Unionism’s Credibility Gap

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The distinguished psephologist Professor John Curtice has suggested that we may expect the turnout for the Scottish Referendum on 18th September to be around 80% (78% according to the most recent polling evidence in February, 2014); this would be a remarkable vindication not only of the referendum but powerful evidence of a sudden resurgence in interest in serious politics in Scotland. It is more than a pebble in the pool; the electorate has been enlarged with the extension of the franchise to 16-year-olds: we are now in new and unfamiliar territory. Why can we make this claim?
 
At the last General Election the turnout in Scotland was 63.8%, and in 2001, after Margaret Thatcher’s long scorched-earth policy regime in Scotland, and four years into 13 years of Labour rule, the turnout had fallen to 58.2%. The stark contrast between Referendum Scotland today and UK elections since the millennium is astonishing: from 58% to 80%. The evidence for the scale of the failure of British Unionist politics however is even more ominous than this gulf suggests: indisputable evidence establishes a much longer term, persistent and relentless decline in electoral participation over many decades in the UK;  of the electorate’s clear and disturbing disenchantment with politics: a disenchantment that is only too well founded.
 
In 1950 – in the extraordinary, immediate post-war period the UK, although utterly broke, in ruins after the war and on the verge of losing its Empire, was yet full of hope of a new beginning; and for the first time in history the aspiration to achieve a fair distribution of health, work, education and opportunity within Britain for everyone seemed possible – expressed in a UK General Election turnout of 83.9% for the UK as a whole, and 80.9% in Scotland. We have never seen the like again; but then in British politics from that day forward, and in the creeping, inevitable disillusionment of the British people; hope slowly died on the vine. Greed, vested-interest, celebrity, folly and vanity slowly reasserted their very British, cloying, supercilious priorities; priorities that came to prominence again in a modestly revised form with Thatcher, priorities consolidated meticulously by Blair-Brown and now unrepentantly entrenched under Cameron-Osborne-Johnson-Clegg. Britain is broke this time through its own reckless folly, and this time there is no sense of optimism or hope in a new beginning; save perhaps in Scotland. Ironically, the Conservatives have successfully managed to blame Labour not only for their manifest Treasury blunders, but because Labour were left holding the (quite obviously Thatcher-inspired) office of Government at the moment of the Credit Crunch, the Coalition has managed to pass the buck wholly on to Labour for a financial and economic Crash thirty years in the making; a Labour Government that was merely continuing the economic principles of Thatcherism under Blair, Brown and Darling (what history may identify as Blairite ‘Thatcherism with a human face’). Meanwhile, the Coalition has washed it hands of responsibility for the Crash and has even retained the ideology of Thatcherism not just intact, but resurgent. The seeds for the next Crash have thus already been sown.
 
We can turn the slow political disaffection of the British people into a long-term, graphic trend line through the data to show a consistent decline in electoral participation that shows no sign of material change to the present day. Each generation of politician pretends that it worries about the decline in election turnout; but in reality it is indifferent, because nothing is ever done about it, and the current system, a merry-go-round reinforced solely by spin and casuistry, is seen to serve the interests of the Unionist political parties, and especially their paymasters the City of London, well enough. The problem of voter disaffection never goes away, so each generation of politician, representing the usual metropolitan vested interests is fated (save the isolated election ‘random walk’ result away from trend) merely to reduce the election turnout by 2-3 percentage points every 3-5 years, with systematic regularity. It works like clockwork. The British people are slowly deserting politics. We may call it the disenchantment thesis: the cruel obliteration of hope from politics.
 
