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The rise and fall of Britain’s political class

From Westminster to Whitehall, elites are failing and our political system is collapsing. 

The British political system used to be seen as one of the wonders of the world. A hundred years ago last month, Max Weber, the great German sociologist, gave a seminal lecture on “The Profession and Vocation of Politics” in Munich. Speaking in the chaotic and revolutionary aftermath of the First World War, he expressed his admiration for the British system and the way its politicians and officials managed to maintain prosperity and stability while allowing a working democracy to flourish. We were reputed around the world as the cradle of democracy, tolerance and downright decency. No longer.

My work nowadays requires me to travel from conflict zone to conflict zone to meet elected leaders and guerrilla leaders. A strange thing has happened in the past six months. After half an hour discussing the Farc in Colombia or Mozambique’s Renamo or North Korea, they will turn to me and ask, “What on earth has happened to Britain?” They are not enquiring about the latest on Brexit, but rather the complete collapse of our political system. It is painful to see people engaged in real civil wars pitying us for the deep division in the country and the inability of our political leaders to resolve it. In the words of Sylvie Kauffmann, editorial director of Le Monde, “Continental Europe has watched with bewilderment, despair and exasperation as the world’s oldest democracy… a former empire, winner of two world wars, aspires to become Singapore upon Thames.”

We have gone from being the most stable country in Europe to one of the least, from a country governed by a broad pragmatic consensus to a society divided into two doctrinaire camps and from a government that managed crises well to political leaders who can’t even control their own parties. Worst of all we have gone from a relatively civilised and tolerant political discourse to violence on our streets directed at people who have different points of view.

When the inquiry is eventually held into Brexit it will, unlike those into the Iraq War and the Scott affair, focus not just on individual failings but the whole system – the government, the opposition and even the civil service.

It starts, of course, with the government’s abominable handling of Brexit – in what is perhaps the worst-managed negotiation in living memory. This botched process arose in part out of a failure of political leadership. The Prime Minister and many of her colleagues knew they were doing something that would do great harm to the country but did not dare stop it for fear of being unseated by the extremists in their own party. This fear prevented the Prime Minister from being honest with the public about the difficult choices it faced. She tried instead, as the Brexiteers did, to pretend they would be making “one of the easiest trade deals in human history”. But it was also a failure of planning. As Ivan Rogers, the former British ambassador to the EU, puts it: when they triggered Article 50, “they had not the slightest fag packet plan on what they were going to try to do and in which order”.

Theresa May established a series of red lines without real thought of what might be achievable with our European partners and walked into a deal where she sacrificed free access to the European market for British services – which make up 80 per cent of our economy – in return for an end to free movement of labour from Europe, even though migration from EU states to the UK has fallen dramatically since the referendum in 2016. The government failed to think through the logical bind it was getting into, notably on the Northern Ireland border, despite copious warnings about the dangers of promising all things to all people.

Instead, the Prime Minister tried to play hardball, employing the mantra that “no deal was better than a bad deal”. In a negotiation it is certainly a good idea to know what your best alternative to a negotiated agreement is, but that is not the same as threatening to shoot yourself in the head unless the other side do what you want. In those circumstances they are likely to invite you to do it. Theresa May has now belatedly discovered that no deal wasn’t such a good idea after all. As Ivan Rogers rightly concludes, “the whole conduct of the negotiation has further burned through trust in the political class”.

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But it is not just the government’s incompetence in the Brexit negotiations that has led to the collapse of the political system. The all-consuming obsession with Brexit has prevented the government from addressing the deep problems that confront the country. It has no time or energy to develop serious policies on the challenge of artificial intelligence and automation for traditional jobs, or to address the housing crisis for young people or the social care crisis for older people. Even if it did, they would be no legislative time available. For everything but Brexit the country is on autopilot.

