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North Yorks Enquirer

The Electoral Maze

January 28, 2015 Letters

A Letter to the Editor from historian Jon RISDON of Sleights, seeking to set the forthcoming elections into a wider historical perspective – and coming to a Green conclusion.


Dear Mr Editor,

Now that the forthcoming general election in Great Britain has ceased to be a distant but inevitable obligation, and the countdown clock has been engaged, I would like to offer some thoughts, without the slightest expectation that they will influence anybody’s decision, but in the hope that it might give a few people pause to reflect on their attitude towards the election and, more significantly, its likely outcome.

This is not specifically an exhortation to vote; although, to pre-empt my conclusion, I feel that should be the correct decision; rather it is an attempt to dissect our current political system [to the extent that my admittedly limited knowledge of it, as an observer, rather than a participant, will allow]. I categorically do not want to assume the mantle of a commentator such as Russell Brand, whose image has been used to ‘sell’ the article, for reasons that are not necessary to elucidate, but I commend his forthrightness, in the face of the inevitable smear campaign which is an inescapable concomitant of modern public life in this country: although he is not the focus of this essay, I think it is sad that his detractors focus on his known, publicly declared & acknowledged failings, which make him no more nor less of a human being than the rest of us, but people seem to think that his status as public property, while remaining outside the orthodox political system, should somehow disqualify him from expressing his opinion [a fundamental human right, lest we forget]; the same reservation also apparently applies to his perceived material wealth, making him a hypocrite for having the temerity to comment on poverty and the causes thereof. People overlook [and perhaps deliberately choose to] the inescapable fact that it is only his prominence that gives him the platform from which he can comment, and confidently expect his voice to be heard, whereas the musings of an ‘ordinary’ person such as I will only be seen by tens of people at most, so hardly likely to influence the debate to a significant extent.

Before proceeding any further, those of my readers who already have a definite [and probably entrenched] allegiance to one of the three [fractions herein discounted] main political parties, should stop reading at this point, because it is only fair to state that I will be supporting the Green Party at the forthcoming election. This has not been an easy decision to make, because [and there is some overlap with Brand’s thesis here] in addition to having reservations about some elements of the Green Party’s policy, I fervently believe that the British political system is fundamentally corrupt, which I will explain below, and I have no desire to support a system that I believe to be corrupt, but I am pragmatic enough to know that, although various sane alternatives have, in modern times, been suggested [generally dismissed as unnecessary, unworkable, or worse, ‘utopian’], and without digressing into a discussion of the logistics of such alternatives, it seems to me that the transition to a workable solution to our current malaise will only be achieved by one of three ways [or combinations thereof]:

  1. Peaceful global agreement;
  2. a catastrophic meltdown of the prevailing economic system; or
  3. violent revolution.

Are things worse now than they have ever been? Of course, assuming one is not in a dire situation such as a war zone, it’s impossible to give an objective answer to that, because our mood, on a day-to-day basis, can be influenced by many factors, but because all of the ‘civilised’ world lives in a money-based economic system, if we take material wealth as a general indicator, it is widely accepted that the disparity between rich & poor is now worse than it has ever been in modern times, which is not exactly a ringing endorsement of the advance of human civilisation, as elucidated by no less a commentator than J. K. Galbraith, inter alia.

Those of us whose lives are guided [and, in the case of those who would call themselves religious, prescribed] by any sort of spirituality, might take the view that there is some sort of master-plan at work here, or, at the very least, that some sort of influence beyond ourselves will take care of us if things go too far; that is all very reassuring, but it is also to abrogate responsibility: who- or whatever else is ‘out there’, it is human beings who have brought us to this pass, and if we really do cherish the freedom we espouse, we should exercise the responsibility that entails. If there truly is one aspect of human nature that is hard-wired and immutable, beyond the need for comfort and sustenance, it is the desire to make the world, however wide our horizons, a better place, but the obstacles in the way of that seem to be mounting ever higher.

Taking the three options above in reverse order, I think it is probably true to say that violent revolution has never brought about a permanently peaceful and fair society; it is probably a truism that violence begets violence, so for that reason alone, this option can be discounted; I feel no shame in declaring myself a pacifist and, aside from the possible ‘legal’ ramifications of endorsing revolution, I will not endorse it.