At this rate there is little doubt that the continuation of the current trend line provided by the long-term turnout data could fall significantly below 50%, perhaps in an election before the mid-century. We may also find that we are returning governments who will represent no more than 20% of the electorate. Such an outcome actually serves the system of Westminster politics rather well, although this may seem at first sight a counter-intuitive observation. It works because the Westminster system combines entrenchment of the status quo with a form of induced disaffection that far from being dangerous to politicians conveniently reduces the electorate to a state of effective inertia. People simply give up. What could be better for the vested interests of established political parties, machine politicians with careers at stake, and for continued secure, risk-free investment in the stable continuity of the status quo, than the supine resignation of the electorate out of despair?193789-boris-johnson-on-a-wire
The less that politicians actually accomplish, the weaker the activity of electors, the lower the participation (the ‘election’ retreats into the TV studio and the politicians and media talk only among themselves – they do not even have to mix with voters, still less speak to them). It is a beautiful, elegant, virtuous political circle that can only enhance the career prospects of professional politicians inside the ‘bubble’. The supine resignation of the electorate and an enveloping ennui is the stunted apology for politics that best serves the kind of politician that aspires to a career in British Unionist politics. This becomes the triumph of modern political professionalism, the province of the Spin doctor. Politics is reduced to a carefully choreographed form of ‘virtual reality’: a holograph on a screen, representing nothing. Indeed this system of assisted-inertia, a kind of low-level electoral euthanasia, has served well enough Labour and Tory politicians these seventy years. This is Britain today. This is the Union. It is as near the ‘holy grail’ of political “certainty” representing Better Together’s fundamental article of faith that can be achieved on earth; no wonder Alistair Darling admires it. He would, wouldn’t he?
 
What does this long-term trend tell us? Alistair Darling would have us all believe, in his uniquely relentless, querulous, hectoring style, that a strong case for the Union, for being Better Together, for their being something better in being Together in this Union, can effectively be made. Even without the Referendum, the evidence going back to 1945 suggests something rather different; an electorate that no longer believes in British politicians, or even in the system. The country is slowly turning its back on Westminster politics. I wonder why? In England, even UKIP seems credible.
 
It is much easier to demonstrate precisely the opposite to Darling’s increasingly hysterical case; no only that we are not Better Together, but that nobody believes it, and more; that nobody believes in British politics, the public has lost faith in Westminster, the electorate is rapidly losing faith in British representative politics, in British institutions and in British elections. How can we demonstrate this proposition? From the only polls that mean anything at all – from the evidence of General Election turnouts since 1945. The trend line is represented in the Graph and the raw total turnout statistics are presented in tabular form in the Appendix below (source: www.ukpolitical.info/Turnout45.htm).
APPENDIX     
General Election turnout
 
 
Year
 
 
2010
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
UK
%
65.1
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Scotland
%
63.8
2005
61.4
60.8
2001
59.4
58.2
1997
71.4
71.3
1992
77.7
75.5
1987
75.3
75.1
1983
72.7
72.7
1979
76
76.8
1974 Oct
72.8
74.8
1974 Feb
78.8
79
1970
72
74.1
1966
75.8
76
1964
77.1
77.6
1959
78.7
78.1
1955
76.8
75.1
1951
82.6
81.2
1950
83.9
80.9
1945
72.8
69
 
Maria Miller MP’s recent travails over expenses, property and capital gains are merely a rerun of the Westminster expenses fiasco that brought down a Speaker of the House of Commons and produced the supposed fundamental reform of Parliamentary self-regulation by MPs. Reform demonstrated only what the electorate already knew only too well; that nothing changes, the illusion is everything. The present furore is no longer interesting; merely repetitive and depressing. Who cares anymore? Parliament appears to have little understanding of the damage it manages to inflict on itself, perhaps a sign of its deep and unapologetic hubris; to paraphrase Talleyrand’s (alleged) acerbic observation on the wisdom of the Bourbon Kings: Parliament learns nothing and forgets nothing.
I would expect that this failure will be reflected in the next General Election, probably in a further and perhaps more precipitous fall in the turnout trend line; but the evidence will not show in the results for Conservative, Labour or LibDem MPs; because they survive by taking in each others washing; there is nothing to choose between them – they are all part of the same defective institution that refuses to reform, to listen to the electorate or learn from history. The swings in results between the parties will remain, the charade, the Westminster danse macabre will continue much as before; it may almost appear – when presented by Alistair Darling or one of his clones – as if somebody actually cares, as if the system works.  At least that is what they tell us: no alternative: Better Together: no matter what.
 