This is not the first time Britain has been saddled with an incompetent government. The system has a built-in remedy in the form of a competent loyal opposition ready to take over power. Unfortunately, that part of the system has broken down too. No one, not even his closest colleagues, remotely thinks Jeremy Corbyn would make a competent prime minister. That is why he is still well behind in the opinion polls despite the collapse of the governing party. The problem is, however, not just one of competence. He has not even fulfilled the opposition part of his mandate. He has been notable by his invisibility during the Brexit debate, not least because he knows his Eurosceptic views do not fit with the beliefs of the 80 per cent of party members who strongly support Remain. In the words of the excellent former science minister Sam Gyimah, “Labour is not a government in waiting, it is an opposition in hiding.” The opposition has not had an intelligible position on Brexit. Both the prime minister and the leader of the opposition support Leave, so who is there to oppose the government on behalf of the more than 50 per cent of people who, according to the most recent polls, support Remain?

What is perhaps most surprising is the absence of courageous political leadership to fill this vacuum. Normally, if the prime minister and the leader of the opposition have failed to rise to the challenges of the moment a Churchill would appear, as in 1939. But there is absolutely no sign of a political saviour. On neither side of the House of Commons has anyone raised a standard to which people have rallied. I can’t think of a moment in my lifetime when there has been such a paucity of political talent on display. I am not saying there aren’t any potential leaders out there; just that they haven’t seized the day yet. Ask yourself this question: if there were a referendum tomorrow who would lead the Remain campaign?

The absence of political leadership has allowed our tradition of relatively moderate and polite political discourse to be replaced by a populism of the left and the right where anything goes, as seen with outbreak of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party; Boris Johnson’s comments on the burka; Tommy Robinson suddenly becoming an acceptable face of Ukip; the pushing and shoving outside parliament; and the relatively sober Conservative MP Bernard Jenkins saying recently, “If you try to stop Brexit, you will unleash Hell.”

But most disturbing is the disappearance of the concept of facts. If I go on television to debate with a Brexit politician such as Jacob Rees-Mogg or Michael Howard on the Irish border, I can explain a fact I have come to know over a long period of time; he can respond with a barefaced lie about the answer being technology. The journalist, in the interest of balance, can treat the two as if they are of equal weight. Boris Johnson can use the lie that 80 million Turks are about to enter the EU and later deny he ever said anything about Turkey. What are the public supposed to do when faced with such relativism? Nothing is true and everything is possible, as they say in Russia.

Nor is it just the politicians who have failed. So too, sadly, has the civil service. I say this tentatively because it is not responsible for what has gone wrong. But in the 1970s – a decade of revolving door governments and continuous political crisis, the heyday of Yes Minister – the civil service held the fort. A strong civil service provided continuity and a certain degree of stability. It has not been able to do so this time. Its morale has collapsed and there is an exodus of talent. It is not just the hapless Chris Grayling who is responsible for drone-gate at Gatwick and the inability to prepare for new rail timetables, nor successive welfare secretaries for the failure of Universal Credit. The civil service should have been prepared and should have demonstrated competence in terms of policy development and project management. And on Brexit it appears to have failed to drive home to Theresa May and her colleagues the real position of our European partners, what was possible and what was a unicorn.

The most worrying thing of all is the resulting collapse of public confidence in the political system. The verdict of the public is devastating: in a recent private unpublished poll 66 per cent of voters thought the current system of politics doesn’t work and has to be fundamentally changed; 64 per cent thought most politicians come from the same political class, which is out of touch with most people; 59 per cent thought Labour and Conservatives behave alike and neither of them can be trusted to get anything done; and 52 per cent thought that neither Labour nor Conservatives are fit to govern because their leaders are unable to unite their own parties. If the people lose faith in our democratic system we are a short step from a more authoritarian form of government.

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Politics as a vocation: Max Weber gave his celebrated lecture on 28 January 1919​

Why has a once great and effective political system collapsed so suddenly? It is not just due to Brexit and it won’t be resolved by Brexit passing. Rather, the system has been shown to be like a tree that was apparently healthy on the outside but rotten to the core, where only a small push was needed to make it fall.

