Britain’s ruling class: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss

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Commentary by Bernard Thompson

Politicians want to make a difference. They want to put something back. They care about the life of their community and want to help people. They believe the values of the political tribe they belong to will change the country for the better.

“Sure, some are more effective than others.

“But very, very few go into it because it looks like an easy life.

“They work long, anti-social hours under intense scrutiny. They shoulder very great responsibilities, like passing laws, or deciding whether we go to war. They can be bombarded with abuse and have to reapply for their jobs every five years.

“And everybody hates them.

“If one thing comes from Jo Cox’s shocking and tragic death, it should be this. We should abandon our lazy, unthinking disdain for the people who represent us. “

Wise, profound words, you may say. No? Okay, so they came from The Herald’s political editor Magnus Gardham.

But his piece was prescient as it was announced – a mere 11 days later – that he was to leave journalism, to work for civil servants and politicians in the Scottish Office.

It would, of course, be quite wrong to infer that Gardham’s poacher-turned-gamekeeper conversion lends any weight to those who suspected that he had been a little too cosy with that gamekeeper all along.

But it’s not as if this is the first time something like this has happened.

Darling: Hired a loyal hack as his spin doctor at the Treasury
Darling: Hired a loyal hack as his spin doctor at the Treasury

Back in the day, one of Gardham’s predecessors at the Herald, Catherine Mcleod, had to deal with outrageous accusations in the Herald’s comments section that she somehow favoured the Labour party.

Mcleod never revealed if that was what drove her to leave her post with a “huge amount of sadness” to take up a position as special adviser to Alistair Darling, whom she had known for years “partly through his wife Margaret Vaughan, a former Herald journalist”. McLeod featured playing mother hen in a celebrated interview Darling gave to The Observer, predicting more economic gloom while he was still Chancellor of the Exchequer.

PUBLIC MOOD

Nor was Gardham the first to link the murder of an MP to the general lack of respect shown to our political class. Polly Toynbee wasted no time in declaring in The Guardian:

“This attack on a public official cannot be viewed in isolation. It occurs against a backdrop of an ugly public mood in which we have been told to despise the political class, to distrust those who serve, to dehumanise those with whom we do not readily identify.”

Polly toynbee, grande dame of liberal establishment
Polly Toynbee, grande dame of liberal establishment

While it may be quite proper at such a time of tragedy to hope for something better – a “kinder, gentler politics” – we should be careful of those on the political scene who demand an inalienable right to sanctuary, rather than being answerable to the people they claim to serve.

Never has that political class been shown up for what it is – an unrepresentative, unprincipled clique that pays no heed to the interests of the country under its power – than in the UK today.

In times of uncertainty, nations need leadership and statesmanship, lest they descend into chaos.

But Britain’s two biggest Westminster parties have effectively absolved themselves of all duties of governance as they choose instead to play internal power games.

While people are worried about their jobs, their businesses, the futures of their children, even their right to live and work in the countries they have called home, the political class has chosen to indulge in lascivious chatter about internecine wars.

SHATTERED KINGDOM

How Boris betrayed Cameron only to be betrayed by Gove, who may yet be betrayed by Dacre and Murdoch and gazumped by May. All for the right to wear the crown of a shattered kingdom; to be the vainglorious leader of a nation turning to dust.

Labour, instead of seizing the vacant, leaderless ground, choose to hold their own leader hostage and threaten to split their party in two, making risible excuses to defend what is transparently a pre-planned and  cynical manoeuvre to maintain a style and structure of politics that British people are rejecting in their millions.

So a nation of 65m will have its next prime minister chosen by a Tory membership of less than 150,000. Or two people, if you believe it’s really Paul Dacre and Rupert Murdoch, and possibly only one of them.

Labour’s 388,000 members are expected to accept a leader approved by 172 MPs and 20 MEPs, many of whom are acting against the explicit wishes of their constituency parties, without the man elected nine months ago with a massive mandate even being allowed to stand again.

And why? To keep Tony Blair from having to be housed in “suitable accommodation”?

Or is it just because they want to maintain a mechanism through which they can accrue wealth and power via a party that doesn’t want them and an electorate deprived of representative choice.

And just look at this political class that we must not disdain for fear of being accused of promoting abuse.

The UK has a parliament in which 309 Tory MPs voted to cut £30-per-week Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) to disabled people, at least one of whom was reported to have voted in a dinner suit.

WELFARE CUTS

Last year, Harriet Harman, acting leader of the Labour party ordered MPs not to resist her distant relative, David Cameron’s welfare cuts, in just one of many exercises that have seen money taken from the poor and diverted to bankers.

The UK has a Chancellor who cuts deals with tax avoiders, a Justice Minister (and possible PM) who supported the death penalty, a Health Minister who appears to support the privatisation of the NHS, and a Home Secretary (also a potential PM) who said Britain should leave the European Convention on Human Rights (until last Thursday when she confirmed her candidacy).

All serving under an outgoing PM who has been busily trying to stop an investigation into whether or not his party actually committed fraud to win the election.