Racegoers dressed in patriotic colours enjoy The Derby in Epsom.Of course it does work, for London; always unscathed, always protected no matter the damage the metropolis inflicts on British life in North East England or the South-West or anywhere else outside the Square Mile. The Unionist political parties represent a metropolitan vested interest and City of London set that have destroyed the whole of Britain’s public finances and its financial system; rewrites the rules and regulations in its own interests, and comes out of the mess first on the other side, smelling of roses, funding a new property bubble and conveniently leaving the cost of failure with the public purse, the poor, the unemployed and the disabled; all of it justified, ‘spun’ and consolidated into public life as inevitable, as the price of being ‘Better Together’ by the complacent club of phoney opponents that is Westminster politics. The Union therefore works for the Labour, Conservative and LibDem parties – it works for the Westminster system; that is what Alistair Darling really means by ‘Better Together’.  
The Credit Crunch has taught the British people that our British institutions, and the sad list of deep, chronic, institutional, party and individual failures marked by such scars on British life as Hillsborough, Plebgate, Stephen Lawrence, Phone Hacking and Millie Dowler, Jimmy Saville and the BBC, MP expenses, the Iraq ‘dodgy dossier’, before that the Iraq ‘Supergun’, Westland, extraordinary rendition and torture … and on and on the list goes; all of it gratuitous, all of it self-inflicted, all of it speaking to deeply entrenched political and social failure – from the top down. This has taught the British people that such events are not accidents but are endemic within the British Union. Slowly, relentlessly the British people have felt betrayed and have responded by loosening their grip on electoral politics and resigning from the fight. This is a terrible indictment of the system, but Alistair Darling remains unchanged by experience or reality; intransigent and obtuse he celebrates the fatuity of Better Together. Alistair Darling wants us not to change the Union, but endorse it. Too late: in Scotland the people are clearly prepared to fighting back for their kind of politics.
 
Politics and power now rests with the people of Scotland until at least 18th September, and if they wish to hold on to the sense of empowerment they will have exercised on that day, when September 19th dawns, then 80% of the Scottish people can vote only one way.

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  1. Gordon says:

    This kind of electoral apathy can only lead to dictatorship.

  2. G H Graham says:

    If I may suggest a prologue; “The voters are scunnered with British political parties & the system of financial patronage that embraces & nurtures them.”

  3. Westminster predated democracy, and works happily without it. If you don’t vote for a party, the next best thing is not to vote at all (from their point of view).

    Happily, TUSC in England are doing many of the same activities that Yes are doing in Scotland, to try to encourage the disaffected working class to re-engage with the political system, and vote for a leftwing candidate.

    Meanwhile, the best thing we can do is get out, and show rUK that there is another way!

  4. benmadigan says:

    Fine article John. have just a couple of technical questions.
    Is there any minimum quorum for a UK election to be valid?
    Would the Privy Council take over if voters fall below a certain percentage? Anybody know?

  5. John S Warren says:

    No, there appears to be no minimum.The lowest General Election turnout (presumably since the disappearance of the Rotten Boroughs in the 19th century) was 57% in 1918. We currently appear to possess a similar confidence in the political system as the electorate at the end of World War I; something of an an indictment of Britain today given the comparison in circumstances between 1918 and 2014. The lowest election turnout in a single constituency appears also to be in 1918; Lambeth Kennington 29.7%. That may prove to be closer to the average turnout in a few years time, if we continue on the path we are now travelling.

    1. benmadigan says:

      thanks for your speedy reply John. It’s something I have often wondered about as I watched election figures dropping. Your article was an excellent analysis of voting trends.

      Let’s hope the Scots seize their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build whatever type of society they want in the future.

  6. Clootie says:

    For 13hours on the 18th.September the people of Scotland are in power.
    They can retain hold of that power or surrender it back to Westminster.

    What an opportunity.

    1. stuart muir says:

      I believe it may be 15 hours, 07.00-22.00 that we will be a Sovereign country. The choice will be 15 hours or forever!! I hope the latter.

  7. benmadigan says:

    Reblogged this on the mirror@wordpress.com and commented:
    an excellent analysis of voting trends in the UK and Scotland. This phenomenon is also occurring across Europe The underlying reasons for the conspicuous drop in voters in recent elections are also relevant for elections in Ireland – north and south

  8. John craig says:

    Independence does not change the fact that voting does not make a difference. We live in an oligarchy that only,works for the few.

