The distinguished psephologist Professor John Curtice has suggested that we may expect the turnout for the Scottish Referendum on 18th September to be around 80% (78% according to the most recent polling evidence in February, 2014); this would be a remarkable vindication not only of the referendum but powerful evidence of a sudden resurgence in interest in serious politics in Scotland. It is more than a pebble in the pool; the electorate has been enlarged with the extension of the franchise to 16-year-olds: we are now in new and unfamiliar territory. Why can we make this claim?
At the last General Election the turnout in Scotland was 63.8%, and in 2001, after Margaret Thatcher’s long scorched-earth policy regime in Scotland, and four years into 13 years of Labour rule, the turnout had fallen to 58.2%. The stark contrast between Referendum Scotland today and UK elections since the millennium is astonishing: from 58% to 80%. The evidence for the scale of the failure of British Unionist politics however is even more ominous than this gulf suggests: indisputable evidence establishes a much longer term, persistent and relentless decline in electoral participation over many decades in the UK; of the electorate’s clear and disturbing disenchantment with politics: a disenchantment that is only too well founded.
In 1950 – in the extraordinary, immediate post-war period the UK, although utterly broke, in ruins after the war and on the verge of losing its Empire, was yet full of hope of a new beginning; and for the first time in history the aspiration to achieve a fair distribution of health, work, education and opportunity within Britain for everyone seemed possible – expressed in a UK General Election turnout of 83.9% for the UK as a whole, and 80.9% in Scotland. We have never seen the like again; but then in British politics from that day forward, and in the creeping, inevitable disillusionment of the British people; hope slowly died on the vine. Greed, vested-interest, celebrity, folly and vanity slowly reasserted their very British, cloying, supercilious priorities; priorities that came to prominence again in a modestly revised form with Thatcher, priorities consolidated meticulously by Blair-Brown and now unrepentantly entrenched under Cameron-Osborne-Johnson-Clegg. Britain is broke this time through its own reckless folly, and this time there is no sense of optimism or hope in a new beginning; save perhaps in Scotland. Ironically, the Conservatives have successfully managed to blame Labour not only for their manifest Treasury blunders, but because Labour were left holding the (quite obviously Thatcher-inspired) office of Government at the moment of the Credit Crunch, the Coalition has managed to pass the buck wholly on to Labour for a financial and economic Crash thirty years in the making; a Labour Government that was merely continuing the economic principles of Thatcherism under Blair, Brown and Darling (what history may identify as Blairite ‘Thatcherism with a human face’). Meanwhile, the Coalition has washed it hands of responsibility for the Crash and has even retained the ideology of Thatcherism not just intact, but resurgent. The seeds for the next Crash have thus already been sown.
We can turn the slow political disaffection of the British people into a long-term, graphic trend line through the data to show a consistent decline in electoral participation that shows no sign of material change to the present day. Each generation of politician pretends that it worries about the decline in election turnout; but in reality it is indifferent, because nothing is ever done about it, and the current system, a merry-go-round reinforced solely by spin and casuistry, is seen to serve the interests of the Unionist political parties, and especially their paymasters the City of London, well enough. The problem of voter disaffection never goes away, so each generation of politician, representing the usual metropolitan vested interests is fated (save the isolated election ‘random walk’ result away from trend) merely to reduce the election turnout by 2-3 percentage points every 3-5 years, with systematic regularity. It works like clockwork. The British people are slowly deserting politics. We may call it the disenchantment thesis: the cruel obliteration of hope from politics.
At this rate there is little doubt that the continuation of the current trend line provided by the long-term turnout data could fall significantly below 50%, perhaps in an election before the mid-century. We may also find that we are returning governments who will represent no more than 20% of the electorate. Such an outcome actually serves the system of Westminster politics rather well, although this may seem at first sight a counter-intuitive observation. It works because the Westminster system combines entrenchment of the status quo with a form of induced disaffection that far from being dangerous to politicians conveniently reduces the electorate to a state of effective inertia. People simply give up. What could be better for the vested interests of established political parties, machine politicians with careers at stake, and for continued secure, risk-free investment in the stable continuity of the status quo, than the supine resignation of the electorate out of despair?
The less that politicians actually accomplish, the weaker the activity of electors, the lower the participation (the ‘election’ retreats into the TV studio and the politicians and media talk only among themselves – they do not even have to mix with voters, still less speak to them). It is a beautiful, elegant, virtuous political circle that can only enhance the career prospects of professional politicians inside the ‘bubble’. The supine resignation of the electorate and an enveloping ennui is the stunted apology for politics that best serves the kind of politician that aspires to a career in British Unionist politics. This becomes the triumph of modern political professionalism, the province of the Spin doctor. Politics is reduced to a carefully choreographed form of ‘virtual reality’: a holograph on a screen, representing nothing. Indeed this system of assisted-inertia, a kind of low-level electoral euthanasia, has served well enough Labour and Tory politicians these seventy years. This is Britain today. This is the Union. It is as near the ‘holy grail’ of political “certainty” representing Better Together’s fundamental article of faith that can be achieved on earth; no wonder Alistair Darling admires it. He would, wouldn’t he?
