Issue 102: 2017 04 27: The Distortion Of The Political Process (John Watson)

27 April 2017

The Distortion Of The Political Process

The election – just too simple.

By John Watson

No one likes shortages.  The worst, of course, are of food or wine.  There is nothing more irritating than to arrive at the shop and find that the treat you had promised yourself has already left the premises, no doubt in the grossly overfilled shopping bag of some deservedly corpulent and probably unappreciative consumer.  It can quite ruin your dinner.  Less common, perhaps, is the shortage which currently threatens us.  That is a shortage of disagreement.

It must be very hard for the opposition parties.  The government, whatever the Prime Minister’s previous inclinations, has accepted Brexit as a fait accompli.  That was the people’s decision, they say, and, whether it was wise or no, we cannot realistically go back on it.  Nor, continues the argument, is it right to reduce it to an empty shell by giving the European of Court of Justice authority here or by accepting free movement of people.  That is the sort of trickery the EU used on the French when they rejected the European Constitution and it is out of the question in these populist times.  No, we will follow the spirit as well as the letter of the referendum decision.

If these points are accepted, being full members of the market is out of the question and it follows that we will have to make do with more limited participation.  After that, what more is to be said?  No one knows what forms of participation are negotiable and presumably the government will go for whatever it regards as the most likely to strengthen the U.K.’s economy, while ensuring that there is always a Plan B available, either to fall back on or to use as a stick to keep pressure on the European Union.

From a policy point of view that narrows the choice.  Voters have to decide whether they wish to try to change the Brexit decision.  If so they should vote Liberal Democrat.  If not they should accept the government’s logic and simply cast their vote according to who they believe is best equipped to  conduct the negotiations.  It is really as simple as that.

The manifestoes will contain positions on other issues as well but, unless those are really way out, the voters will probably not even read them.  There are just two important decisions.  Do you believe we should try to reverse Brexit?  If not, who should be in charge?

That double choice leaves politicians with little scope for differentiating themselves.  Candidates who recognise that the public focus will be almost exclusively on Brexit and who accept that it is going to happen, will inevitably find this difficult.  “I am against the bypass/prisons/drugs/stop and search/austerity,” just isn’t going to cut it.  What is needed is a position on the great issue of the day and its narrowness leaves little room.  “I am against a hard Brexit,” some are saying, pointing to the Government’s Plan B as if it was their preferred outcome.  Well, so is everybody else from Mrs May downwards, and unless the words mean that the speaker wishes to revisit the original Brexit decision, they have no political content at all.

Even more vapid are the red liners.  Now I don’t include those who, like the Liberal Democrats and Mr Blair, think that Brexit is a ghastly mistake and will work to reverse it.  That is a perfectly fair political position.  What is fatuous, however, is to look at possible outcomes of the negotiation and then to rule them out as if there was no other party and we could dictate what the EU will agree.  Keir Starmer produced a corker on Tuesday by saying that Labour would not walk away without a deal in any circumstances.  Aha, you might think, a bright red line which can be sold to the electorate as a point of differentiation.  But, oh dear, there is an obvious contradiction between that and his assertion that Labour recognises that the immigration rules will have to change.  Suppose the EU made keeping the current freedom of movement rules a precondition of any deal?

“A trade deal is a red line for me,” is all very well, provided that you are prepared to retain free movement to secure one, but it means nothing if not. Perhaps then “I would be happy to concede free movement if it was necessary to obtain trade treaties” would be a more honest way in which to shape up to the electors.  Yet you will hear the politicians talking about a red line here and a red line there as if, like Jehovah, they just had to say “let there be light” and it would be done.

Equally foolish are those who want to open the negotiation by giving things away for nothing.  One of the favourites here is the position of European citizens already in the UK.  Of course no one wants to throw them out.  Of course everyone would like to see them protected, as (quite apart from humanitarian considerations) they are an important part of the U.K.’s economy; but at the same time why would the Government give assurances without ensuring that reciprocal rights are to be given to the British retirees who live in Spain?  To give the one and then be blackmailed on the other would be a stunning piece of incompetence.

The reason that we have to listen to all this redlining and taking of impractical positions is not that the political parties have suddenly lost their minds.  It is because there is little sensible to say in a single issue campaign, particularly when the issue is one on which most members of the public have already made up their own minds.  The same logic means that there is no point in televised debates going through a range of policies.  No one will be in the slightest interested.  They have their own views on whether Brexit should be reversed and will look at Mrs May’s record so far in deciding whether she is the right person to take things forward.

It isn’t just the form of the election that will be distorted by the narrowness of the issues.  The result will be odd too.  There is talk of the Tories picking up seats in Wales and Scotland.  Lifelong Tory supporters who wish to reverse Brexit may find themselves voting Liberal Democrat.  Those who like their negotiations in an uncontentious form may favour Mr Corbyn.  That doesn’t reflect big changes in the political complexion of the country but rather the electorate’s take on what it sees as the serious issue of the campaign.  Once this election is over, traditional support patterns will probably re-establish themselves, although not completely.  One effect of voters supporting parties they would normally have rejected without a thought may be to remind them that those whose political traditions are different are not wrong about everything.  No party has a monopoly on wisdom.  If the election reminds us all of that it will strengthen Britain to meet the challenges which the next few years will undoubtedly bring.

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