Confusion in Westminster
If you have ever been through an organisational restructuring, you might not have been surprised that disentangling the UK from the European Union was going to present huge difficulties. Add the pandemic, the invasion of Ukraine, climate breakdown and chronically under-staffed state organisations, and you have a context that creates impossible challenges. So much for the bigger picture.
Within the Westminster Parliament politics is supposed to work in certain ways. MPs show loyalty to their party, which often means those who run the party – their leader, the frontbenchers, whips – voting for their own side and never criticising their colleagues in public. Publicly they should give the impression that they are putting the interests of the country and constituents first, and conceal conflict within their party. Most of the time, this should hold sway in private too while MPs keep their own interests (e.g., rewinning their seat) in check.
Since Brexit this performance of loyalty has collapsed in the Conservative party. Brexit was achieved by a minority of anti-big state politicians and activists promising that if the UK separates from the EU, we can ‘take back control’. This suited some on the left as well as the right. For the latter, those who wish to reduce taxes and public expenditure are continuing to make promises that might be seen as anti-state, even anti-politicians. However, as public services actually get cut, the public – and especially those who rely on education, health, legal aid, social security etc – begin to feel more and more betrayed. Anti-Brexit politicians know this but can’t say it because to do so looks anti-democratic. They have been successfully painted by Brexiteers as defying the ‘will of the people’. Pro-Europeans have been utterly out-manoeuvred.
The process of the Conservative party becoming ungovernable has been accelerated by three other shifts. First, they have been in government for over a decade, making people outside Parliament impatient for change. Secondly, former PM Boris Johnson is not interested in encouraging high moral standards in his MPs (or himself) at a time when respect towards leaders is in a decline. He breaks norms, rules and laws (as Peter Oborne has recently charted), but implies that does not matter because he can win the next election. This would save their Conservative parliamentary seats, as if there is no problem with MPs making their decision entirely for personal reasons. That these MPs are beginning to fit into rational choice theorists’ assumptions, that their actions are motivated primarily by self-interests, is in stark contrast earlier pre-Brexit days of mixed motivation. The leadership contest(s!) seems more like personality competition(s) than a choice about enabling efficiency and morality. The jokes, images and memes are irresistible, light relief to help cope with one’s feelings of doom that our political system is imploding. Politics and reality TV are almost indistinguishable. Once the appeal to moral values has gone, it is hard work to re-establish them. It is a symptom of how bad things are that MP Charles Walker feels he has to ferociously attack his own side in a bid to restore morality. This clip of him talking to the BBC in despair speaks volumes.
Thirdly we live in an entirely new digital world and many politicians don’t know how to act for the best in these novel times and spaces. Nowhere is private for MPs any more, so everything leaks into the public. Reputations are attacked, trashed, restored, all in days. Polls are presented as truth, even though they are often flawed snapshots that bear little relationship to votes in the future. The threat of opponents or even hostile powers hacking into e-voting is real, and/or other forms of fraud, but this fear is also manipulated to undermine democracy.
The digital developments are irreversible, but standards can be restored.