Is powerlessness increasing violence?

Without question, the recent murder of David Amess MP is a tragedy, both for politics – no matter what your political persuasion – and for his friends and family. It’s wrong to use violence to express frustration and anger on anyone, MP or not.

However, I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t an important lesson to be learnt. Few would argue against the notion that UK politics today is deeply polarised.

The old tribal loyalties have evaporated. People tend to vote more on individual issues today and there are many, such as climate change, that cut across the old political divides. Instead, there’s a myriad of sub-groups through which anger and frustration can be vented, echo chambers that reinforce world views that reflect to a greater or – often – lesser extent the reality on the ground. These aim to change things through a variety of means from gentle persuasion to direct action.

So it would appear that the outlet for many people’s frustration is not through their MP, the ballot box, or a special interest group such as the RSPCA, routes seen as the traditional ways of changing things.

Though mostly completely legitimate, the growth of echo chamber sub-groups implies that traditional political routes are perceived as pointless and irrelevant. My point is to argue that this phenomenon may in part at least be driven by a sense that Westminster politics does not reflect the pluralistic world in which we live today.

Yet in Parliament, it remains a binary world: you’re either Conservative or Labour. Both these parties support a voting system – first past the post (FPTP) – that allows only one of those two parties to form a government. Anyone in a constituency where the MP isn’t of their political persuasion is automatically excluded from having their views represented, even if they are among a cohort of greater than 50 percent of those who voted. Consequently, many live their entire adult lives without representation.

In such a situation, it may not be seen as surprising that some people’s rage at such powerlessness, perhaps exacerbated by the growth in inequality in the UK, causes a small minority to issue death threats to their MPs – the numbers of which have gone through the roof in recent times. Yes, they are a small minority, but they are likely to be expressing feelings that many also feel but who choose not to express them through violence, whether physical or verbal.

Let me be clear: this is not to excuse, but to offer one possible explanation for the situation in which we now find ourselves.

What’s the alternative? Most countries have adopted some form of proportional representation (PR). It’s not perfect, but I’m not going into the pros and cons here. What I can say is that you’re more likely to get at least some of your views represented in the form of legislation or regulation with a PR electoral system than FPTP.

So I’d argue that if people didn’t feel as powerless, as disconnected from parliamentary politics as they do, if they felt that they had some form of leverage over their government – which right now is clearly governing for the few not the many – and if they felt that they could vote with their hearts rather then having to resort to tactical voting as millions do, then maybe, just maybe, the extremes to which a small minority have resorted may not have had to be manifested in violence, whether actual or potential, but through the ballot box.

The UK is becoming a failed state

It’s becoming clearer that the United Kingdom is heading towards failure – if it’s not already there. So it’s time to install institutions that work for most other states with which the UK likes to compare itself, namely, an elected head of state and a written constitution. Were these accompanied by a proportional method of electing the government, that would drag Britain out of its obsession with medieval methods of governance and procedure that are increasingly irrelevant if not damaging in the modern world, into the 21st century.

The question is, will the money allow anything like this to happen? Because it is very much in the interests of the big money in Britain – and especially in England – for things to remain exactly as they are. Let’s keep tax breaks for owners of huge chunks of the British land and forests, let’s ensure that people remain obsessed with minutiae and let’s not talk about the big issues.

Pyramid of power

Which big issues? Governance and citizenship, key questions with which most democratic states have grappled before installing institutions that work, some better, some worse than others, to enact the wishes of citizens. These are not questions that Britons are ever asked to seriously consider, either by the educational system or the media.

For example, despite clear evidence that the British monarchy is an anachronism, parked at the pinnacle of a pyramid of power that starts there and includes all the lords, viscounts, marquises, dukes and princes, and the entitled nabobs in the House of Lords – mostly unelected of course – who make laws on behalf of less worthy folk, support for the institution remains undimmed, supported by the controllers of public debate who own most of the media.

When polled, the British return a healthy majority in favour of a monarchy. Yet the British monarchy spearheads the patrimony and privileges of an aristocracy that owns a third of all the land and 50% of rural land. It is keen to perpetuate a landed elite and the cultural circle associated with that continuation of aristo-oligarchy, as well as a social sphere with the wealth to remain both independent of the state and to lobby for its own self-interests, thus propping up an ancient class system antagonistic to submission to liberal democratic governance.

Were the monarchy to divest itself of its inherited private wealth and economic interests, and to behave more as a figurehead institution wholly funded by the public, it might be perceived as modernised. However, it clearly has zero interest – either financially or intellectually – in pursuing that course.

Banana republic

Rather, we recently learnt that the monarch interferes with the wishes of the democratically elected government when it’s in her interests to do so. The British state, addicted to secrecy, was forced to admit this. And where there is one such admission, there may well be others.

This alone, had it happened in another continent, would be enough for learned observers to sagely aver that an unelected monarch behaving in this way is contrary to the many definitions of democracy to which the self-appointed upholders of political probity propound.

But here in the UK? Well, we’re different, special…

With no written constitution, in which the UK is alone among the states with which it likes to compare itself, there is no legal redress. The monarch can do what she likes. Instead, quiet words in the right ears, in private, will undoubtedly be deemed enough – the unwashed masses may be informed in due time – to put matters right.

So why do people continue to support the monarchy? The first reason one hears is that the monarchy does no harm because it has no real power. We can put that one to bed with the revelations about interference with legislation.

The second one is that the monarchy brings people together. It’s hard to gather evidence about this one way or the other, but evidence as to what divides the nation is freely available, and it’s powerful stuff. Specifically, the arguments over Brexit strongly suggest there is no universal vision for Britain – or rather, England. Rather, it’s crystal clear that half the country has one vision of the country, namely inward-looking and xenophobic, while the other half sees it as international and outward-looking. If the monarchy brings people together, it’s not working.

One also hears that the monarchy attracts tourism money, although the amounts, in normal, non-pandemic times, are paltry compared both to the cost of public services, such as the hard-pressed and politically emasculated NHS, or compared to the tax breaks for, and avoidance and evasion practised by the afore-mentioned rich and powerful.

The other argument is to point to the elected head of another state – Donald Trump is the obvious if only the most recent example – and say that ‘we’ don’t want that to happen, so let’s keep the Queen. This clearly misses the point: Trump has gone, voted out. We can’t vote out the Queen, whatever she or her successor does. They’re there for life, because of who their parents were.

Failed state

Yet none of these arguments gains purchase in the minds of the British. There’s little support for a constitution from the two main parties, nor for proportional representation, and none for a republic. The electorate continues to vote for the Tory party, an organisation whose interests are orthogonal to their own, working instead in the interests of those who fund it: large corporations and rich individuals who were recently calculated to gain a return on their investment of 100:1 in the form of contracts and tax breaks.

Continued support for an unelected monarchy is also hard to disentangle from the notion of English exceptionalism which permeates the body politic and the media. It resonates with the Brexit debate and the tone in which it was conducted, and the clear evidence that only England voted – very narrowly – for leaving the EU, thereby becoming worse off by any measure.

It seems to my mind that current circumstances make it very difficult to turn this tanker around, if not impossible. The UK is run by the unelected who govern in the interests of the rich and powerful, and who promulgate mythology about the state we are in, making it hard to move outside that hegemony. As a consequence, it’s very difficult not to conclude that the UK is heading towards becoming a failed state.