Wednesday, 22 April 2015

It was actually John Major's fault (partly)

I was press officer for Democracy Day in 1992, seven days before polling day in the general election.  It was a highly successful stunt organised all over the country by Charter 88.  It nearly killed me at the time.  The conventional media was pretty insulated against anyone 'intervening' in the election campaign from outside Westminster, and publicity was a frustrating business.

It was as if it wasn't really our business.

I seem to remember that Democracy Day achieved two things.  First, it successfully put the constitution on the political map - PR for elections, devolution to Scotland and Wales and so on.  Not at the time, but for later.

Second, a Conservative official had overheard Roy Hattersley talking about Labour's campaign plans over lunch at the Atrium restaurant - the plotter's eating house of choice in those days - and because of that, they knew Labour was planning to respond positively.  They were also ready for them.  A deluge of criticism engulfed us all the next morning.

It particularly energised John Major on his soapbox.  "The United Kingdom is in danger," he said.  "Wake up, my fellow countrymen!"

I was reminded of that today with Major's mildly hysterical intervention in this campaign, nearly a quarter of a century later.  But the Major sentence which really grabbed my attention yesterday was this one:

"This is a recipe for mayhem. At the very moment our country needs a strong and stable government, we risk a weak and unstable one..."

It is worth thinking back 23 years to remember why we are risking this 'weak and unstable government'.  It is because no action was taken then or later to make the voting system more representative.

The usual failure of the voting system to reflect Lib Dem support goes almost without much mention these days.  It looks as though Ukip or Green support may be almost as big (I think the Lib Dems will overtake Ukip in the popular vote) but may end up with one MP each.  You may not like their message, but virtually excluding them from Parliament will only bring the whole caboodle even further into disrepute.

But the real problem is looming in Scotland.  Because Major, Blair, Brown and - let's face it, Cameron too - failed to act, there is a serious prospect that the SNP will take most of the seats in Scotland with around half the vote.

I don't buy the argument that this is an unprecedented disaster in itself - the Victorian Liberal governments were supported by the votes of the Irish Nationalists - but if it doesn't reflect the democratic vote, then of course it will be unstable, possibly violently so.

I don't want to blame Major personally for this failure, though he has to take a share of the blame.  But it is part of a wider, more complex problem.

It is this.  Because the two old parties of government are insulated by the system, they tend to exemplify the two great British political skills - doing nothing about a clear and present danger to life in the UK for decade after decade, then riding roughshod over everyone by cobbling together a last-minute sticking plaster solution.  

So if you want to know why we are in danger of the 'weak and unstable government' that John Major describes, it is worth remembering that it was eminently preventable.

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