The second option could also be regarded as more or less likely, depending upon our assessment of the health of the prevailing economic system, which can be defined in very broad terms as capitalist [although the term preferred by Galbraith {The Economies of Innocent Fraud, 2004} is ‘the Market Economy’]: even those countries [generally synonymous with régimes] with planned economies now engage with ‘western’ capitalism to a greater or lesser extent, as a result of the very nature of the global management of resources, the most intractable of which is the fiction we call money. As ever, there is a plethora of camps into which commentators fall but, broadly speaking, the doom-sayers have been predicting the fall of capitalism since das Kapital, and the free-market apologists keep eulogising Thatcherism, humming the song that accompanied the advent of Blairism [no, not “Meet the new Boss, same as the old Boss”, although not entirely inappropriate]: “Things can only get better”. What the latter camp fails to acknowledge, wittingly or otherwise, is the swanlike feverishness of activity below the surface, to prop up this creaking & crumbling structure we know, rightly or wrongly, as capitalism. Understandably, it’s in the interests of the primary beneficiaries of this system that it should be nursed along for as long as possible, but this brings us back to the inherent unfairness of the system, where a very small minority benefits lavishly, to the demonstrable detriment of the vast majority, simply as a result of an accident of birth, in most cases. Should life be fair? A reasonable question, no doubt, but surely, if it is in our power to make it fair, why should it not be so?

Our Statesmen fondly imagine in Great Britain that we are still major players in the global game, but that is an egregious claim, and it is built on the foundations of the arrogance that is an ignoble legacy of greed & exploitation: the British Empire. While I take the view that it was not much more than a logical progression from the development of trade & commerce that grew up from the Middle Ages onwards, in one sense it is also fair to say that, for a small island nation, we punched well above our weight compared to, say, our nearest neighbour, France. However, to bring this essay to the most significant point I want to make, this enterprise [in general terms] was aided & abetted and, indeed, is unlikely to have succeeded, without the corruption that is inherent in our political system. Our parliamentary system and the political dealings associated with it are a product of the process required for the administration and protection of the country’s assets & resources on behalf of the ruling elite; this is not inverse snobbery, but unassailable fact, so it was never in the interest of the elite willingly to give the mass populace more than a breadcrumb level of involvement or, even worse, entitlement in the process, and that is the way it has remained, despite sporadic blandishments to the contrary.

Notwithstanding my reservations above, there has never been a successful popular revolt against the ruling elite in this country, despite the ever-present harshness of life for most until the twentieth century: the Civil War, and the short-lived abolition of the monarchy in the seventeenth century were nothing to do with better conditions for peasants, and the perfectly reasonable demands of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, albeit a very localised manifestation of labouring-class discontent, were treated disproportionately harshly [although the long-term effects on that same class were generally beneficial]. One thing which certainly did not enhance the potential for improvement in the lives of ordinary people was the introduction of political parties into the parliamentary system [which, previously, had been a questionably successful vehicle for reining in the excesses of the incumbent monarch]. I am most definitely not going to presume to define a much-vaunted concept, democracy, which can mean so many different things to different people, but I would imagine that most people would accept that an element of real debate in the decision-making process should be indispensable [perhaps the lack of which implies totalitarianism], and it is my assertion that our adversarial party-political system does nothing to facilitate real debate: it is mere window-dressing. The concomitant of this is that all the major political parties, from the seventeenth-century Whigs and Tories, to the streamlined and media-friendly operators of the twenty-first century, are only there to keep the lower orders in check by imparting an illusion of choice, and to keep the wheels of commerce grinding inexorably on.

