THE PROBLEM OF GOVERNANCE
BY NIK SLOAN
Governance , by nature of its plurality of competing interests, cannot function without compromise. Electoral promises are often broken by the stress of this reality – the Liberal Democrats have never recovered from their 2010 failed commitment to reject tuition fees. To be fair, those promises were clearly not made with the burden of governance in mind. The same applies to Jeremy Corbyn’s spending plan, which would inevitably be heavily watered down if Labour were to form a government. It simply gives too much away but with little prospect of raising revenue. Theresa May was correct, at least to some extent, when she said there is no “magic money tree”. Public finances are limited and consist of competing goods, some interests must be sacrificed in favour of others. This lesson of course is forgotten too by many in the Conservative Party – before the Chancellor Philip Hammond’s budget a source told the Sunday Times that the budget has “got to be big, got to be powerful, got to be revolutionary”. Whilst the Tories may accuse Labour of living in fantasy land, the party of no-nonsense business and pragmatism has itself forgotten the most important lessons of politics. First, if it is too good to be true, it probably is. Second, if something sounds easy and isn’t done, it probably isn’t easy to do.
Had we paid more heed to these two basic maxims during the referendum campaign, the promises of the Leave Campaign may have been less widely taken as truth. Not paying for the single market, yet still having access to it. Ending free movement of people, yet still having an open border between Northern Ireland. Cheaper goods, with the same regulatory standards. Putting aside that these claims are practically incompatible, this is the exact same “magic money tree” thinking - benefits for all without cost. If we were to treat the referendum by the same standards as any election campaign, so to assume that upon Leave’s victory they were to form a government, their incompetence and the betrayal of their promises leave no doubt that they would be judged as a disaster. There are no £350 million a week, there is no points based immigration system and the world is not queueing up to make trade deals with us. None of this is surprising – simple answers to complex questions always fail to deliver. As with all populists who promise the world, they are incapable of delivering in practice.
Therein lies the key problem however. The referendum was not an election, and the same mechanisms which would discredit populist promises in a democracy, the harsh reality of power and often capricious judgement of voters, do not apply. Contrast Trump in America, whose more idiotic ideas have been shown as such by his time in office – his wall, the travel ban and healthcare reform all failed. Yet in Britain, despite the proven incompetency of Brexit supporting MPs including Johnson’s numerous blunders, Priti Patel pursuing her own foreign policy and David Davis consistently demonstrating a less than wholesome understanding of the issues than one would expect from a chief negotiator, the Brexit movement shows no signs of slowing down.
As Margaret Thatcher famously put it, referendums are a device of dictators and demagogues. This rings true of contemporary Britain – the will of the people is used to stifle democratic dialogue and used as a shield for prominent Leave supporting politicians to, in the most cowardly fashion, escape accountability. The same technique is used to stifle further democratic dialogue, the question has been settled it is claimed, although every day new complications arise. Warnings are dismissed as scaremongering, the British people obviously having had enough of experts.
Brexiters find themselves in power, yet free from responsibility. Leavers are at the heart of the Westminster establishment, with considerable support by the mainstream media and a stranglehold over government policy. At the same time, they are unable to admit any wrongdoing or maladministration. This allows Boris Johnson to repeat the £350 million for the NHS promise, even though the government he is part of has made no move to adopt such a policy. The phenomenon is by no means limited to him. The inability of Brexit to achieve its lofty promises is blamed on an unwilling civil service, the pro-remain Chancellor or undemocratic Parliamentarians. The scapegoating sticks – that is why the Telegraph’s “Brexit mutineers and the Mail’s saboteurs or enemies of the people has such resonance.
The obvious, that ideas which persist about the British exit are at best hopelessly optimistic or at worst damaging and foolhardy persist and they refuse to die. Diehard Brexiteers hold the country hostage in their unattainable fantasy. The nation has been frozen in a populist and nationalist trance since June 2016 and has been unable to break free. Notions of pragmatism which in the past had been such a British characteristic are thing of the past. Without accountability and without responsibility we are unable to break free of this stupor.
It is to be hoped an awakening will happen soon, because right now Britain drifts through the negotiations without a destination.