Readers of Atlas Shrugged will recall the Taggart Tunnel disaster, a seminal moment in Ayn Rand’s novel. The deadly train accident, an avoidable, man-made calamity, highlights the devastating but inevitable consequence of having too few people of moral fibre, wisdom and intelligence left in positions of power and authority.
For those unfamiliar: in the build-up to the disaster, the Taggart Railroad’s flagship transcontinental service breaks down while passing through Colorado, stranding a trainload of passengers in the mountains. Taggart Transcontinental’s best engineers and executives have long since deserted the company, resigning out of frustration with the endless bureaucratic meddling and the glorification of consensual mediocrity which has taken hold of corporate and political culture in the dying days of the United States. With no replacement diesel locomotives available and with nobody willing to take responsibility or speak truth to power, a self-important politician travelling on the train is able to bully reluctant and inexperienced railroad employees to use a coal-burning engine to pull the train through the long, airless mountain tunnel, resulting in the death by asphyxiation of everyone on board.
The grey characters of modern British politics are far less compelling than those in Ayn Rand’s dystopia, but alarming parallels are starting to appear between the groupthink and instinct for self-preservation shown by the elite in Atlas Shrugged and the recent behaviour of the Westminster village as it faces the intertwined problems of unfinished constitutional reform, voter apathy, the relentless march of UKIP and an economic recovery that may as well not exist for the low-paid.
Take last week’s shameful decision by MPs to defeat Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith’s “Real Recall” amendment to the government’s Recall of MPs bill. The introduction of a recall bill, providing a mechanism to remove MPs guilty of serious misdemeanour or failing to represent their constituents satisfactorily, was included in the Conservative-LibDem coalition agreement in 2010, partly in response to public rage about the MPs expenses scandal. And yet following defeat of Real Recall in a 340 to 166 free vote, power to recall MPs will rest with their friends and colleagues in the House of Commons, not their constituents.
Green Party MP Caroline Lucas explains why this makes the government’s Recall bill a worthless, empty gesture:
Real recall means power to voters – where people can decide, with safeguards for fairness, when and why an MP is recalled.
In a nutshell, the Recall Bill means that, should an MP grossly fail their constituents in some way, a parliamentary committee would hold the power to recall them.
Which misses the point entirely. My constituents are my employers – if I let them down I should be accountable to them.
Those who voted last week against the amendments tabled by Zac Goldsmith MP for real recall positioned themselves on a pedestal out of reach of those they represent. They’d rather be held to account by their parliamentary peers than those who voted them in – for which read they don’t especially want to be held to account at all.
And one can hardly disagree with her overall summary of British political institutions:
Westminster’s hardly a billboard for people-centred politics. Given its makeup, the term ‘Commons’ is pretty ironic, too. Then there was the MPs’ expenses scandal. The redacted reports, the bizarre rituals (think pink ribbons on coat hooks for one’s sword). All topped off with a good dash of blasé gender discrimination and free leg-ups for old school chums.
We’re supposed to be the mother of all democracies. But Parliament remains resolutely unrepresentative, unaccountable and un-transparent.
The threadbare excuses thrown in the path of Real Recall are numerous – voters would get carried away by populist anti-politician fervour and abuse their new power, special interests and lobbyists would work to undermine decent MPs on behalf of their corporate paymasters – but they all have one thing in common: they show a complete and undisguised lack of trust in the British people. When politicians make it so abundantly clear that they govern for themselves and others of their kind, ordinary people be damned, can they really be surprised when they are met with disdain or indifference at the ballot box?
Then take yesterday’s announcement by George Osborne that the Treasury is planning to impose a directly-elected mayor on the people of Greater Manchester, despite the voters’ rejection of that very same idea in 2012. To begin, one might wonder why the Treasury, of all departments, feels entitled and empowered to weigh in on questions of local government and democracy. George Osborne clearly has the trust and permission of David Cameron, and the creation of a “Northern Powerhouse” is probably a good idea, but that does not entitle the Chancellor of the Exchequer to throw his weight around on issues that more properly rest with Eric Pickles and the Department for Communities and Local Government.
Fraser Nelson also takes umbrage at the idea of central government in Westminster imposing a settlement which was already rejected by voters:
“Manchester to get directly elected Mayor” trumpets today’s Treasury press release. I genuinely thought this was a hoax when it landed in my inbox, as it such a clear expression of contempt for the democratically-expressed wish of Mancunians. Sure, the vote was close – 53pc to 47pc – and the proposal was for a mayor of the City of Manchester rather than the now-proposed area of Greater Manchester. But as Scotland was recently told, ‘no’ means ‘no’. Unless, it seems, the Chancellor is particularly keen on something in which case, ‘no’ means ‘yes’.
Word is that Leeds and Sheffield (who also gave the wrong answers) may be next. This is precisely what turns people to Ukip: the idea that the political elite does what it wants, in defiance of public opinion.
As it happens, I agree with Osborne that Mayors are, in general, a good thing. But if he lost the referenda, and did so just two years ago, he needs to respect the result – that’s how we do things in Britain. All this will just reinforce sceptics’ worst fears about Westminster.
