The MP Jo Cox was by all accounts one who was very kind, devoted and compassionate, the epitome of the conscientious MP that is a model of an elected public servant. And she happened to support Remain. Yet on Thursday she was murdered while going about her constituency business. The main suspect seems to have had far-right leanings, although this has yet to be proved. This tells us something very serious about what is happening to our political culture, the glue that hold democracy together.
Today’s referendum has been called and is being conducted in a way that suggests political irresponsibility. We have had very few referendums in the UK nationally. They are not part of the constitution. However they are used when a governing party can’t agree on an action and passes it on for others to allegedly “decide”, as also happened in the first referendum, on Europe, in 1975. It can be argued that this is Parliament or its leaders abdicating responsibility.
“Irresponsible” in the OED is treated as meaning: (Of a person, attitude, or action) not showing a proper sense of responsibility
Of course it is a value-laden word: see “proper” (by whose standards? etc). It conjures up reminders of adult lectures on the subject to rebellious teenagers!
I would think of “irresponsible” in this context however as something different, a failure to take responsibility in an adult, developmental sense. We are responsible for what we create and co-create. As political citizens we are all creating what is occurring right now, although we think it is “other people”. It is us really because as people we participate at some level in our society.
What I think is happening is really very serious, for our country but also for our democracy, because there is a denial of responsibility.
I think democracy relies on a concept of the responsible citizen, one who is deemed old enough to vote (eg over 18), takes his or her vote seriously, takes an interest in public affairs and makes some contribution, eg by voting as a minimum (turnout is arguably poor in the UK). When, on the other hand we become disengaged, as has happened here and in other “advanced” countries, we are in danger of not taking responsibility. In this sense, we put the blame on to others, eg politicians, who we label as being part of a “political class”, an elite or an “Establishment” and attribute stereotypes to them (self-serving, ego-centred, liars, corrupt, etc).
The idea of the selfless public servant, like Jo Cox, goes out of the window. We distrust the politician’s motives and so we distrust what they say and their policies. Thus what we have today is a culture of what is being called “anti-politics”. We’re disengaged and thus tacitly withdraw consent. When consent is withdrawn, actions taken as a result of elections can be called into question, to lack legitimacy. This was said after the Scottish referendum by disappointed nationalists.
Legitimacy and extremism
If you question the legitimacy of an election and by implication the right of a government to act on the outcome of an election, you question democracy itself. The ethical glue that makes it work, the political culture, breaks down. I think we have a crisis of political culture today.
This opens the door to extremism. This is the climate in which MP’s get shot. In the early 1920’s, demobilised ex-servicemen in Italy organised themselves into “squadristi” and rolled into various towns and villages and shot their political opponents. The climate in which democratic political dialogue could take place had broken down. Then Mussolini seized power. In the early 1930’s, the SA “brownshirts” systematically set about murdering their communist opponents, so that in the so-called “free” election in 1933 after which Hitler became Chancellor, much of the left had been intimidated into non-participation.
The current referendum has thrown into sharp relief the conduct of politics and the atmosphere of not believing in experts, and questioning the activities of the “political class” and elites. There is a rise in extremism. In the UK it is cloaked in hostility to immigration. However hard right parties are on the rise across Europe, ones that once in power are reducing democratic freedoms, eg Hungary, Poland and Turkey. In Austria a far right candidate narrowly failed to be elected President. Across the world we see the rise of the “strongman” in politics, in Hungary, Russia, China, and even India. Trump and his supporters are another manifestation of “anti-politics”.
The climate of revolt
The referendum has opened the floodgates for a range of emotions that really reflect an anger at marginalisation and globalisation. It is a revolt of the working class directed at the scapegoat of the EU and immigration but actually belonging in the realm of the growing inequality and social and economic exclusion of sizeable parts of the UK population. The result could be serious damage to the UK national interest. We don’t believe experts: as Gove has said, we’ve had too much of them. Yet those experts have issued very serious warnings of what is very likely to happen. The Brexit voters won’t find their problems get solved, since the problem has been misdiagnosed, and thus could turn to more extreme responses.
Responsible action, by contrast is to engage in civilised debate, to listen to one another and treat one another’s view with respect. It is to engage in the process and seek to influence it, by organising, self-expression and other democratic ways. If we act as if the system is broken and seek to undermine it, we undermine the very process itself.