Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Not the national interest

I haven't yet commented on the outcome of the election because I'm not quite sure what to make of it. There are all sorts of things the result is not and very few things that it is. Let me give a few examples.

It has been said that it was a clear rejection of the incumbent Labour government. To a degree it was, but only to a degree. It makes little sense to look at Labour's share of the vote, 29%, to decide on this point because it was the government for the last five years on 35.3% of the popular vote in the 2005 election. It makes more sense to look at parliamentary seats won because they held 349 before the election and now have 258. That is quite a decline but it's still more than the Conservatives had at any time in the previous thirteen years. And it is still 258 seats out of 650, almost 40% of the total. A serious decline but not obliteration, and not wholesale rejection of Labour as a serious parliamentary force.

It has been said Labour has lost its right to remain in government. This is a slightly different point from the one I have just made because it suggests they have no right to govern in coalition due to their fall in votes and seats. Any party has the right to be in government if it is or forms part of a workable majority in the House of Commons and even if it is or forms part of a workable minority and can secure ad hoc votes from others to defeat a vote of confidence. Labour certainly lost any right to govern by itself but no other party won that right. A Labour alliance with the Lib Dems would represent a majority of votes cast (although a minority of total seats) which could be said to give it more legitimacy than any government of the last sixty years.

Like it or loathe it, the election was held under the system we have had for a long time and we are stuck with the result. That result was indecisive because the little people made it indecisive. Once that happens everything is a matter of practicalities. It is a filthy sordid business in which one deal or another made behind closed doors will result in the new government putting forward a platform of policies for which no one voted because no candidate put it forward. That, however, is inevitable. It will happen after every election that delivers a hung parliament, which will be every single election if we adopt a truly proportional voting system.

I rather like it because it allows us to see our politicians as they really are. All their pompous guff about "the national interest" evaporates as we see them selling their souls for power. Policies that were an essential part of their electoral programme suddenly become unimportant and are ditched as they put their self-interest above their supposed principles. They have no choice if they want power, but they could be honest and admit that's what they are doing.

"The national interest" is a rather curious phrase for politicians to use in current circumstances because there is no such thing as "the" national interest. Those of strong political views, whether or not those views are currently reflected by either of the main parties, will always consider the national interest to be best served by adoption of their views. Party leaders with a sniff of power will consider it in the national interest that they are in charge rather than their opponents. A minority government that does good things is, it seems to me, acting in the national interest to a greater extent than a majority government that makes a mess of everything it touches. But then who is to say what are good things and what is a mess? Views on that change from time to time and are never held by a majority on all issues. A particular government might find a majority prefers its approach on one issue and the opposition's approach on another issue, whither the national interest then?

I even have doubts that the national interest requires us to have a government capable of winning votes in the Commons on all its core policies. The House of Commons sits for less than half the days in the year and has not been sitting at all since the 12th of April. It is now the 11th of May and the absence of a Parliament has not caused the country to collapse. In fact it's been rather refreshing to find nothing else has been banned and no new criminal offences have been invented for a whole month (a period only exceeded for the last thirteen years when the Commons has been in recess).

Not being of the anarchist persuasion I believe that we do need government and we do need that government to have its proposals subjected to effective debate and only put into law if it can win a vote in both houses of parliament. There is no national interest in the government being able to dictate law - a position that prevails under a heavily whipped system when the governing party has a large majority. I have difficulty accepting that a formal coalition is in the national interest if it merely results in two parties whipping a majority on poorly drafted legislation rather than one party doing so by itself. It might be that coalition would lead to better legislation as jostling for influence within the coalition will provide a motive for those on the government side to criticise government bills. Better would be use of the whip only on core issues of policy. Better still would be MPs of a far higher quality than the intake at the 2001 and 2005 elections, only time will tell whether that has been achieved (I'm not holding my breath).

I really can't go for "the national interest" argument while the current horse-trading takes place. Let them negotiate for power and reach whatever compromise they can, then judge the outcome by what the new government actually does. But don't let them dress it up as anything grander than a fight for power.


Stan said...

Another top post, FB.

"National interest" can not be the foremost principle of any party which supports membership of the EU as it is a condition of membership that "national interest" is put to the side for the sake of the EU.

What this does demonstrate is the total lack of principles within the Tory Party.

TheFatBigot said...

Thank you Mr Stan.

The EU is a matter I touch on from time to time but have not yet attacked fully. Your point is, of course, absolutely correct - the "national" interest presumes there to be a nation and our membership of the EU emasculates so much of our nationhood.

It might be that current events in Greece and elsewhere will spur me to a full piece on the EU. So far I have been deterred by there being so much to say that approaching one aspect would require me then to write on the subject every day for months.

Antisthenes said...

PR in theory is a fair and just way to elect ones MPs to parliament as parliament then truly reflects the voters wishes. The practicalities of it however are problematic especially in the UK in that it ensures that the policies and competence of one group are always in the ascendancy and if that groups policies are not the right ones and they are incompetent they can not be voted out of power.

Perhaps that may be overcome if parties start fragmenting and a number of smaller parties emerge.

Grumpy Optimist said...

You are correct of course - the national interest means anything you want it to mean. What about this then? This election is about the interests of the predominately white and predominately English productive middle classes who have been and may well continue to be disenfranchised. But as these are the people who will get us out of this mess, we cannot forever be ignored.
This is war and soon we will revolt.