Nelson is absolutely right. Directly elected mayors (common throughout much of the western world) are generally a good idea, as is any move which genuinely puts power back in the hands of local people. And yet the voters of many English cities rejected the plan – perhaps partly because they recognised it as creating another layer of politicians squabbling over the limited set of powers granted to them by Westminster – and their will should be respected. At the very least, the government should have the decency to spruce up its plans and go back to the electorate with an improved offer, but with Osborne’s presumptuous approach the government makes its view of British and local popular opinion quite clear.
Furthermore, the devolution of new powers to one chosen city completely misses the bigger picture, the complete constitutional mess left in the aftermath of the Scottish independence referendum and the hastily-written “pledge” signed by the main party leaders, promising a raft of new powers for the Scottish Assembly while taking no action to ensure fairness and reciprocity for the other home nations. The referendum count in Scotland had barely finished before the SNP were hopping about accusing Westminster of a betrayal, but the opacity and lack of public consultation going into the government’s “Smith Commission” constitutional deliberations is a betrayal of every British citizen, not just the Scottish.
Finally, look at the cringe-inducing moment when Ed Miliband was forced to have a momentary interaction with a beggar on the streets of Manchester:
As the Labour leader’s entourage swept past, a pained-looking Miliband turned back to drop some money – said to be between 60 pence and “a couple of quid” but looking for all the world like tuppence – into her cup. At no point during the exchange did Miliband make eye contact with the woman, enquire about her wellbeing or seek to engage her in conversation, a point not lost on The Spectator’s Isabel Hardman:
But this new bacon sandwich moment for Ed Miliband only reinforces what we have already come to know about the modern Labour Party, a movement entirely captured by the same political class that dominates the rest of Westminster and which is utterly aghast when the poor and the downtrodden actually dare to express thoughts or opinions of their own.
Simon Woolley, the director of Operation Black Vote, wrote a commendable piece in the Guardian talking about this mutual lack of trust between voters and politicians, and summing up the enormity of the problem:
First, the three main political parties are haemorrhaging support. Recent figures show less than 1% of the electorate is a member of a political party – 20 years ago that would have been nearly 4%.
Second, and perhaps even more worryingly, in our last three general elections 20 million voters out of an electorate of 49 million did not go to the polls. And when it comes to local elections, or those for police and crime commissioners (PCCs), a staggering 80% of the electorate say “thanks but no thanks”.
Woolley goes on to describe his ideal political system, almost the polar opposite of what we have now:
A good starting point for political leaders would be to begin trusting the electorate. That way, in turn, we can trust them. The too often vice-like grip that party leaders have over who runs the party machine translates to insiders getting a leg up, and outsiders – who are often popular – being squeezed out. That’s a key reason why we don’t have a multitude of working-class MPs.
Parties should recruit new members who would rejuvenate the local branches. Once recruited they can be nurtured and encouraged by being given suitable roles that use their interests, experience and talents. They must be allowed to express themselves rather than being there either to make up the numbers or as anonymous cut-and-paste replicas of the leadership.
Absolutely. All well and good. But do you see any of these root-and-branch party reforms happening under the respective leaderships of Cameron, Miliband, or Clegg? How about their likely successors, who are as much beholden to the current system as the incumbents?
So let’s return to Ayn Rand and the Colorado Rocky Mountains. As the 2015 general election approaches, Britain’s political establishment is hurtling toward the mouth of the tunnel, with David Cameron in the driver’s cab and his squabbling engineers Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg busily shovelling coal into the dirty, antiquated engine. They must sense in the back of their minds that displaying unbridled contempt for the voters while pressing ahead with unmandated, self-serving or antidemocratic policies will ultimately bring them to ruin; and yet even now they cannot imagine behaving any other way.
With a few noble exceptions, the young guns of the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties are virtually indistinguishable. They all rose to power in a political system that is heavily centralised, where real ideological difference has been supplanted by muddled centrism, where messaging trumps ideas, where local politics and the opinions of people far from Westminster exist only to be scorned or exploited, and where where the political intake is now so unrepresentative of the general population that senior politicians are genuinely baffled by the fact that whole swathes of the country hold quite different views on immigration, globalisation, protectionism and patriotism.
David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg may chug along to political oblivion on 7th May 2015, but the British people are by no means obliged to follow them. More and more voters are choosing to decouple from the establishment’s runaway train to nowhere and hitch their wagons to rival trains: Nigel Farage and the UKIP people’s army in England, or the surprisingly unbowed SNP in Scotland. Neither UKIP or the SNP boasts a fully coherent ideology or fleshed-out policy platform, but their allure is real and compelling – they both promise to take the voter at full speed to a different, better destination.
And after the crash, as we pick through the wreckage of a probable hung parliament and another directionless coalition in want of a mandate, we will have a choice: sit back and accept five more years of smug condescension from three parties who think and act almost exactly alike, or demand real conviction and representation from our elected politicians.
If we choose the latter course, we will put the first nail in the coffin of the Britain’s failed, centrist dystopia.