The Confidence Trick


I’ve stayed relatively clear of the commentariat’s dive into the Torygraph’s shark pool. Obviously, people needed to comment: for example, when the they smeared MPs someone needed to be telling them off.

But I would much rather have seen the online media trying to counteract what’s going on here than joining in. This is not accidentally timed; I’m not the first to say it, but no-where near enough people have been. This is not a coincidence. While everyone’s talking about expenses, no-one’s talking about the issues that actually matter for the upcoming elections; instead, we’re all tail-chasing about Nazis. Instead of a national debate about the idiocy of deregulating the financial industry during an artificial boom, we have Darling sliding this egregious piece of financial fiction in under the radar of the public debate.

The world’s been a bit fucked and we’re not paying attention. We should be.

Revolutions go bang

On the other hand, this is serious, this is real, and this is the best chance we’ve had to effect genuine change to Britain’s democracy without regicide since 1688. We’ve had limited success at removing corruption (pocket boroughs to lining pockets in 200 years) but we’ve also done some really stupid things, like turning the Lords into an extension of the Commons and thus losing a big check and balance against Prime Ministerial power-grabs. Now we have a chance to change a couple of things that actually need changing. We can diminish the power of Westminster/Whitehall as a whole; we can diminish the power of the parties, we can diminish the power of the executive. Ideally, we could get away from FPTP: a quite ridiculous model for distributed rule which was only marginally sensible back when the highest-bandwidth communications medium was a guy on a horse with a big sack.

But we won’t do any of those things. [1] I’ve said before, though not on here, that the biggest problem with Britain’s democracy is that it is too stable, and has been for too long. Over two hundred years ago, British politicians were dislocating elbows in an orgy of self-congratulation (rather like they were just before the collapse of the Mock) because they’d had their Glorious Revolution a hundred years before the French, and better organised. What they’d conveniently forgotten is that 1688 was not our analogue to the Jacobin reign of terror: 1649 was.

The British haven’t seen real political change for over three hundred years. Not genuine, systemic change; an admission that the entire system is broken, that we can abandon it or strip it for spare parts but the world has moved on. We need a new rule of Law and a new scheme of governance to keep pace with that change. We haven’t seen a government overthrown in long enough that we have forgotten whose job it is to overthrow the bastards when they get it this wrong.

We’ve been too polite about everything ever since we figured out that Kings were just people too. Clearly it’s a good thing, from the individual perspective; less dead people, less burned houses and vandalised factories. But from the point of view of democracy it most certainly is not a good thing. If the politicians don’t see actual blood, their blood, in the streets every now and again, they invent expressions like ‘safe seat’, which should in any democratic system be a risible oxymoron.

The French have had five republics over a pair of centuries which have seen but one in the USA; though one could argue that the Civil War marked a constitutional change as significant as a new Republic would have been. When the French people don’t like what the government are doing they get out on the streets and set fire to something until the buggers in the Elysee Palace listen. I grew up in a place where self-rule was brand new. The last coup d’etat was in ’81; but it will be several generations before any Ghanaian politician can imagine he has a safe seat. British politicians are complacent, because the last time they as a class (rather than as individuals or as parties) lost a fight was a very, very long time ago.


Order is all very well. We like it; it’s good for business. But it has made the political classes in Britain entirely complacent. They no longer need to convince or persuade; they need only spin and obfuscate. The rich and the elderly overwhelmingly vote; one group because they know the government cares about them and the other group because they were raised in a world were the government were expected to govern for the country as a whole, even if they didn’t actually do it. A generation who were accustomed to the idea that a party of working men from the mill floor could get elected into government.

I am a devout believer in the idea of fixing the system from within. Unlike most in this country, I have a first-hand understanding of what civil wars look like. They smell a lot worse than people think. But I dislike, distrust and fear this complacency among western politicians and the plutocrats who buy them. I fear the very idea of a ‘safe’ politician; one whose accountability has been cut to zero because they have circumvented the only mechanism by which their constituents can adjust their attitude.

We were forced to regicide because Reform was insufficient. The system was entrenched; we’d gone through three dynasties in two hundred years and the same damn problems just kept coming up. Enclosures, bad laws, bad judges: for every Elizabeth or Cecil there was a Charles I or a Duke of Norfolk. Substitute the three main parties for the political clans and Grand Families, and the story is very similar today. As early as 2004, two thirds of the country had lost confidence, not merely in the current crop of our best and brightest, but in the very idea that our government works for us at all. I’m prepared to bet that in the face of the crippling stupidity of the commercial interests that the government actually listens to, capped by the egregious policing of dissent in April and followed by the farcical conduct of Westminster over the expenses scandal, the number of people who believe our government works for someone else is even higher.

Thomas Jefferson didn’t believe in political parties, and Franklin expected any politically healthy nation to engage in revolution and reformation every three generations at most. There are times, and this month has been one of them, when I’m almost convinced they were both right.

[1] [ Editor’s Note ] Mr. Clegg ate his wheaties since I wrote this, and came out with an actual plan. Which would really change things, and which has the added benefits of being precise, specific, and plausible. Clegg’s made a hell of a dent in British politics over the course of the past three months, and this is the best evidence I’ve seen yet that there’s more substance to Clegg than there is spin.

The analogy springing to mind is of Spencer Perceval, “a small ship but he carries heavy guns”. Nothing is coming out of the Tories or the Labour party except rats, haemorrhaging into retirement from the wreck of the good ship Business as Usual. Clegg has put the Liberal party’s reformist credentials beyond doubt, while also proposing some things that might actually work. His note that much of the required legislation is already before Parliament, but trammeled in red tape by the Establishment, is very telling. If he can get even a quarter of this to happen, Westminster will have exceeded my expectations.



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