Will our tarnished democracy be enough to face future challenges? Photo: Getty
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Democratic crisis: how do we stem the remorseless rise of nationalists and populists?

Bleak prospects.

Perhaps most revealing about the Twitter affair that engulfed Emily Thornberry MP were the comments of the White Van Man himself, Dan Ware. He is reported to have told journalists that he wasn’t aware that there was a by-election going on in Rochester and Strood, and that he would not have voted even if he had known. In the past he had been a Conservative voter, but now he had joined those who see no point in voting. As he put it: "No matter who you have, it doesn’t matter".  

British politics is passing through a very strange period. There have been many scandals in the past about individual politicians from John Profumo to John Stonehouse to Jeffrey Archer. But the current scandals go beyond the individuals involved.

The release of the facts about MPs’ expenses, even though a majority of MPs were shown to have done nothing wrong, followed by the shocking revelations about Jimmy Savile and his friends in high places, has deepened cynicism about those in public life and led to wild rumours of conspiracies and cover-ups.

The perception that many public figures are self-serving has grown, feeding the widely held view that those who govern us now form a distinct political class which has become separated from those it governs.

As trust and legitimacy have declined, so a crisis of representation has developed. Both established UK parties have been losing support, their leaders have had negative ratings since 2010, their combined share of the vote has dropped from over 95 per cent in 1951 to 65 per cent in 2010.

Party membership is in steep decline, and ageing. Less than 1 per cent of British voters now belong to a political party. The political class has also come to be recruited from a narrower set of occupations. Only 4 per cent of current MPs are from manual working class backgrounds and more MPs have worked full-time in politics in one capacity or another since leaving university.     

The parties whose membership is growing, who appear confident and sure of their purpose and who communicate in a much more relaxed and direct way with the electorate are the insurgent parties, the Scottish Nationalists, the Greens and Ukip, all of whom are seeking to overturn the existing party system and to challenge core mainstream policies.

This is a phenomenon not confined to the UK but found in many other parts of Europe, as austerity has worsened in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash. So far none of these parties has broken through and disturbed the consensus over core commitments such as maintaining austerity and membership of the EU, but some are getting closer. A victory of one of these insurgent parties in a major European country can no longer be ruled out.

In the UK, the success of the SNP and Ukip threatens to break apart the two Unions, the British Union which is the basis of the United Kingdom, and the European Union which Britain joined in 1973. Support for both are unravelling, forcing the Westminster political class onto the defensive.

The UK has faced political and constitutional upheaval before, notably in the first three decades of the twentieth century. Those years saw a dramatic reorganisation of the British state, the departure of most of Ireland from the Union and the development of a party system based on mass democracy and the opposition between capital and labour. The heyday of this new order was reached in the Seventies when most of the electorate identified with one of the two great blocs, third parties withered away, governments won by-elections, and party membership and trust in political leaders were both high.

Since then the parties have been using up the moral capital which was built up at that time, reflecting the close identification of both parties with particular but distinct common values, purposes and interests. That identification has been gradually eroded both by the professionalisation of politics as an activity and by the rise of a more issue based and instrumental politics as greater individualisation has taken root.

The Labour and Conservative traditions were slowly hollowed out, and the parties have found it much harder to express a sense of common purpose and common values. In the Scottish Referendum campaign with a few exceptions, most notably Gordon Brown, the Unionist politicians found it hard to voice a positive case for the Union. Their campaign stressed all the negative things that would happen if Scotland voted yes.

Until the old parties start to rethink how parliament should be reformed to represent the people and find language and purpose that resonates once more with voters, the prospects for stemming the crisis of representation and the remorseless rise of the nationalists and the populists seem bleak.

Andrew Gamble, Emeritus Professor of Politics at Cambridge University, was speaking at St Edmund's College as part of The Von Hügel Institute lecture series, ‘Ethical Standards in Public Life’, co-hosted with St Mary's University, Twickenham

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Leader: Trump and an age of disorder

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions.

The US presidency has not always been held by men of distinction and honour, but Donald Trump is by some distance its least qualified occupant. The leader of the world’s sole superpower has no record of political or military service and is ignorant of foreign affairs. Throughout his campaign, he repeatedly showed himself to be a racist, a misogynist, a braggart and a narcissist.

The naive hope that Mr Trump’s victory would herald a great moderation was dispelled by his conduct during the transition. He compared his country’s intelligence services to those of Nazi Germany and repeatedly denied Russian interference in the election. He derided Nato as “obsolete” and predicted the demise of the European Union. He reaffirmed his commitment to dismantling Obamacare and to overturning Roe v Wade. He doled out jobs to white nationalists, protectionists and family members. He denounced US citizens for demonstrating against him. Asked whether he regretted any part of his vulgar campaign, he replied: “No, I won.”

Of all his predilections, Mr Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin is perhaps the most troubling. When the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, warned that Russia was the “number one geopolitical foe” of the US, he was mocked by Barack Obama. Yet his remark proved prescient. Rather than regarding Mr Putin as a foe, however, Mr Trump fetes him as a friend. The Russian president aims to use the US president’s goodwill to secure the removal of American sanctions, recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and respect for the murderous reign of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. He has a worryingly high chance of success.

Whether or not Mr Trump has personal motives for his fealty (as a lurid security dossier alleges), he and Mr Putin share a political outlook. Both men desire a world in which “strongmen” are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of external rebuke. Mr Trump’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence provides Mr Putin with every incentive to pursue his expansionist desires. The historic achievement of peace and stability in eastern Europe is in danger.

As he seeks reconciliation with Russia, Mr Trump is simultaneously pursuing conflict with China. He broke with precedent by speaking on the telephone with the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, and used Twitter to berate the Chinese government. Rex Tillerson, Mr Trump’s secretary of state nominee, has threatened an American blockade of the South China Sea islands.

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions. The US constitution, with its separation of powers, was designed to restrain autocrats such as the new president. Yet, in addition to the White House, the Republicans also control Congress and two-thirds of governorships and state houses. Mr Trump’s first Supreme Court appointment will ensure a conservative judicial majority. The decline of established print titles and the growth of “fake news” weaken another source of accountability.

In these circumstances, there is a heightened responsibility on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, Mr Trump. Angela Merkel’s warning that co-operation was conditional on his respect for liberal and democratic values was a model of the former. Michael Gove’s obsequious interview with Mr Trump was a dismal example of the latter.

Theresa May has rightly rebuked the president for his treatment of women and has toughened Britain’s stance against Russian revanchism. Yet, although the UK must maintain working relations with the US, she should not allow the prospect of a future trade deal to skew her attitude towards Mr Trump. Any agreement is years away and the president’s protectionist proclivities could yet thwart British hopes of a beneficial outcome.

The diplomatic and political conventions embodied by the “special relationship” have endured for more than seven decades. However, Mr Trump’s election may necessitate their demise. It was the belief that the UK must stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the US that led Tony Blair into the ruinous Iraq War. In this new age of disorder, Western leaders must avoid being willing accomplices to Mr Trump’s agenda. Intense scepticism, rather than sycophancy, should define their response.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era