With Britain’s major political parties and parliamentary systems (not least Westminster) facing big challenges to their capability and viability over the past year, 2012 is likely to produce further defining moments for our democratic polity – and that of Europe, too, where controversially non-elected governments have emerged in Italy and Greece as part of an effort to stave off the threat to the Eurozone.
The latest shockwave has been provided by David Cameron’s decision to veto a European treaty change backed by the great majority of the 27 EU members. Only Britain now looks set to stay outside an accord aimed at facilitating greater fiscal union and regulation of financial institutions.
The British PM has set his face against this change partly, it seems, to placate backbench Eurosceptics who might threaten the coalition government; but also to protect the interests of the Conservative Party’s many friends in the City of London and to stave off perceived future pressure from European restructuring and moves towards a much-needed Financial Transaction Tax (FTT).
What all this signals is not the end of a financial crisis (that could well get significantly worse, not least because of the 'austerity orthodoxy' which Cameron shares with other European players), but the deepening of a political one.
The political challenge revolves around competing definitions of sovereignty and a set of democratic deficits worsened by global recession, unstable debt mountains and the severe government cuts that threaten social instability as well as economic recovery.
In 2011 the hands of governments across the continent have been visibly tied by the fickleness of markets dominated by massive corporate interests, as well as a private banking sector in need of substantial reform. Mainstream politicians may sneer at the worldwide Occupy movement, but the protesters seem clearer about the core problem than those elected to solve it.
The recently deceased German essayist Christa Wolf, who struggled passionately for truth through the eras of Nazism, East German communism and reunification in her country, said that in future human political flourishing would come from paying attention to linked grassroots initiatives for change rather than top-down interests and ideologies.
This is a tough message for the torchbearers of big political parties, in particular, to grasp. But it seems increasingly unavoidable. This year, for example, Westminster will need to respond to the Committee for Standards in Public Life recommendation of a £10,000 annual cap on individual party donations from 2015. Corporate bankrollers, lobbyists and media barons will also face greater scrutiny. Politicians may squirm, but reformers will see their discomfort as necessary growing pains.
Meanwhile, Britain is likely to become more isolated in Europe, which in turn will face more calls for genuine democratic accountability and transparency at all levels. The debate about Scotland’s future - which could reshape Britain like no other measure in the past century - is certain to heat up. And the Westminster coalition between Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties will face its biggest challenges yet.
On the global front, there are defining elections due in the United States, in France, in Iraq and (in a more limited but still vital sense) in China.
The political ride is set to get bumpier, sometimes alarming, and never less than fascinating. But the key question remains: who does (and who should?) call the shots in shaping the capacity of our key institutions both to respond to popular pressures and to ride the economic tiger?
© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. This article is adapted from his regular column in Third Way, the Christian magazine of social and cultural comment. http://www.thirdwaymagazine.co.uk/