Some of the clues to the underlying problems are apparent in Max Weber’s lecture in 1919. Weber acknowledged “one cannot predict yet how the apparatus of ‘The Profession and Vocation of Politics’ will be structured”. Nonetheless, he foresaw some of the root causes that led to this collapse.

First, Weber warned of the dangers inherent in the professionalisation of politics. He identified the first steps towards this professionalisation in 19th century Britain with the rise of full-time election agents. He thought this change would hand control of parties to the full-time functionaries and could lead to an unhealthy centralisation of politics. In Britain that professionalisation reached a new level in the past 20 years with the creation of a separate caste that spends its whole life in career politics and has little experience of life outside. Ed Miliband can pass from Oxford straight to being a special adviser to Harriet Harman in opposition, to working for Gordon Brown in government, to becoming an MP, a minister, leader of the opposition and, finally, an ex-leader of the opposition on the back benches, without ever stepping into the real world. On the other side, David Cameron went straight from Oxford into the Conservative Party apparatus, became a special adviser, an MP, leader of the opposition and prime minister, then ex-prime minister, with only a very brief stint outside politics as a PR man for a TV company. I don’t pretend I am not part of the problem, having spent most of my life as an official and a political appointee, but this hyper-professionalisation has led to the development of a sort of monastic order and fuelled the belief in the wider population that they are governed by a separate, out-of-touch class that serves its own interests.

Crucially, Weber distinguished between those who lived “for politics” and those who lived “from politics”. We have developed increasingly into the latter. Aspiring politicians are less inclined to take risks and say what they think because it may undermine their careers. Weber says the need for mass propaganda and organisation makes the development of unity and strict discipline crucial to the success of political parties. Real power, he says, belongs to the people who run the parties as they “can checkmate the parliamentarians and, for the most part, force their own agenda”. This makes it easier to run the business of government, as long as MPs remain lobby fodder, but it suppresses the development of independent thinking and nascent political leadership abilities.

Second, Weber saw the need for charismatic leaders in politics, saying that “the charismatic element of every leader is the main motivating force that satisfies the idealism” of their followers rather than “just working for the abstract program of a mediocre party”. But he also warned against demagogues who lacked a sense of responsibility. Eerily, he sees journalism as a particular route into this sort of politics, writing about papers hiring “gifted writers as ‘celebrities’ who always explicitly wrote under their byline”, which had “showed that in some famous incidents no elevated sense of responsibility was cultivated as one would have hoped for”. It was almost as if he had met Boris Johnson. Weber was clear politicians need to be able to make their case convincingly, but once opportunistic politicians are prepared to deploy any lie to justify their case, and are not held accountable for doing so, then political dialogue is fatally undermined. The public comes to believe that all politicians are lying.

Third, Weber warns of the danger of spin, although he doesn’t call it that. He says that “politics is to a large measure shaped by the means of the publicly spoken and written word”. He lamented the success of British propaganda during the First World War because it had been able to “argue a weak case in a technically effective fashion” whereas German officials had been too bureaucratic. But he warned too of the “the work of the irresponsible journalist” because of the “terrible and long-term effects” it might have. And he also saw how the “journalistic worker” was losing out as the capitalistic press magnates gained more political influence, citing Lord Northcliffe as an example – think Rupert Murdoch.

As the media’s economic model has demanded that the voracious beast is fed more and more often, spin has become increasingly important as a political tool. That then drives political discourse – so Theresa May keeps repeating “Brexit means Brexit”, or “No deal is better than a bad deal” – until the words uttered by politicians cease to mean anything to the ordinary person. This is then compounded by the role of social media, where members of the public no longer all get the same news but live in echo chambers where their own beliefs are reinforced again and again. This is the ideal ecosystem for demagogues, as illustrated by James Graham’s recent Channel 4 film Brexit: The Uncivil War.

