While Ukraine fights for its democracy, we are treating ours with utter contempt

Published by The i paper (24th October, 2022)

The headlines are filled with the latest tedious instalment of the struggle for the soul of the Conservative Party, which has dragged on for decades with such disastrous consequences for the country. Rishi Sunak is forging ahead. Boris Johnson has flown back from his Caribbean beach. Penny Mordaunt is pulling pints as she pushes her candidature. Lobby hacks, pollsters and toadies dissect the contest on the airwaves and on social media as if it is a popularity poll on reality television rather than a fight to lead our country in troubled times. Beyond broad brush strokes on the economy, policy issues are ignored as Tories debate the best choice for their party, not the nation.

Yet we need to step back and ask how we came to such a low point? How did our political system get so corroded that Liz Truss was empowered to cause economic carnage? How did Westminster become so self-absorbed that many members of Parliament think Johnson should be inflicted on the country again after his chaotic, contemptuous and incompetent stint in power? How did Britain end up with five prime ministers in six years, turning a bastion of democratic stability into the butt of jokes? And before Labour gets too smug, how did it end up with the toxic Jeremy Corbyn that enabled so many of these Tory disasters to unfold?

These questions grow more important if you take a snapshot of the other headlines overshadowed by the dismal Tory psychodrama over the past few days. Almost half the population struggling to pay bills as the cost of living crisis pushes families to the brink. More than half of maternity units judged unsafe by the watchdog. Health and social care left so gridlocked that patients are in danger. NHS dental services crumbling. Among the worst cancer treatment outcomes in the developed world. An inquiry found “epidemic” levels of child sex abuse.  A couple lived in a car for seven months waiting for housing. A debt bomb inflamed by poor financial regulation threatening to explode.

I write these words in Kyiv, watching a nation bleed as it fights for the democracy that we treat with casual contempt. It can be argued, rightly, that the speed with which Truss was ejected from Downing Street after proving her ineptitude and the eventual removal of Johnson for his errant behaviour shows the core strength of our democracy. On one level, this is true. The importance of such accountability is underlined as we see the despotic Xi Jinping take more control over China. But our system is failing to tackle chronic problems while our self-serving politicians push for power, play childish tribal games in the Commons and indulge in silly culture wars. That infantile jostling in the Commons last Wednesday during the fracking vote symbolised the story state of Parliament.

Afterwards, the veteran and visibly angry Tory MP Sir Charles Walker, a former vice-chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee, lashed out on the BBC, saying this was “a pitiful reflection” of his party and demanding politicians grow up. Walker is the sort of unflamboyant backbencher who has spent many years trying to serve constituents while loyal to his party. I disagree with him on some issues, not least Brexit. But I admire his decency, desire to reach across party lines and openness to engage on neglected issues such as mental health failures and police brutality. But he is standing down at the next election, dispirited by Westminster. Another good person driven out of politics, diminishing Parliament that little bit more.

Last week I quoted Archie Norman, one of the nation’s top business leaders who abandoned politics in frustration at the lack of teamwork to solve problems. Other talents have departed in similar dismay, from the V&A boss and one-time Labour MP, Tristram Hunt, through to the maverick Tory, Rory Stewart. Many more folk that might serve their nation and help tackle glaring state deficiencies run a mile from the idea of serving in such a shambolic system. Johnson and Truss proved how politics has become a platform for egotistical hustlers on the make, who hitch their wagons to hollow ideologies and are so insecure they force out people who show slightest dissent. Just look at recent cabinets stuffed with talentless nobodies.

This stance was epitomised by Truss sacking Grant Shapps from her first Cabinet since he failed to support her leadership, despite admitting he was a good minister and communicator. Walker thinks political parties have become like criminal gangs running protection rackets, with turf wars between rival factions leading to a “brutish and low status” life for backbenchers. “Good governance is of secondary importance to internal party positioning,” he told me. “Dysfunctional disruptive behaviours are rewarded, thereby creating further dysfunction.” Social media also weaponises anger and frustration while fuelling extremism. “Rudeness, aggression and threats of violence are the constant companions of public life,” says Walker.

Obviously Sunak should win the leadership, ideally in alliance with Mordaunt. But this sordid mess we witness at Westminster is disfiguring our nation, devastating public services and disastrously failing voters. It is too glib to simply jeer at Tories and think Labour, even under a sensible leader, offers salvation. Remember the endless feuding between Brownites and Blairites – or when Gordon Brown absurdly claimed to have abolished boom and bust before the 2008 banking crisis?

Brexit played a critical role in reaching this sorry state, handing power to populists who ran from their responsibilities, yet it was a symptom of wider problems that have deep roots in our political, economic and social systems. We need desperately to find ways to build consensus; our last stable government was, after all, under a coalition. We should devolve more power from Westminster, reform the House of Lords, introduce proportional representation. But these are baby steps in the long march to find effective government and restore faith in our democracy, as yet another prime minister prepares to walk through the doors of Downing Street.

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