Nick Clegg Forgets to Pretend

Nick Clegg is in the papers, appearing not only vague but unconcerned about "who is running the country" while Cameron is away. (Nick Clegg 'forgot' he was in charge of the Government this week)

One of the most interesting things about politics in the last decade or so is that the fictions are breaking down. That is also the theme of Mencius' latest post, where he wonders if he is being made redundant by the openness of the USG's intervention in Egypt, and by Wikileaks.

The notion that the government of Britain is "run" by a handful of well-known politicans has over the last hundred years gone from being somewhat true, to being something often deviated from in practice, to being an earnest pretence, and finally a flimsy charade.

Now Clegg, who as a Liberal Democrat is somewhat more isolated from the continuity of political office than his predecessors in cabinet, seems to be unaware of the tradition of paying lip-service to the idea. If someone really needs for some bizarre reason to ask the Prime Minister something, they have his phone number, and anyway Clegg is thinking of taking a day or two off.

Jeremy Paxman in his book "The Political Animal" quotes an unnamed Tory ex-minister:

'Once we lost the 1997 election,' one of the best-known Conservatives of the 1980s and 1990s told me, 'I knew it was over for me. What was the point of standing up in parliament and lambasting the Labour government, when I knew exactly how limited the options open to them were? It was all empty and pointless.'

It's a very interesting book. While its aim is to look at the character of politicians, in the process it has to show the environment in which they act in more detail than we normally see.

As an opponent of democracy, I am constantly irritated by the suggestion that there are no practical alternatives. The book reminds us that mass democracy as we understand it today is something that appeared in Britain within living memory:

"In April 1925, for example, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Winston Churchill, announced that Britain was to return to the Gold Standard, whereby the value of sterling was guaranteed by allowing pounds to be exchanged for gold. This momentous (if ultimately unsuccessful) decision had been two months in preparation, involving heartfelt arguments on both sides of the debate. Yet not a word of it appeared in the newspapers. Indeed, it was hardly heard outside the confines of the Treasury."

Decisions were being made by an establishment, and if ministers were part of the process, that was because they, coincidentally, were also members of that establishment. Paxman also describes what happened when ministers were elected from outside the establishment, quoting from the diaries of Hugh Dalton, from the period of the Labour administration of 1929-31.

The Cabinet is full of overworked men, growing older; more tired and more timid with each passing week. Pressure from below and from without is utterly ineffectual. High hopes are falling like last autumn's leaves. There is a whisper of spring in the air, but none in the political air. One funks the public platform, and one wishes we had never come in. We have forgotten our Programme, or been bamboozled out of it by the officials. One almost longs for an early and crushing defeat.

We have there an explanation for why Britain has got off so lightly from democracy: the parliament of 1925 was elected under a restricted franchise (women under 30 did not get the vote until the 1929 election), and as we saw above major policy debates occurred without reference to the press. Once outsiders started to be elected, they were largely powerless in the face of the establishment. Dalton presumably became more influential in later administrations, but I suspect that was due not so much to the power of the establishment waning, as to the establishment moving closer to the Labour party's views.

This is the important but subtle point I've made before — elections are not what they are claimed to be, but neither are they irrelevant. The establishment rules, but it is not unanimous, and politicans are able to exert crude broad-brush influence where the establishment is divided. Because the politicians are motivated by elections, the influence they exert tends always to be in the same direction. In the period before politicians were answerable to the mass media, the influence of the electorate was lessened.