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After Britain’s shocking Thursday, is the earthquake still to come?

The contrast between the SNP's resounding victory in Scotland and Britain's decision to embrace our current FPTP voting system suggests that we have entered an explosive political decade. The 'Scottish Spring' signals an opportunity for a genuinely democratic party south of the border
Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
7 May 2011

The contrast between the astounding success of the Scottish Spring and Britain’s embrace of its imperial voting system of First Past the Post better described as ‘to the victor the spoils’ suggests to me that we have entered an explosive political decade. 

Far from settling issues of reform the conservative establishment may come to rue the day they so brutally crushed a harmless compromise. AV was advocated as “a small change that makes a big difference”. Who can think of a slogan that is more ‘British’? While its actual supporters and campaigners on the ground who worked their hearts out wanted real change and not “small change”, the campaign for AV was run in a way that was truly conservative.

It was always going to be very difficult to win because of the way it was originally decided in the initial Coalition deal. The referendum’s main purpose and justification was in fact achieved by the agreement to hold it. For without it there could have been no Coalition.

There are honest compromises and dishonest compromises and this was an internally compromised compromise. It stank. The AV campaign tried to cleanse itself by making it appear sweet and reasonable. But the predictably vicious counter-campaign exposed the weakness of this strategy (I warned of this as constructively as possible last year and again more sharply when reporting on Nick Clegg’s introduction of the Referendum Bill into the Commons in September.)

Of course horrid lies were then thrown at it but when the tabloids told the public to smell a rat was there not indeed something rodent-like in the vicinity?

It is obvious that a referendum on reforming politics has to be run as part of a future project. It has to be clear about its rejection of the past and how this aspect of the past impacts badly on the present. And it has to offer a release of energy and the attraction of more self-government in the future.

The deal to hold the referendum was not made in this spirit. But this did not rule out Yes2AV at least trying to run its campaign with this kind of élan. Instead, the campaign was tragically misconceived from the start. It was positioned as non-political rather than as against the whole way our politics is currently conducted. It posed as advocating something that fitted in comfortably with the way we are. And, most damagingly of all, its political leaders - both Lib Dem, and Ed Miliband - defined it as the end of the road for popular constitutional reform. In other words, the 'Yes' campaign was a kind of justification for the Coalition. 

To be blunt, I blame the Liberal Democrats high command who controlled the Yes campaign. Of course, they blame a) the Tories for their appalling and dishonest attacks and b) Labour for their slothful conservatism and historic failure to embrace reform. This is quite understandable. But both were behaviour patterns well established before 2010 (and are above all familiar to Lib Dems). Any ‘Yes’ to AV referendum campaign had to factor in both as givens from the start.

Also, from the get-go the campaign needed to be clear about whether it was a modest first step to deeper and wider democratisation of British politics. If it had chosen to be this it could have honestly accepted that AV was indeed the limited compromise it is. It could – and should –have then turned all guns on First Past the Post and made the status quo the focus of the referendum, campaigning against its wastefulness and dishonesty – and the fact that it gave us the Iraq War.

It should have advocated AV as the first step on a path of renewal. The referendum itself should have been turned into an increase in citizen power and the beginning of more direct democracy and participation. If the Yes Campaign had had the courage to say, “Vote YES and then we can have more referendums”, for example, making the successful holding of a referendum on AV an informal referendum on holding more referendums and having more direct democracy this would have given it a populist edge. Dangerous? Yes, but this is what it needed to win support from disaffected Tories without which it was bound to fail. 

Alas, when Clegg presented the Referendum Bill to the House of Commons and was asked by a Tory [Douglas Carswell] why the referendum would not include an option for proportionality he positively embraced there being just AV and said any alternative had been rejected “for the sake of simplicity”.

This wasn’t true. Everyone knew it wasn’t true. The referendum’s potential energy as a challenge to reshape politics and lift the direct power of citizens was stamped out. AV was advocated as a good in itself that mustn’t frighten anyone. I say this as someone who made two speeches at the beginning and at the end of the campaign where I worked hard to make a ‘Yes’ as radical as possible - within the framework of the campaign.

Of course, such a bolder strategy of presenting a Yes as the thin end of the wedge might not have worked either. Probably nothing could have given life to an infant conceived in such a poisoned womb. But it would have left the campaign’s advocates in better shape, with their integrity intact for having fought the good fight on the basis of their principles. Not least the many Lib Democracy activists who are genuine reformers working for a modern, democratic Britain.

Last August when I spoke at a Lib Dem event I said I feared that their leadership was abandoning the ambition for PR. There was a visceral refusal to agree - from a civilised, competent gathering. To demand and work for a fair voting system was the very essence of what it meant to be one of them, they said, and they meant it. It was by no means all that there was to them now, of course: they were proud to be in government. But they were not there to sell out on this core demand which was ‘existential’ for Lib Dems.

Two weeks ago I heard Nick Clegg speak at ippr in his final pitch for a ‘Yes’. Replying to a question he said, win or lose on the 5th, there would not be another referendum “in a blue moon”.

While the day was a catastrophe for his party and the immediate reform of Westminster something very different happened in Scotland. The Scots had a proven, competent alternative to all the big three British parties. It was swept to power as they were collectively rejected. Whether or not independence with all its huge consequences for the British state and UK politics is “on the agenda” immediately, a majority of the Scottish public are now willing to think about it.