What does this long-term trend tell us? Alistair Darling would have us all believe, in his uniquely relentless, querulous, hectoring style, that a strong case for the Union, for being Better Together, for their being something better in being Together in this Union, can effectively be made. Even without the Referendum, the evidence going back to 1945 suggests something rather different; an electorate that no longer believes in British politicians, or even in the system. The country is slowly turning its back on Westminster politics. I wonder why? In England, even UKIP seems credible.
It is much easier to demonstrate precisely the opposite to Darling’s increasingly hysterical case; no only that we are not Better Together, but that nobody believes it, and more; that nobody believes in British politics, the public has lost faith in Westminster, the electorate is rapidly losing faith in British representative politics, in British institutions and in British elections. How can we demonstrate this proposition? From the only polls that mean anything at all – from the evidence of General Election turnouts since 1945. The trend line is represented in the Graph and the raw total turnout statistics are presented in tabular form in the Appendix below (source: www.ukpolitical.info/Turnout45.htm).
General Election turnout
Maria Miller MP’s recent travails over expenses, property and capital gains are merely a rerun of the Westminster expenses fiasco that brought down a Speaker of the House of Commons and produced the supposed fundamental reform of Parliamentary self-regulation by MPs. Reform demonstrated only what the electorate already knew only too well; that nothing changes, the illusion is everything. The present furore is no longer interesting; merely repetitive and depressing. Who cares anymore? Parliament appears to have little understanding of the damage it manages to inflict on itself, perhaps a sign of its deep and unapologetic hubris; to paraphrase Talleyrand’s (alleged) acerbic observation on the wisdom of the Bourbon Kings: Parliament learns nothing and forgets nothing.
I would expect that this failure will be reflected in the next General Election, probably in a further and perhaps more precipitous fall in the turnout trend line; but the evidence will not show in the results for Conservative, Labour or LibDem MPs; because they survive by taking in each others washing; there is nothing to choose between them – they are all part of the same defective institution that refuses to reform, to listen to the electorate or learn from history. The swings in results between the parties will remain, the charade, the Westminster danse macabre will continue much as before; it may almost appear – when presented by Alistair Darling or one of his clones – as if somebody actually cares, as if the system works. At least that is what they tell us: no alternative: Better Together: no matter what.
Of course it does work, for London; always unscathed, always protected no matter the damage the metropolis inflicts on British life in North East England or the South-West or anywhere else outside the Square Mile. The Unionist political parties represent a metropolitan vested interest and City of London set that have destroyed the whole of Britain’s public finances and its financial system; rewrites the rules and regulations in its own interests, and comes out of the mess first on the other side, smelling of roses, funding a new property bubble and conveniently leaving the cost of failure with the public purse, the poor, the unemployed and the disabled; all of it justified, ‘spun’ and consolidated into public life as inevitable, as the price of being ‘Better Together’ by the complacent club of phoney opponents that is Westminster politics. The Union therefore works for the Labour, Conservative and LibDem parties – it works for the Westminster system; that is what Alistair Darling really means by ‘Better Together’.
The Credit Crunch has taught the British people that our British institutions, and the sad list of deep, chronic, institutional, party and individual failures marked by such scars on British life as Hillsborough, Plebgate, Stephen Lawrence, Phone Hacking and Millie Dowler, Jimmy Saville and the BBC, MP expenses, the Iraq ‘dodgy dossier’, before that the Iraq ‘Supergun’, Westland, extraordinary rendition and torture … and on and on the list goes; all of it gratuitous, all of it self-inflicted, all of it speaking to deeply entrenched political and social failure – from the top down. This has taught the British people that such events are not accidents but are endemic within the British Union. Slowly, relentlessly the British people have felt betrayed and have responded by loosening their grip on electoral politics and resigning from the fight. This is a terrible indictment of the system, but Alistair Darling remains unchanged by experience or reality; intransigent and obtuse he celebrates the fatuity of Better Together. Alistair Darling wants us not to change the Union, but endorse it. Too late: in Scotland the people are clearly prepared to fighting back for their kind of politics.
Politics and power now rests with the people of Scotland until at least 18th September, and if they wish to hold on to the sense of empowerment they will have exercised on that day, when September 19th dawns, then 80% of the Scottish people can vote only one way.