    1. An Duine Gruamach says:

      Was there a difference between a Britain that had a government that wanted to establish a welfare state and a Britain that didn’t?

  9. This plebiscite is a sui generis event of enormous political and historical importance deserving of a record turnout on polling day.

    Whether (if achieved) this will augur well for wider participation of the electorate in subsequent iScotland Holyrood elections is another matter.

    Now you would hope that with independence government of the Scottish people wholly elected by the Scottish people would encourage that, but alas the data from Hollyrood elections from 1999 to present offer no reassurance of that whatsoever.

    Holyrood Elections Turnout*
    1999 – 59.0%
    2003 – 49.4%
    2007 – 51.8%
    2011 – 50.4%

    Source Wiki retrieved 17/04/2014 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elections_in_Scotland

    1. Allan Hosey says:

      Power devolved is power retained. The people aren’t stupid. They vote in elections where they feel there is a chance of making a difference. And the biggest difference that can be made is still in Westminster. The least difference is in European & Local elections. The Scottish Parliament exists between these two extremes.

      My theory about the Scottish electorate is that it’s massively partisan, but not in the way we would normally think about partisanship. I think the Scottish electorate as a whole is not “pro SNP” or “pro Labour” regardless of their electoral success, I think the Scottish electorate is defined by being completely anti-tory. And in turn I think that’s what drives turnout in our elections. And there just isn’t the same incentive to do that in Holyrood as there is in Westminster elections because they’re not only not going to win, it would be political suicide for any of the other parties to allow them to join a government.

  10. kelvinway says:

    “this would be a remarkable vindication not only of the referendum but powerful evidence of a sudden resurgence in interest in serious politics in Scotland”

    I doubt very much whether this indicates a resurgence of any sort in politics, serious or otherwise. This is a once in a generation vote on a specific issue. The poltics, whatever the outcome, has yet to begin.

    1. Well observed, kelvinway. As stuart muir says above, 15hrs to change Scotland forever.

  11. sean mcgee says:

    A fine and comprehensive review. I have long thought this to be a referendum not just on Scotland but on the course and nature of politics and the political system over the last 40 years. The whole Thatcher revolution was engineered without a majority of the popular vote;our current government is without a mandate, while Labour has, and will betray a vast swathe of society and so it goes on. Should the referendum fail we can, as stated, only expect more of the same.

  12. Wayne Jackson says:

    I Have voted in elections of all kinds since I became eligible (a long time ago), and the reason behind it was something my Father used to say, and that was “if you don’t vote, don’t moan about the government you get” we as a species tend to believe everything we are force fed by the conservative media and it’s only now that the internet and the sterling work of individuals who work hard to disseminate the truth from the tat produced by lazy journalism in the dailies, that ordinary folk like myself can make decisions based on fact.

  13. yerkitbreeks says:

    First I started avoiding the mainstream media due to ominous headlines without serious content below and sought the social alternative as refuge.

    The last 24 hours has been a pinnacle and endorses my decision, with Robin McAlpine sniping at the SNP, a thespian feeling got at, WoS further explaining Alan Bissett’s plight and now this superb piece which needs to be widely read.

    I have always voted, but despairingly as you outline. No longer, and in fact have decided at this moment to get out and join the canvassers !

  14. hektorsmum says:

    I have always voted, missed one and one only, the last John Major Government, due to a hastily arranged foreign holiday. Have to, my Gran will come and haunt me if I do not, as she said women had a hard time getting the vote not to treat it as something special. I do though understand how many people feel, nothing changes. Well folks we have a real change to make on the 18th of September and we will not get a chance again to do it this way. Make it happen.

  15. John S Warren says:

    I was going to respond to Kelvinway through comparative analysis of the statistics, but then along came sean mcgee, Wayne Jackson, yerkitbreeks (how optimistic you made me feel!) and hectorsmum; and made a far, far better argument: hence – I rest my case.

  16. Johnny come lately says:

    I have never voted in my life as i’ve always felt my vote wouldn’t change a thing. I am now registered for the first time in my life to vote in sepembers referendum. I actually feel this time, that my vote could make a difference.
    The British political system is system which can’t reform itself but at the same time can’t dissolve itself, therefore the only conclusion can be political collapse. Best get out while we can.

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