The Scottish public is by instinct and temperament more cautious and conservative than the English. Their vote for the SNP is a signal of the opportunity that that has opened up for a genuinely democratic party south of the border. With the Greens as a party failing to make the impression of their singularly competent leader Caroline Lucas, the leading candidate for such a party at the moment seems to be UKIP. 

Can this be true? In assessing what has happened we need to recognise that deep forces, generational and economic, are reshaping the British political landscape. Gerry Hassan has described the SNP’s victory as a tsunami. What are the tectonic movements that triggered it? One of them is the collapse of a party that was securing over 20 per cent of the vote. Expect more after-shocks from this alone.

Clearly they are also international: the crash of market fundamentalism and the financial crisis of the North Atlantic; the farcical end to the ‘war on terror’; the humiliation of the European Union.

Here too what is happening is historic as well as geological. We are at the end of an epoch without it being clear what will replace it. A thirty year reform movement reliant on party leaderships to change Britain and make it a constitutional democracy has come to an end. But its legacy is a disintegrating polity that is releasing energy in novel ways (such as the London mayor, the Human Rights Act, Freedom of Information and, above all, Scotland). Life is pulling it apart but it is governed by a Conservative coalition determined to its “last fibre” to hold the show together - a coalition that looks as if it has broken the spirit of reforming zeal in the one party that was wholeheartedly committed to integrated if incremental reform.

Here in OurKingdom we will share in the debate about what has happened and the way forward for democrats as we put the old politics behind us to work out a new kind of politics. It will include the fight for proportional representation, because not believing in the politics of 'to the victor the spoils', we have no incentive to listen to homophobic exhortations forbidding us from raising the question of voting reform through ‘the back door’ for twenty-five years to come. 

The new politics will be driven by networks rather than decided by leaders; has an economics that is motivated by egalitarianism and the quality of life and happiness not maximisation, and is principled and passionate about the human rights of everyone, not least those who seek asylum on our shores. We will take a measure of the media and power that was on display in the UK's AV referendum, while investigating the potential of a republican approach that defends liberty under modern conditions of digital surveillance and control and encourages national self-determination across the United Kingdom – so that we can enjoy a healthy and open, rather than fantastical, relationship to the rest of the world.

PS: Tim Mongomerie the Editor of Conservative Home has just published a full, riveting account of how the 'No' vote won that is a political 'must read'. It agues that its leadership grasped the vital importance of dividing and neutralising Labour and had Blairite professionals working with them integrated into the campaign. It also confirms there was a massive below the radar campaign to mobilise the Tory vote, which then gave them positive feedback into the local elections, once Cameron decided to commit.

A most interesting aspect of Montgomerie's account is that it seems Cameron was relaxed about AV into the new year. Informally, one guesses, Cameron may have told Clegg that AV was fine by him and he would not stand in the way of his close colleague's greatest desire. If so it means Cameron had rightly understood that letting AV pass would help make Britain more conservative in the way he wanted and help build the kind of country and consensus he desired. Not being proportional he knew that it would not have meant that the Lib Dems would become a permanent feature of government, the key theme that the campaign falsely alleged. (Indeed, as we have just witnessed in Scotland, even a proportional system can deliver one-party government!). 

But Cameron was threatened with a massive rebellion according to Montgomerie (who would have been part of it so one must take the necessary pinch of salt). Getting worked up about stopping AV and saving First Past the Post may have been ridiculously right-wing and unwise but it not to be gainsaid. The party was hungry for a demonstration of Thatcherite 'will' not consensus building. Cameron was told he had to chose between putting at risk the Coalition he loves by campaigning to smash Clegg's hopes, or put at risk his own personal power and authority by standing aside and permitting a 'Yes'.

He chose himself. As a result the Coalition as a project has almost certainly been broken - this, indeed was the aim of the putative rebellion. It may continue out of expediency but it cannot last in the way Cameron wanted. Everyone including Montgomerie is saying that he is one of the big winners of the day. In power struggles, winners can be condemned by the manner of their victory - as success fixes the way they have to rule henceforth. Cameron has been deprived of the coalition as his real achievement. He became the creature of the 'No' campaign, its treacherous pillorying of Clegg, its falsehoods about costs, and its playing on fear. In his triumph he has become the leader of the nasty party he didn't want to be and in all likelihood he will soon be seen as such as the Lib Dem's protective heat shield ceases to function. It will be of little consolation for reformers but 'No' may prove a Pyrrhic victory for the Prime Minister.

If this is so, and I apologise for the length of this PS, then it alters my analysis. There was more sense to the 'Yes' campaign's strategy than I conceded. It was not mistakenly premised on it being in effect a confirmation of the Coalition, as I argue above. It was understood as such by the Lib Dems from the start. This was above all what Nick Clegg wanted from it. He and his Lib Dem colleagues got the message from the Prime Minister that he was fine with this and would, informally, permit AV. Knowing this the 'Yes' campaign deliberately did nothing that would provoke Cameron into opposing it by angering him or his party, for example by presenting a 'Yes' as the first step to proportionality or linking it to growing anger over the NHS. To no avail. The party backbenchers, and not just backbenchers, surprised Cameron with the ferocity and depth of their feelings, from Montgomerie's account. He turned tail and fled from his creation to become their 'leader'. It's a 'winner takes all' world out there. the question is, in terms of Tory politics who really is the winner?

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