Wednesday, 20 May 2009

So Where Are We Now?

We're in the middle of a very strange crisis of political legitimacy. The unseating of Michael Martin is the first stage of a fightback by the political classes, an initial step of a 'yet-to-be-decided-upon' emergency programme that will reseal their right to rule in the same old way.

But it can only be an initial step, and not necessarily that an effective step either. For all the hushed and shocked tones of the commentariat about a Speaker never having been hounded out since the Paleolithic Era, I'd hazard a guess that the public at large isn't really that impressed that a bloke most of them had never heard of gets the boot. A few of the sharper knives in the drawer may remember all that stuff about his wife's shopping and taxis but his name hasn't featured prominently in the recent Telegraph allegations. So there is more work for the political classes to do.

The next part of this work, of course, is to do a bit of party specific stable cleaning. Cameron seems to have got a head start on this with his famous repaid wisteria cutting bill, and all purpose ability to explicitly link this whole problem to the government. But yesterday Brown came very close to suggesting Hazel Blears is going to be disqualified as a Labour candidate. A game of competitive chicken may yet develop between the parties, based on who can sack the largest number of really senior people. I think Hopi's insider instinct that neither party leader really wants a general election until this stage is over is probably correct. There are dangers here for both of them - but especially for Brown, who may have to reshuffle a cabinet after a drubbing in the Euro elections with many fewer experienced ministers to draw from.

But even if Cameron and Brown do mange to negotiate these particular rapids, they would still be doing work 'inside the Beltway' as it were. They'd merely be creating the conditions for restoring some legitimacy, not restoring the legitimacy itself.

So the Guardian has gone to town today with the full Why-don't-we-have-our-own-1789-well-without-the -guillotines-but-with-the modernising-bit package this morning. Freedland wants a elected second chamber; Gary Younge wants a Republic; Garton Ash wants a written constitution; Polly T wants a smaller but effective Parliament; Milne wants to clean up party funding and so on.

Now, I support every single one of these suggestions. But I have this horrible feeling that they are all wildly, madly beside the point in the context of the current legitimation crisis. I have a hunch that what people want to see is precisely the guillotines but not necessarily the reform. There is a public revulsion at the conduct of parliament, and at what a de-politicised electorate consider to be 'politics' in general, not any great settled political will to an alternative way of doing things. A call for the 'smack of firm (but fair) government' or a supposedly apolitical 'clean hands' candidate - one somewhat more convincing than Esther Rantzen - seems more likely to draw a positive response than the Guardian's proffered alternative.

It's a strange and febrile time. Don't believe anyone who tells you they know what is going to happen next. But I reckon the public want to see an awful lot more humble pie being eaten yet...


  1. "The Guardian has gone to town today"

    Bloody hell, I missed today's (Wednesday's) Guardian. Must try & find it in a bin somewhere! There's a four page pullout in today's (Thursday) the website claims.

    I think your penultimate paragraph misses the point somewhat. I don't think any of those commentators are bothered what the people want, they just want to "not let a good crisis go to waste" (Rahm Emanuel?) for the policies they have wanted for years. It's pretty desperate stuff in the dying days of an utterly doomed Labour govt, but as any chance of progressive constitutional reform is about to be closed down for probably two terms minimum by Cameron, then these are indeed desperate times for Guardianistas.

    Except of course for Scotland. We are going to need Scottish independence, because a lot of us in England are going to have to move there to get away from what Cameron is going to give us!

  2. Yes, I think the Guardian sort of knew it was putting a brave face on things, and trying to prospose a coherent policy response to a crisis of legitimacy without necessarily thinking it would 'catch' politically. I think you're right they were acting on the Rahm Emmanuel's advice in that sense.

    I don't know enough about the political mood in Scotland at the moment: the last nationally disaggregated opinion poll I saw seemed to suggest that whilst support for the SNP was rising (and for the Tories as well) support for independence was flat lining or even falling. So things are uncertain and though Salmond's strategy of holding an referendum on independence in the early days of a UK Tory govt remains a fair bet from his point of view I'm beginning to at least question whether he would win, or win by the necessary majority anyway.

  3. I dunno Charlie, I don't think it's sunk in yet in Scotland just how horrible - and how English - the Cam govt is going to be.

    The current polls reflect the rueful recognition that Scotland on its own couldn't have funded the £700 billion write off of RBS and HBOS's gambling losses. ( It's the largest ever transfer of resources from England to Scotland which probably at a stroke wipes out the - real or perceived - injustice over North Sea oil.

    However, they've had the cash now, there won't be any more, probably a good time to do a runner...