Hilary Benn getting an admiring glance from his leader
Hilary Benn getting an admiring glance from his leader

As for Labour, their coup was kicked off by that great hereditary MP, Hilary Benn (a former pupil, like Toynbee, of Holland Park School, the socialist Eton) who apparently should be accorded the respect that many had for his late father –  but never accused of being part of a political dynasty.

Which is probably why a media that is exceedingly kind to him on both the “left”, such as it is, and the right rarely make much of a remarkable story of privilege.

The fact that he is not only the son of a highly-regarded MP, but the grandson of another and great-grandson of two more. And that the hereditary peerage that we had been led to believe was “renounced” was instead simply suspended, allowing Tony Benn to sit in the Commons while his offspring continue to enjoy all that the title of Viscount Stansgate can confer.

The current incumbent is Hilary’s brother Stephen, whose daughter was selected as a labour parliamentary candidate at 17.

FEUDAL OVERLORDS

It sounds more like something from 1970s Tories than any party once calling itself socialist and yet British people are supposed to trust and respect, if not pay fealty to an ever-tightening group who are not so much a political class as feudal overlords.

There should be no mistaking the danger of the mess that Britain is in.

One of the most perilous aspects of the EU referendum was the way in which the concerns of millions of people were ignored, voters being caricatured as uneducated, unthinking bigots, if they said they had voted to Leave.

There were assuredly plenty who were guided by prejudice but the whole point of a democratic process is to allow people to participate in shaping their own destinies and to respect the result, however imperfect their motives or understanding of the complexities of the debate.

Yet those voters were not even accorded the courtesy of an honest campaign on the issues – and neither side emerged with any great credit.

But few are listening to the increasingly agitated millions, with talk of simply finding a way to disregard the Brexit vote becoming more common.

Where can that lead to: a huge swathe of British voters dismissed and two party elites choosing to remain oblivious to their concerns or even defying majority opinion?

Tories, the great excluders of the people, against Labour, the great ignorers of their will.

STRANGE DEMOCRACY

This is not simply a case of failing democracy. Only a fantasist could believe in that in a country which still has an unelected head of state, who is also head of the established church, which is allowed to send its bishops to the upper house of parliament.

It would be a strange democracy in which one party could be guaranteed a parliamentary majority for five years on less than 37% of the vote.

No, what is far more grave is that, such is the contempt in which this political class holds British people, it has even given up pretending.

As the country cries out for direction, those who have climbed their way up the greasy poll, through patronage, heritage, duplicity or sycophancy seem so sure of the dumb obeisance of the masses that they can decide amongst themselves who gets to lead, with only the formality of an electoral sham to ratify their anointed head of government.

In this they are aided by the media, many of whom are themselves part of that political class delivering “news” and “opinion” that should be preceded by three shouts of “Oh, yea,” so blindly does it follow the prescribed narrative of the party plotters and spin doctors.

But at what point does a political elite’s complacency start to be punished? Have they learned no lessons from Northern Ireland and what happened when people from disenchanted, disenfranchised communities stopped relying on elected representatives and instead fell in behind those favouring altogether more direct, if devastating, means of achieving their ends?

Harold Wilson: Right wing claque in 1960s military was convinced he was an untrustworthy Communist
Harold Wilson: Right wing claque in 1960s military was convinced he was an untrustworthy Communist

If all this seems melodramatic, it appears almost to have been forgotten that, only a few weeks ago, Nigel Farage said publicly that “violence is the next step” as a response to immigration.

And it is less than a year since a serving general was quoted as saying that the military “would not allow a prime minister to jeopardise the security of this country and I think people would use whatever means possible, fair or foul, to prevent that”, should Corbyn be elected Prime Minister.

In that, he echoed the response of some top brass against the Wilson government, 40 years ago.

PRECIPICE

That’s the thing about chaos – it is impossible to predict where it will all end but it is no exaggeration to say that the UK stands on the edge of a precipice. And, if its political class do not soon start to listen and represent, the consequences may be dire.

Scottish political leaders, too, have their decisions to make.

Does Ruth Davidson align her over-inflated Scottish Tories with a new PM without popular mandate or match her threat to declare political independence in the event of a Johnson Premiership?

Does Kezia Dugdale choose to continue to snipe at Corbyn or somehow try to revive Labour in Scotland by adopting a programme more acceptable to the thousands of voters the party lost over the last 18 months?

Does the SNP help to prop up Corbyn, hoping for a future government with which it could co-operate, knowing that any other option will see the political class close ranks with the bankers and corporations to lock out democracy for good?

Or will the events of the next few days and weeks make issues around Brexit obsolete and the only viable solution independence through referendum or even a unilateral declaration.

The combined efforts of Thatcher, Major, Blair, Brown and Cameron may already have taken Britain too far down the road to effective dictatorship to reverse within a lifetime.

If that is the case it makes for a compelling imperative – that anyone who can get out, should get out.

That goes for countries that are members of the UK, just as surely as for individuals who may have the opportunity to escape a future in which Labour and the Tories silently collude to ignore possible electoral fraud and an illegal war for which those “rebel” MPs voted, and maintain a system allowing them to feather their own nests.

But let’s never disrespect our political class.