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“The Race for No. 10” is an affront to Parliamentary Democracy.

June 6, 2017

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As I sit in one parliament style polity looking helplessly at an electoral contest in an adjacent jurisdiction, a contest which may have a decisive (probably ruinous) effect on the peace and prosperity of the polity I’m in, I’m become more and more irritated by the “Race for No. 10” headline.

Because those eligible to vote in the UK are not voting for for a prime minister.  They are voting for MPs, just as when we vote over here we’ll be voting for TDs.  Like Germany, Canada, Australia, the Netherlands etc. etc. etc., Ireland and the UK have parliamentary systems of government which do not involve electing a separate executive branch of government.

Talk of “the race for No. 10” gives the impression of a contest directly between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn.   Leaders of smaller parties are described as potential impediments rather than as athletes.  But in point of constitutional law, none of the politicians running for office is competing for a Downing Street residency as such.  Within a parliamentary system, parliament is sovereign, and executive power derives from whoever is able to command a sufficient majority to pass some sort of legislative programme within that parliament.

Of course, you vote for an MP or a TD in the full knowledge that voting for them will help enable Corbyn or May or Varadkar or Martin to become prime minister.  But it’s the political complexion of a legislature that you’re seeking to influence when you vote – a legislature than in turn will affect whoever gets to draft the agenda of cabinet meetings.

The media, especially the BBC, seem to have embraced this “Race for No. 10” rhetoric with some eagerness, thereby endorsing a presidential understanding of the electoral process.  This presidential rhetoric looked for a long time like it was suiting the Tories very well.  Theresa May has run the election on a “who do you trust platform?”  – suggesting that rather than deliberating on the merits of rival political programmes – competing suites of legislative intentions – people should be voting on the basis of whose personal qualities are best placed to handle the storms ahead.  It’s a politics based on a a purely reactive theory of governance whereby the only real decision to be made by voters is to decide which potential leader is best placed to act decisively, rather than to scrutinize the policies on offer and actually make a decision about the inherent merit of those actions.

In the United States, a polity which does directly elect its executive, Donald Trump’s appeal was based on force of personality.  He refused to be bogged down by policy details or policy contradictions (or indeed any practical questions of policy implementation) and his basic message – “Trust me because I am tremendous.  You don’t want to bother your tired and frightened little heads about policies.  Trust me to do whatever I think is right whenever I think it’s right.”  As it happened, a clear majority of American voters did not (and do not) think he’s tremendous.  They think he’s the thing that he is – a disgusting and delusional race-baiting sex criminal.  Well, that’s the electoral college for you.

Theresa May has been attempting the same presidential and unparliamentary rhetoric when campaigning.  “Don’t talk about policies – above all don’t talk about the details of implementing Brexit.  Instead talk about who you “trust” to negotiate.”   “Strong and Stable” is of course a slogan that you use when you want people to be feeling weak and insecure, just as “Make America Great Again” is a based on the assumption that American ain’t that great right now.  The tactic is the same – make people feel weak and frightened so that they surrender authority to someone who looks tough.

It’s a tactic based on shutting down public engagement with detailed policy options.

It’s a tactic based on encouraging people to abandon certain civic responsibilities.

It’s a tactic based on encouraging people to be less than adult.  Less than themselves.

The problem that Theresa May has had in the past few weeks, is that having structured her campaign not as a clash of policy platforms but as a clash of leadership personalities, she has neglected to actually bring a personality to the table.  Indeed, she hasn’t been at the table for much of the time.  She has taken Corbyn’s unpopularity for granted and assumed that simply saying “me or Corbyn” over and over again is all the campaigning she needs to do.

When she has shown up to campaign or debate,  her weaknesses in dealing with humans have become evident.  She doesn’t like humans much and she certainly doesn’t trust them.  Much like Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men, she’s convinced that most people can’t handle the truth, and should sit back and allow her to run the country in any way she sees fit.  “Trust me and shut up.”  She lies and breaks her word all the time, simply because of her sense of the innate worthlessness of electorates.  She is, we are told, a very prayerful individual, but hers seems to be the kind of religious mentality that feels that if you are right with God, then faith need not be kept with mere mortals.

Trump feels a version of the same thing, except that there is of course no “God” other than “… that which advances the power and prestige of Donald Trump and his immediate family at any given time”.

This attempt to represent a parliamentary election as a presidential one is fundamentally disempowering.  This is not to say that direct presidential elections are necessarily disempowering, or that people cannot vote on a suite of issues during a US style presidential style election campaign.  This is only to say that this particular parliamentary election has been disempowering in terms of the precise way it has been “presidentialised”.  The way the election has been plotted, the key question seems to be – never mind the legislative programme intended by the putative legislators who actually appear on the ballot – who do you want in No. 10?

When politics is constructed as a clash of personalities rather than of programmes, then the fundamental issue becomes one of “trust”.  And with “trust” comes a kind of resignation and abdication of ongoing political responsibility.  The campaign, as May and the Tories have constructed it, infantilises the electorate – most especially on the critical issue of Brexit negotiations.  “You are voting on June 8 to surrender supreme authority to a leader and this leader must be free to negotiate absolutely as she seems fit.”

This is bad for any kind of culture of civic engagement and Habermasian public sphere.  (I have, incidentally all sorts of empirical and historical problems with the way in which Habermas privileges the Addisonian coffee house.)  This kind of strong and stable presidential appeal is all about muting public discourse.

Fear is the key.  Whenever a politician offers strength and security as their primary basis of appeal, what they are really saying is…

“Be afraid.  Be very afraid.”

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One Comment
  1. Pat Hart permalink

    Excellent and elegant analysis of the problems or democracy is struggling with right now

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