One of the current truths of modern political life in Britain (and it seems to be true almost everywhere else as well) is that the political class are All The Same. Regardless of who you vote for, you end up with much the same policies as before.
And in the case of the smoking ban, this is certainly true. Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, and Labour are all agreed that it’s a Good Thing, and
perhaps even a Great Success. None of them have any plans to amend it. Apart from voting for UKIP and other fringe parties, there’s nothing voters can do about it.
Perhaps it’s always been like this. A few days ago, I read this at EUreferendum:
The electorate had seen that the Parliaments it returned always, invariably, did exactly the opposite of that which had been promised and that which it had been returned to do, and felt, furthermore, that there was no means of remedying this, because no clearcut difference was apparent between the two parties which faced each other in the House; appalling though the Tory Party’s record was, the Labour Party offered no clear alternative.
The writer that adds that people knew that voting for a Labour candidate instead of a Conservative, “would not make much difference; they knew that from experience”.
Far from being a contemporary piece, though, this is published in 1941, written of events in 1939, its author former Times foreign correspondent Douglas Reed.
That said, in my experience there seemed to be a far greater difference between the parties 40 or 50 years ago than there does today. Back in the 1960s the Conservatives were the party of the wealthy, landed aristocracy, and they spoke in clipped upper class accents. And the Labour party was the party of cloth-capped workers and trade unionists, and they spoke with regional accents including Welsh and Scottish ones. And the Liberals were the party of the middle classes – or that part of the middle class which wanted to relax prohibitions against abortion and homosexuality.
Now it’s impossible to tell any of them apart. The Conservative party got rid of most of its aristocrats, and re-branded itself as an aspirational middle class party under Margaret Thatcher, who was a grocer’s daughter. And then the Labour party got rid of most of its Marxist-revolutionary left wing, and re-branded itself as caring-sharing, middle class party under Tony Blair, adopting many Thatcherite economic policies, and ditching any ideas of nationalising industry. And now all the parties have also gone Green, environmentalist, and antismoking as well. And David Cameron has modelled himself on affable, “I’m an ordinary guy”Tony Blair (even though he’s really a bit of an aristo). Even the disputes over Europe have faded, with the consensus in all parties becoming one that “It’s better to be in than out” – although this may be changing now, given the shipwreck of the EU.
And the net result, after 60 years of chopping and changing and adjusting, is that all the parties are indistinguishable from each other. They’re all caring-sharing, touchy-feely, green, environmentalist, antismoking, pro-EU, high taxation, big state, middle class parties.
The two-party system has gradually equilibriated into a one-party state. And not by any design. It just gradually happened.
And this one-party state is tyrannical. And it’s unavoidably tyrannical. Because the checks and balances of democracy cease to operate when there ceases to be any real choice open to voters, and they can’t register their dissatisfaction. Whoever they vote for, they’ll end up with the same thing as before. And in the absence of correction by voters, politicians are no longer getting the kind of feedback that allows them to spot winning policies that will attract votes.
Furthermore, in the absence of voter feedback, the politicians lose interest in voters, and retreat into a media bubble where they essentially just talk to each other. They only pay attention to what’s said in the media environment they inhabit, and to moneyed lobbyists of one sort or other (e.g. ASH). They live in a hall of mirrors, and all they can see are themselves and their own opinions.
I’d like to suggest that this is really all perfectly natural. When people have been arguing with each other for 60 or more years, they’re quite likely to reach a consensus of some sort or other, and gradually resolve their differences.
We have reached high tide (or low tide), when the water is neither falling nor rising.
Soon enough, it will all start to change again. And if nothing else, it will start to change because during the period of undemocratic tyranny (i.e. right now) new grievances gather momentum.
The smoking bans are exactly one such cause of grievance. They weren’t the product of any democratic process: they were brought in despite democracy, not because of it. They were the product of the tyrannical political consensus, and of effective lobbying. And if the political class have yet to realise that a great many people absolutely detest a law which has shattered communities, and bankrupted pubs and clubs, it’s because they’re still not listening to anything other than the media circus to which they devote their attention.
And given its current structural problems, and the fact that the worst effects of these are found in the poorest classes of the poorest member states, the EU looks set to become a major cause of grievance as well. For the EU is, once again, the product not so much of any democratic process, but of consensus among the European political class.
And the result is that the most savvy politicians, who keep their ears close to the ground, and listen to what ordinary people are saying, and not the looking-glass world of the media, are likely to start to win votes from disaffected voters who are not being represented by the main parties. And so in the USA there’s the Tea Party. And in the UK there’s a politician like Nigel Farage of UKIP, who combines rising anti-EU sentiment with anti-smoking-ban sentiment. And I suspect that all over Europe there are small parties who are breaking away from the reigning political consensus.
I suspect that such parties are going to become more and more influential in the coming years. They’ll put forward radical, non-consensus political platforms, and they’ll attract more and more votes. The political parties of the old consensus will start to get worried, and their shared consensus will start to dissolve. The main parties will start to adopt slightly different policies. Choice will begin to re-appear. And the democratic process will start to function once again. And the tide will start flowing strongly again.
In 5 or 10 years time, there’ll start to be documentaries on TV about the awful damage caused by smoking bans, and about the tyrannical and counter-productive EU, and the pseudo-science of global warming, and so on. Everything that is now more or less completely suppressed will come bubbling to the surface then. There’ll start to be genuine debates again about issues of common concern.
And political life will become so interesting that it may even become terrifying, and people will talk about the Good Old Days when all the politicians agreed with each other about everything, instead of fighting like stray cats, and how much better it all was then.