“He had a glass in his hand,” says one person, “so surely he’s lied to parliament?” “And now they are going to collapse the whole Brexit deal over Northern Ireland,” says another. “And what about the guy who was watching porn in parliament?” asks a third. “Why would anybody go on voting for them?”
This was not some conversation at a British bus stop. It was with young people in Berlin, speaking perfect English. For the past three years they have been watching the Tories at Westminster like a freak show. They know the terminology, the timeline and every intricate detail of our national comedy.
They know all the names, too. Dominic Cummings, Suella Braverman, Nadine Dorries – the names always followed by a polite snigger. As I’ve travelled through Austria and Germany this week on a book tour, it’s clear that – for many educated Europeans – Britain’s democratic decay has become a source of macabre fascination.
As a journalist with strong European connections, I’ve become used to dispensing instant advice to activists: “Should the Slovenian left stay in the populist government of Robert Golob? If it’s to keep the right out of power, of course!” “Should French socialists unite behind Mélenchon despite his batshit rhetoric? For now it’s inevitable…”
On this basis – viewing the UK as if it were a foreign country, and dispassionately – here’s what we would do if we were just calm, educated left-of-centre Europeans and not a bunch of paralysed fatalists.
First, state and calibrate the problem. British governance has been captured by a corrupt camarilla. Not just the Tory party, but large parts of the civil service have – under Boris Johnson – become used to politics without principle. Their approach is that the rules are for others, the rewards are for us – and of course for the wide network of friends we’ve assembled in our elite schools and banking networks.
Like all right-wing populists, Johnson has fixed in the minds of the business, civil service and financial networks who support him that no other form of government is possible and that no other party should be allowed near power.
He has understood the power of the Scottish Question: any non-Tory government will be dependent on Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP – for simple arithmetical reasons. Therefore any non-Tory government can be portrayed as “in the pocket” of the SNP – and that prospect is so galling to English nationalists that, Johnson figures, he can construct an election-winning alliance with or without further Brexit shenanigans.
[See also: Surely the SNP can do better than Ian Blackford?]
The result is democratic decay on a grand scale: the Electoral Commission suborned, the rules of parliament ignored, policing politicised, the big newspapers paid off with advertising bungs. And in addition, drift. For all the sloganeering there is no actual project for this government, beyond staying in power and enriching its friends.
The fights it picks – with the NUS, the RMT and the BBC – are not done with any real strategic intent but with the aim of prompting the elderly racist in the pub to remember to vote for “our Boris”, the man who would sink the migrant boats if it were not for “woke” judges.
The remedy is not only clear but an invigorating prospect. We could, within five years, have a revived democracy, a public life cleansed of corruption and an economy on the path to green renewal. How?
Step one is for Labour members, at the party’s conference in Liverpool this September, to commit to proportional representation (PR). As all Labour hacks know, a conference policy does not necessarily make the manifesto and nor would it need to.
Step two is for the Liberal Democrats, whose main demand is PR, to state – now and in public – that guaranteed electoral reform is a condition of their support for any Labour minority government, or any coalition.
Step three is for the SNP to set a firm date for the second independence referendum it keeps demanding. Thinking cannily, this could be “12 months after the next general election”.
Step four, assuming Labour continues its stubborn refusal to talk to the Greens, is for activists in a few key seats to agree unofficial local electoral pacts.
Step five is for Gordon Brown’s constitutional commission to report – hopefully with a far-reaching proposal on regional and national devolution and the creation of an elected Lords.
Even if the polls stay as they are today, with the tacit electoral pact the Lib Dems and Labour seem to be observing in around 50 Lib Dem target seats – that should end the Tories’ prospects of a majority at Westminster.
After that, the parties need strategic resolve: to keep this new brand of far-right, strong-state conservatism out of power for a generation.
Step six, therefore, is the formation of a coalition government committed to PR, involving Labour, the SNP, the Lib Dems, the Greens, Plaid Cymru and the SDLP. It enacts PR and allows Scotland to hold an independence referendum.
Win or lose, step seven would see the dissolution of parliament and the first Westminster election held under proportional representation. It would be for the resulting parliament to resolve the burning issues: rapid transition away from carbon; rapid redistribution of wealth and power; the transformation of our defence and national security apparatus to deal with a new era of European conflict. And a new Brexit deal, placing Britain as close as possible to the single market and making it a permanent strategic collaborator with the EU.
One of the most pernicious effects of having to kowtow to a minority of right-wingers is that no politician dares spell out this vision. Under a PR system that would end.
PR is not the answer to everything. It just allows all the most urgent questions to be properly framed, and the ratio of progressives to reactionaries to be measured. It would be a breath of fresh air through a Westminster draped in the stench of corruption and misbehaviour. And it would open politics to a new kind of person, prepared to speak their mind and set their own agenda.
As you watch the establishment – the press, the police, the top civil servants – close ranks around Johnson this week, think big about what the alternatives could be.