Opportunity lies behind the political crisis

By Terry Waite
4 Jun 2009

As a myriad of eager journalists continue to subject MPs' receipts to intense scrutiny, David Cameron has not been slow to try and turn tragedy into triumph.

In the face of a massive public rejection of the main political parties, he promises a total reform of Parliament and a return of power to the people. Well, it is a bold and creditable attempt to take advantage of a lamentable situation but will it do the trick for the Tories? Cynicism about politicians and political institutions runs very deep and only time will tell if the public are persuaded by his promises.

We all know that since the advent of Tony Blair and New Labour, there is virtually no difference between the two major parties. In fact, New Labour was able to promote policies that even Margaret Thatcher would have thought twice about proposing.

One only need mention the privatisation of the transport system and the disastrous privatisation of the London Underground to indicate what I mean. The real truth is that the majority of the British public are somewhat vague about political ideology.

Living, as we do, in a world of increasing complexity, even those who give consideration to ideological issues are uncertain as to how to proceed. It could well be that a totally new political era is dawning and at such times, people are forced to live with uncertainty and ambiguity as new forms begin to take shape.

This presents very real dangers. The frustration with Parliament has been growing for years and the latest revelations may well result in more voters staying away from the polling booths and abandoning the traditional parties. On the other hand, ideological extremists, who do have a clear, albeit dubious position, raise their banners and urge the disillusioned to join them. They may well attract those who want clarity and the illusion of certainty. I suspect that all the main political parties have to face that fact that whilst they may have some life left in them, they are almost dead in the water.

David Cameron has been very quick indeed to recognize this point, hence his latest pronouncements calling for radical reform. Labour, appearing to have been caught on the back foot, has put forward Jack Straw to argue for an all-party consultation on the issues. I am somewhat surprised that as yet we have not heard a stronger voice from the Liberal Democrats, who certainly have an important role to play in this whole process. But it could be that I have not been listening carefully enough or that their responses have not been adequately reported.

The question we, the British public need to ask and face is this: do we need political parties any more? By asking that question I am not suggesting that we do not. But if we face this question squarely, it will take us immediately to the root issue which concerns ideology. To define and shape a political ideology appropriate to a country such as ours, with its history of Parliamentary democracy and its changing status in the context of the world economy, is no mean task.

It is when we face such an undertaking that we realise that it cannot be shaped by politicians alone. The involvement of moral philosophers, churchmen and women, historians, ecologists and economists is vital. For far too long, the ideological goals presented to us have been crude in the extreme. It takes not a moment's thought to recognize that the goal of constant economic growth is eventually doomed to failure. The resources of our planet are finite and one day they will run out.

Perhaps, in the coming years, climate change will force us to rethink but now is the time to be reconsidering and developing our priorities. Jack Straw is undoubtedly right when he calls for all-party consultations even though he may be doing so because he recognises that a march has been stolen on him. No matter. But such consultations have to extend well beyond Parliament and across the country.

It is the future of our children and grandchildren that is at stake. In the main, the British public are sick to death of political jingoism and rhetoric. They want Parliamentary reform but they also want serious discussion about the quality of life and the future of this land of ours. At this time, the majority do not believe that politicians have the faintest clue as to how to proceed. And that is unfair as there are good, thoughtful men and women in Parliament who have a deep understanding of these issues.

Perhaps I ought to add that whilst the country is in such a state of confusion, I do not support a snap general election. I say this because I believe that some calm must be restored before sensible choices can be made by the electorate. I may be wrong, but I interpret the call by the Tories for an early election as mere political point-scoring.

They ought to be aware that the public are fed up with that. If this crisis has succeeded in resurrecting political interest across the country and enabling the population to formulate realistic political goals that would enable us all to enjoy quality of life, then the Daily Telegraph will have done us all an immense service.

However, the press would do well to keep in mind that if the fire of reform spreads they, the Fourth Estate, may come under the same scrutiny as that to which they have subjected Parliament . We shall see.

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© Terry Waite. For the past 16 years, Terry Waite has been self-employed as a writer and lecturer. Formerly, he was a member of the Archbishop of Canterbury's private staff. He gives half the year to working with the homeless, prisoners, hostages and their families and to overseas development work. He has written this article to stimulate debate but recognizes that some of what he says may have already been overtaken, as events are moving so rapidly.

Also on Ekklesia: 'The state of independents: alternative politics' - a research paper. http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/9579

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