There is no doubt that the 2016 referendum exposed deep divisions...
British politics is on the brink of major change. The 2010 election gave us a coalition government and 2015 is likely to do so again. The Conservatives have half done the job of cutting the deficit but living standards have fallen. Labour do not yet look like an alternative government and are expected to lose up to 30 seats to the Scottish Nationalists.
The Liberal Democrats are competing with UKIP and the Green Party for smaller numbers of seats. SNP could be the third largest party at Westminster and say they would only support a Labour led Government on terms unlikely to be acceptable.
What is causing this change from the traditional pattern?
One obvious cause is growing disillusionment with the mainstream parties. The MPs expenses scandal was not the principal driver but it did not help voters to respect MPs. The increasing number of professional politicians who have not had a previous career outside politics also distances them from their electors. More serious is the perception that MPs are preoccupied with short term partisan squabbles and not getting to grips with serious long term issues.
The economy is one example. We will have had five years of austerity but the deficit is still too high. More public spending cuts are required and promised tax cuts are a distant prospect. That is unwelcome to a generation told that waiting can be taken out of wanting. Immigration is a second big issue for some voters. School class sizes, NHS waiting times and shortages of affordable housing are the pinch points persuading voters that more migrants from the EU is a price not worth paying – hence growing support for UKIP. Climate change and finding eco-friendly energy sources is another issue about which the politicians seem to be dragging their feet whilst vested interests block progress. Welfare reform divides the parties who seem unable to agree a balance between caring for the genuinely needy poor and rebuilding a culture in which work and self-reliance are popular virtues. Underlying these issues is the short term nature of politics today. These are long term issues not capable of being resolved within the scope of a five year Parliament.
So what can be done to restore a democratic political culture and institutions? Devolution is already on the agenda but so far primarily for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It could be taken further. Giving the larger local authorities power to raise local taxes, more discretion in land use planning, housing and social services, with proper mechanisms of accountability, could encourage citizens to greater engagement in local politics. This would break down the ‘them and us’ attitudes that undermine democratic participation. Nationally, the parties could be encouraged to seek cross-party consensus on such issues as climate change and energy supplies instead of making them subjects for partisanship. That would make possible policies that survive changes in government.
If we want democracy we citizens must be prepared both to participate and pray for practices and policies that restore and maintain it.