June 12 2004
We all have the right to hitch a ride on the democracy busMATTHEW PARRIS
I HAVE just heard a new use of the word “democracy” in politics. It was during the small hours of yesterday morning. The broadcaster Matthew Bannister was chairing a small poll-watching panel for BBC Radio 5 Live, from Derby, and I was one of his guests. As we waited for results, Bannister filled in the time by going over to representatives of the various parties across the nation for thoughts and news.
I took no note of the name of the Liberal Democrat spokesman whom Bannister asked about the prospects for the British National Party, but the answer astonished me. He lamented the possibility that the BNP might win anything as “a bad night for democracy” if it were to happen. Everyone round my table, including a Conservative European candidate and a Labour council candidate, nodded caringly.
“A bad night for democracy.” A bad night, that is, if in an election held by secret ballot on a universal adult suffrage, a small party advancing opinions held by many but with which the major parties disagreed, were to gather votes? A bad night for immigrants, certainly; a bad night for liberal values, too; but a bad night for democracy?
What then would be a good night for democracy? How are Labour, the Tories and the Liberal Democrats using the word “democracy” if when they see the number of voters holding an opinion translated into the election of candidates who share that opinion, they think democracy is under threat?
What is under threat is the received wisdom of the political class, which increasingly represents (as Peter Oborne argues in The Spectator) a professional priesthood affronted by a challenge to its monopoly.
Nor was this Lib-Dem spokesman alone in drawing up his skirts against what sounded like an infestation of rats. One caller suggested that if increasing the voter-turnout by new voting systems resulted in small “single-issue” parties doing better, then this attempt to make democracy work better had “backfired”.
Down in the 5 Live studio in London, a Labour spokesman remarked that there wasn’t much that he and his Tory counterpart would agree upon in the long hours ahead, but both would regard the rise of small extremist parties such as the BNP as a tragedy.
There is one circumstance in which the election of a party could fairly be called a bad night for democracy. If that party was itself opposed to holding further free elections then electing it might, perversely, be the end to democracy. But the BNP proposes no such thing. It has administrative proposals for immigration and emigration. I disagree with it. But no theory of democracy of which I have ever heard disqualifies others from taking a different view.
Later I listened to Liberal Democrats fulminating against the Green Party as though any advances the Greens might make were a kind of mischievous impertinence, contrary to orderly public administration. And everywhere we hear Conservatives talking about the United Kingdom Independence Party as if it were an impostor to the democratic process and somehow cheating: stealing support which should rightly go to Tory candidates.
When I woke up later that morning it was to hear Radio 5 Live still broadcasting, the results thus far being chewed over by the Tory spokesman, Caroline Spelman, and the Labour Minister, Hazel Blears. Both women would, from time to time, desist from bickering among themselves to murmur a shared and pious concern about parties like the BNP.
Do you not get the impression, as I do, that the three largest parties in England regard the representation of the people as a kind of closed shop: theirs by right? We hear all three of our mainstream parties openly and without shame discussing what system of voting, weighing votes, funding political parties and requiring deposits from candidates, will be best calculated to prevent the rise of small or “extremist” parties.
Such calculations are disgraceful. If a belief runs strongly among the public at large then a democratic politician should either adopt it, or make his case against it honestly and with what force he can muster. To treat the new force as though it were some kind of infection to the body politic, to be cast out and isolated, is tantamount to treating its supporters — our countrymen, possibly millions of them — as though they too were pariahs, beyond the reach of reasonable argument.
Mainstream politicians are scared of implying this, so instead they insist that the errant public have been “misled”; they talk about the small party as though it were a poison against which ordinary people’s minds are defenceless once it takes hold. And, of course, they blame the tabloid press, taking comfort in the notion that millions of basically decent voters have been possessed by what the Marxists used to call a “false consciousness”, and tricked into thinking they think things which in truth they don’t think at all.
Anything, in short, but face up to the genuine popularity of the hated idea. I have liberal friends who now wail that the Conservative Party has been too weak to contain all those racists and Europhobes among the electorate who used to vote Conservative. My friends reproach my party for failing in our supposed constitutional duty to capture the whole of Britain’s Right and soak up, neutralise and, so far as possible, deodorise its nasty bits. Now — horror of horrors — we Tories have let these dreadful voters escape and form parties of their own, taking votes from Labour and the Liberal Democrats too.
Over the past quarter-century, three big issues have been screaming at our mainstream parties from outside the political stockade. As it happens I am personally sceptical about all three but I cannot block out the screams. One is race and immigration: the unwelcome influx into Britain of large numbers of people from cultures which seem strange to us. Another is Europe: a fear and dislike of being “taken over” by an alliance of continental powers speaking strange tongues. The third is the environment: a feeling that our country and planet are being poisoned and disfigured by greedy businessmen and ignorant materialism. The first is associated with the BNP, the second with the UKIP and the third with the Green Party.
Place these three together and, though two have usually been associated with the Right and the third with the Left, you can see a common thread. All are territorial, proprietorial, and fearful of what (consciously or unconsciously) is felt to be contamination. The first and the last are bound up with a fear of overcrowding.
I suspect these anxieties tap into something very deep in the psyche of a densely populated community and nation. When, as Leader of the Opposition, Margaret Thatcher, for whom I worked, used the word “swamped” she received from the public 10,000 letters in just a few days. David Blunkett has encountered a similar response.
But, murky and mysterious as the origins of some of this anxiety and anger may be, it surfaces in a handful of huge political questions: real issues on which real decisions need to be taken. The three small parties I cite may be simplistic in their answers, but it is irresponsible of the mainstream parties to play the questions down or pretend they have been answered already.
Pollution, the loss of green land and worry about threats to health from “adulterated” air, soil, food and drink, have thrust themselves into the consciousness of Cabinets ever since Mrs Thatcher’s Government was startled by a sudden rise in the Green vote. I think the Green Party has done a service to democracy by this, and does not at all assume that our major parties would have thought or acted on these things without prompting.
Immigration is an issue which has still not been resolved. Immigration brings much that is good, but to many of its inhabitants Britain feels overcrowded. It is just pointless for our political class to think these dilemmas can be waved away. I dislike much that the BNP says but its existence is a symptom, not a cause, and points us to an unresolved anxiety we must face.
Europe poses one of the biggest questions ahead of us. We do not have to be part of the EU; it is not divinely ordained; we could undoubtedly leave. The EU does not know where it is going and we do not know whether or how far we are going with it. My own belief is that we should string along for the time being, but there is nothing mad about thinking we should not. I fail to see how a party which places one solution to these uncertainties at the centre of its manifesto can be dismissed as either pointless or mischievous.
To hear some of my friends in politics and political journalism talk, you would think that democracy is a kind of jolly charabanc on to which all reasonable citizens have clambered, even if we may argue about the route.
No, my friends, democracy is more than the bus. Democracy is also the ditch, the pothole, the rock in the road. Democracy punctures the tyres, barks at the wheels, may throw itself under the wheels. Democracy is the highwayman, the hitch-hiker, the burst radiator. Democracy is not just the journey: it is also, unless you are careful, the crash.