Fourth, while favouring a non-political civil service, Weber flagged up the potential problem. He says “the honour of the official comes from the ability to carry out any order – regardless of his own opinion – with the same diligence, as if he is fully supportive of the order”. But the danger is that the official does not have a sense of responsibility – they are just fulfilling orders. Weber was scarred by the so-called Daily Telegraph affair of 1908, when officials supinely went along with publication of a disastrous interview with the Kaiser that poisoned Anglo-German relations. Weber says that an official should not act as a politician or try to be a demagogue – he would in any case be a lousy one – but manage his task in an objective fashion. He argues, though, “An exception is made when the essential interest of the state and the survival of the existing order is threatened.” When the government pursues a policy civil servants know to be wrong and dangerous to the country, should they just stand by? Or do they have a duty to take steps to protect the survival of the polity?

At the core of Weber’s argument is the idea of balance in the ethics of politics. He warns against the dangers of extremism: “an absolute ethic is not concerned with the consequences it may cause”, and points out that “every politician engages with diabolical powers, which lurk in every kind of violence”. So your passion for any cause must be balanced by an ethic of responsibility, thinking about the consequences. He famously said that “politics is like slowly but forcefully drilling holes in hardwood boards, and that with passion and, at the same time, with a sense of proportion”.

The trouble with many of the politicians engaged in the argument over Brexit is that they have not absorbed that duty and have let their passion and the means they are prepared to use overcome their sense of proportion. They are also disregarding the consequences, intended and unintended.

The reason this particularly matters in Britain is that we have an unwritten constitution. It depends largely on convention and precedent rather than written rules. It is a delicate balance and when people no longer care about the means they use or the consequences of their actions then it risks collapse. We have seen Brexit MPs challenging the good faith of the Speaker, the government being held in contempt of parliament for the first time in history and Brexiteer rebels arguing that pro-European parliamentarians are usurping the role of the executive.

Most of all, we have failed to understand that in our system parliament is sovereign, not the people. If we want to run a plebiscitary system in parallel, where the people govern through referendums rather than representative democracy, then we need a set of rules about thresholds and whether the outcome of a referendum is binding or advisory before we embark on it. This is as opposed to a vote being called on a whim, as David Cameron did, and then insisting that the outcome is holy writ and that it is undemocratic to consult the people ever again, even though this frequently happens in other democratic countries. Even worse, each individual’s interpretation of the result is set up as “the will of the people”, which cannot be challenged. Most importantly, we have to understand the consequences of dividing the country 50/50 on an issue without any thought about how to bring it back together.

We have become complacent about the fragility of that constitution and about the stability of our politics, just as our ancestors were complacent about the stability of the international system before the First World War. We haven’t been tested by a crisis of this magnitude for a generation. Unless rapid steps are taken to regain people’s confidence in the political system this country, and the union on which it is based, could be broken irretrievably.

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Weber is more useful in his diagnosis of the problems we currently face than in finding the solutions, but the public are clear about what they favour: 89 per cent think political parties should work together constructively on addressing the big challenges; 88 per cent want politicians to treat them like adults and be honest about the problems facing the country; 87 per cent think politicians should put their point of view forward in a civilised and respectful way and respond constructively to other ideas; and 84 per cent want them to focus on the future of our economy and society rather that talking about the past. When Liam Fox warns that the people’s trust in politicians and politics will permanently break down if there is a second referendum, I’m afraid I have to tell him it already has because of what he and his colleagues have perpetrated.

And the people are right. This is not a conservative, with a small “c”, case for keeping things the same. On the contrary, it is a case for a new way of doing politics as soon as possible to save the polity. We need some way to come together, whether it is through a government of national unity like that which Churchill and Attlee put together in the Second World War, or Conservative and Labour backbenchers who have grown used to working together in opposing Brexit forming a new “Sensible Party” that actually addresses the country’s problems. Above all, we need a new generation of political leaders, rather than a leader of the opposition nearly in his seventies and a prime minister in her sixties. We need political leaders with a stake in the future to lead us out of this mess to a new sense of optimism. As Max Weber says, “politics is about the future, not who is guilty for the past”. 

Jonathan Powell was a civil servant from 1979 to 1994 and Tony Blair’s chief of staff from 1995 to 2007

This article appears in the 01 February 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Epic fail