.
There is another problem with this that we know in our hearts to be true even if we don’t like to admit it: the politicians we elect cannot possibly have all the answers to our problems. We have zero say, at the ballot box at least, about the likely defence policy of the next President of the United States, or the next financial move of the Chinese Communist Party, or the next decision on Quantitative Easing by the European Central Bank; yet in a globalised world these things may all matter more than any decision made by people we ourselves elect.
Of course, the decisions which affect us may not be made by politicians at all. Big oil companies, vehicle manufacturers or even gadget firms (like Apple or Samsung) make decisions which have far-reaching consequences for all of us – made by Board members or Executives we don’t know in places like Fukuoka or Ingolstadt or Cupertino that we’ve never heard of.
There is a degree to which we are comforted by the notion that David Cameron or Ed Miliband will have it all in hand; by the idea that some geniuses somewhere are running the show and they know what they are doing. This is why conspiracy theories still predominate about the assassination of Kennedy, for example – a world in which some random mad man can just shoot dead the “Leader of the Western World” is too crazy to contemplate, so we go to extremes to deny it is possible.
Yet in our hearts we know that it is, in fact, a crazy world – and that the next move of Islamic State will likely have as big an effect on us as who wins the next UK General Election.
Move this to devolved level, of course, and the political farce becomes even more obvious. The notion that the Unionist world view and historical narrative is 100% correct and the Nationalist 100% flawed, or vice-versa, is very comforting but we know at heart that it’s nonsense. From the very outset, therefore, again there is a lie at the heart of the binary system – yet anyone caught exposing that lie is deemed a traitor to their own side.
We see this even on single issues. Never mind a detailed analysis of how best to tackle poverty in a post-industrial setting struggling with the legacy of conflict – are you for or against welfare reform? Never mind a detailed assessment of how best to tackle low wages in a peripheral public-sector dominated region after the Great Recession – are you for or against the Living Wage?
Never mind a detailed view of how best to promote business in the context of the rise of China and the East – are you for against reducing Corporation Tax? We like to comfort ourselves that stopping reform, or introducing the Living Wage, or reducing Corporation Tax will prove the magic bullet to all our economic and social woes.
Anyone suggesting it’s a little more complex than this straightforward binary option is deemed a “typical politician, ignoring the question”; yet anyone who does stand out and suggest it may be a bit more complex than that is right – and at heart we know they are, even though we probably won’t vote for them…
We are not alone. In Germany a two-and-a-half party system is rapidly becoming a five-party system (with the half replaced entirely by a populist bloc challenging everything Germans professed to believe about Europe). In Denmark and Canada the centre right has been completely restructured (and the latter is now working on restructuring the left too).
In Ireland civil war politics is being replaced by outright populism. In the United States party membership is declining and people are becoming increasingly disenchanted by the gridlock delivered by an entrenched, binary system.
What is the solution to all of this? I have no idea! To move towards a solution, I know only two things for sure: politicians are elected by the electorate and they bring with them to their office all the foibles and hypocrisy of that electorate; and that it is therefore for that electorate, for us humble citizens in other words, to participate and deliver a democratic alternative which recognises the world is complex and that binary options will no longer suffice.