The fact, disconcerting to those who actually give it more than a moment’s passing consideration [especially those with any residual faith or trust in ‘authority’], is that governments, and the agents they use to protect their [as opposed to ‘the Nation’s’] interests, are not our friends, and they will use any means necessary to preserve the status quo; to borrow a metaphor from the First World War, whose commencement was recently commemorated [which veered at times dangerously close to celebration]: the system will always require ‘cannon fodder’, and that requires a compliant populace. The only problem is that this is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain, especially with the proliferation of instant global communication. An increasingly well-informed public, accessing the dissemination of a wide range of information, is a dangerous thing; although the mainstream media are still available, they are becoming increasingly discredited because of their obvious bias, but one must still exercise a high level of circumspection when accessing ‘alternative’ sources, because the purposes of propaganda are not always the stated ones. What it does mean, though, is that the ‘powers-that-be’ will be prepared to go to seemingly extraordinary lengths to preserve their version of order: religious extremism is not a modern threat, but it is a very potent tool which fuels paranoia, and we are increasingly being expected to accept the removal of our freedoms [expression, movement and, before long, even thought] embodied in the modern surveillance culture. We are assured that it is for our safety, but this insults our intelligence: in fact, it is a very convenient method of control. Terrorism, however defined [and governments should categorically be included in this], has always existed, of course, but instead of examining the causes of it, which might conceivably enable an equitable solution [as in the latter-day case of Northern Ireland, albeit a flawed solution, but a solution nonetheless], the authorities use it as a weapon with which to intimidate us. It almost goes without saying that the industry surrounding actual weapons has, in the United States [ref. Galbraith] become the guiding force that demonstrably determines government policy, and there is no reason to suppose that this is not the case in Great Britain, however social-democratic we might consider ourselves.

I wish I had a quick fix to offer [savage criticism with no sensible solutions is always unsatisfying] but everybody knows these are an illusion, and grand schemes [where they are not actually dangerous] take much longer to implement, with many pitfalls possible along the way, so inevitably patience is required, and that is a quality in diminishing supply, in today’s instant-gratification culture. What has become clear to me, latterly, something that many people also seem to ‘latching on’ to, but known by an enlightened minority for a long time, is that events cannot be examined in isolation; to put it simply: everything is connected. This is fundamental to environmentalists, that group so easily dismissed as wooly-minded idealists or ‘do-gooders’, but we maltreat this planet’s environment at our peril; of course, the Earth is incredibly resilient and has recovered from many environmental catastrophes in its history, but at the cost of many species; and of course, environmental damage is sometimes used by the self-serving who are very proficient as a very convenient excuse to extract more money from ‘ordinary’ people with no guarantee of success; but it is an incontrovertible fact that man has caused massive damage on an exponential scale very widely, and it is arguable that in some areas, this is irreparable: if the thirst for profit is allowed to take precedence over the consideration of the environment, as it is doing, then the prospects for the future look increasingly grim. We should also resist the arrogance of thinking that humanity is the only species worth preserving.

Our political system is not fit for purpose; I would prefer not to support it, or engage with it, and voting for the ‘least worst’ solution does not thereby make it a good choice. However, abstaining from the political process, if there is an option available that is even only partially attractive, will only enable the current, desperately bad system to continue. One vote does not count for a lot, admittedly, but a million people who think the same can make a significant difference. I am not going to examine the Green Party’s policies here: as said, I am not sure about all of them but I am sure about enough of them to make the Party an acceptable option for me. Coalition governments are argumentative animals, but consensus politics has to be better than dictatorial authoritarianism, however beneficent the dictator. We have to embrace connectivity, tolerance and a more objective & considerate assessment of rampant materialism, and the only likelihood I can see of that happening, in this country at this time, given its current burgeoning popularity at least, lies with the Green Party. It would remain to be seen, however, if there was sufficient integrity to resist the blandishments and outright corruption existing in our current political system, as stated, if the Greens were to emulate their German counterparts and become a significant coalition partner: I want to believe that there will, given a decent level of genuine, well-intentioned co-operation from all coalition partners. We are now living in the twenty-first century: in my view, we must stop thinking of ourselves as twenty-first century Victorians, still aspiring to buy respectability and acceptance with ever more sophisticated trinkets, using outmoded technology, but think beyond our narrow geographical, tribal confines, and try to become mature global denizens. Enabling the Green Party to engage in our flawed political system will not facilitate that in the immediate future, but it must surely be a step in the right direction, which continuing to empower the current vested interests will assuredly not be.

Yours, etc.


Jon RISDON, Sleights. 28th January, 2015.

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