Wed, Aug 28, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Difficult decisions may be harder to make under democracy

Under a system designed to give everyone a voice, nations are now being held to ransom by special-interest factions which leaders are forced to accommodate

By Will Hutton  /  The Guardian, LONDON

One obvious example is the US’ Republican party, now in thrall to the Tea Party movement, which sees no value in compromise, but instead worships at the altar of an imagined US constitution that allegedly guarantees a nightwatchman state. Another example is the emergence of the Pirate party in Sweden and Germany. Interestingly, Naim sees Britain as the laboratory that conclusively proves his point. The rise of Scottish and Welsh nationalism and the UK Independence Party, along with the hollowing out of both the Conservative and Labour parties, make the country increasingly hard to govern.

This must, in part, explain the collapse in Labour and Conservative party membership over the past 50 years and the consequent weakening of their capacity to create formal and informal coalitions of a broad set of interest groups around common values.

British Leader of the Opposition Ed Miliband’s and Labour’s failures predictably get the most attention from the press — identikit pieces about his lack of forcefulness, clarity and too much equivocation — as if a new leader could magically solve the problem, but with no understanding of the much wider context in which any political leader now operates.

The Tory party’s problems, driven by similar forces, are arguably even more acute. At any other time, British Prime Minister David Cameron would be seen as a classic mainstream Tory. Today, he is marginalized by as many as 200 backbenchers owing their position to constituency association selectorates, some of no more than 100 activists, in thrall to “terrible simplicities” on tax, Europe, immigration and welfare.

Any genuinely tough call — to put property taxation on this year’s, rather than 1991’s, values, accept the need for immigration, cigarette packaging or even build the HS2 railway line — is made incomparably harder or is simply off-limits because of the veto of a single issue pressure group that a party is no longer strong enough to take on.

It is the decay of power. The center fragments and power devolves to myriad new forces that often exercise their power with narrow obsessions in mind. Who now speaks for the whole? Who keeps a macro view, mediating competing interests and conflicts and has the courage to make decisions based on a strategic view of all our interests, not just sectional ones?

Parties have to fight back — arguing better, crystallizing policies better, running primaries to select their candidates to widen their appeal — as does our democracy. Representative government was a great invention. It now has to be saved from the single-issue, monomaniac, simplifying, self-interested vandals — a much more interesting position for Miliband to take than a belated “me too” conversion to a referendum on the EU.

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