If you take your lead from the Daily Mail, the Sun, or one of the other more popular former residents of Fleet Street, it would be easy to despair at the character of the British people. Their pages are filled with the worst excesses of western culture, the print equivalent of the black sheep uncle that everyone in the family despairs at, but has to quietly tolerate every Christmas. Except in this case, it’s every day of the year. Whether their bigotry towards asylum seekers and immigrants, their objectification of women, or their hostility towards fundamental rights, such as protest, the fact that these papers make up the majority sold in the UK is hardly reason for celebration.
But while this might be what newspaper editors think is what sells – or at least, what will consistently drive a million people to pick up a copy of the Daily Mail each day – it doesn’t reflect the real British character. Over the final weeks of 2021, a Citizens’ Assembly on Democracy in the UK was held, made up of 67 members of the UK public. While chosen at random, they were selected as to broadly represent the UK’s population in terms of their age, gender, race, education, location and politics. Each weekend over six weeks in November and December, these delegates heard from experts on the nature and the state of British democracy, and used this as a stimulus to discuss it among themselves.
This week saw the preliminary results of the assembly released, published by UCL’s Constitution Unit. They reveal a population deeply concerned about the state of our democracy. The delegates views suggest that few are revelling in the fact that we have a government which is going to ‘get Brexit done’, and which is launching into a ‘red meat’ propaganda war to try and muddy the waters, hoping the people will forget the lies and deceit that form its backbone. Instead, we have a population deeply concerned at the current direction of travel, who feel ‘frustrated’ and ‘let-down”.
Part of this disappointment may be in the fact that this is a government that is, putting it mildly, not very good. A government that had come to an effective deal with the EU, which minimised trade hurdles while maximising political distance from the trade bloc; a government that had effectively managed asylum seekers through introducing effective mechanisms for processing asylum claims; or a government which had effectively pushed the vaccine development and testing process while protecting the vulnerable might have been able to achieve popularity while achieving conservative aims. But shoving cash in the pockets of political allies, throwing it in the direction of LuLu Lytle and her extravagant wallpaper, or being incapable of even loosely following the draconian rules they inflicted on the nation has done little to advance the principles or the reputation of the Conservative Party. The only people who have benefited are those who have happened to be at school or university with Johnson, or those who have clung particularly grimly onto his coattails, like Jacob Rees-Mogg or Priti Patel.
More importantly, what this all reveals is that Boris Johnson’s government is not a conservative one. This is hardly a surprise. A government led by a mendacious, feckless buffoon, barely capable of thinking beyond the immediate moment, interested in his pleasure alone, was never going to become the modern-day Pericles his fan club prophesied. In answering Mill’s famous dilemma, of whether you would rather be a ‘pig satisfied or Socrates dissatisfied’, Johnson would choose the pig every single time.
Counterintuitively, however, what liberals and left-wingers must hope for is that Johnson remains in office. Too few Conservative prime ministers have gone to the polls after catastrophic mistakes, allowing their successors to present themselves as a new, untarnished product, the latest paint-job on the same obsolete goods. If Johnson goes now, his successor will be the third new Conservative leader in three successive general elections, after May succeeded Cameron, and Johnson succeeded May.
Despite this, should the ‘pork pie putsch’, as the would-be coup has been christened, succeed, it is better for it to do so sooner rather than later. If Johnson limps on, the immediate predicaments that face the country – inflation, the end of the Brexit transition period, the energy crisis – can be laid at his door, his successor disclaiming responsibility. But if a new prime minister has to deal with these and preside over a March budget that is unlikely to be rewarding to the many, their reputation will be tarnished from the outset.
It is crucial for Starmer to show that the rot in the government is not because of Johnson alone, but that it is endemic throughout the entire Conservative Party. The conclusions of the Assembly show that much of the population is genuinely concerned about the state of the nation, and that it wants to be led by a prime minister who is competent and respected, rather than one who is a laughing stock in the international press. In their statements summarising conclusions, the members wrote that they are ‘concerned about how democracy is working in the UK because we feel it is spiralling downwards…’ and that ‘there is [not] much hope in sight, as there is no real accountability or redress’.
So long as a Conservative government remains in power, this spiral will continue. It is difficult to see any likely successor to Johnson endorsing a total turn away from the policies which have torn the country in two. Too many Conservative MPs are indefatigable in their support for positions which dehumanise asylum seekers and immigrants, which degrade fundamental rights, or which force the country into antagonistic stances with vital trade partners like the EU. The populist right within the Conservative party is still in the ascendancy, and only its emphatic rejection by the country at the polls will clip its wings.
The Assembly concluded their findings by stating that a ‘in a good UK democracy, we would have a representative system where elected members display respect for the core elements of our democracy and the people’s right to choose’. Keir Starmer leads the only party that can honestly claim to do so. Regardless of who he faces at the dispatch box over the coming months, he must make the people see this too.
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