Ever since I became politically aware in my teens, I’ve been aware of one ubiquitous trope in British politics – the idea that our politics is fundamentally broken. And I hate it.
The key arguments deployed in support of this theme are as commonplace as they are intellectually lazy. Politicians are only in it for the money. They’re all careerists. There’s no difference between the main political parties. They’re all liars. They always break their promises.
To be clear, there is a distinction between being angry with particular politicians or a particular political party, and raging against the entire political process as though it is rigged (the recent EU Referendum result puts pay to the theory that the establishment always gets what it wants…).
There is also a difference between apathy about politics, and anger about it. In this new age of extremists, the former is arguably more dangerous than the latter.
But anti-politics isn’t new. Perhaps the most vicious period in British satire was during the 19th Century, when merciless publications like Punch Magazine endlessly trolled a British establishment which was far more powerful and removed from ordinary people than today’s incarnation.
So the idea that there was a time when politicians were wholeheartedly revered is a bit hollow. Nevertheless, the big difference between now and the 1800’s is that, in those days, individual politicians were far more removed from the public consciousness.
The public didn’t have widespread printed press, the radio, the television or – the big one – the Internet. People have always been pretty contemptuous of those in power, and those who covet power. This is a healthy scepticism to hold, as those who court power are often predisposed towards hubris.
But something has accelerated in the last 15 or so years. The current febrile atmosphere of anti-politics is a thousand times worse than it was during the 1960’s Profumo scandal. The omnipresence of the World Wide Web means something crucial: anyone, anywhere can dump whatever is in their mind into everyone else’s minds.
The Web has given people power. In many ways, this power is a force for good. It has provided greater access to that crucial component of democratic decision-making: information. It has created a situation in which politicians – like all public figures – are never really out of the public glare and where they are, in effect, public property.
The problem with this new reality is that most politicians can now be seen for what they are. Not universally mendacious or corrupt or evil – but universally human. The pedestal on which our rulers used to be placed now no longer exists because the Internet makes everyone’s opinion equal, and so people are left questioning why politicians are in any way elevated above the voters.
The Internet also gives many unpleasant people a shield, from behind which they can treat politicians to particularly nasty brands of invective. Additionally, fringe movements, including sinister organisations such as Britain First, are now able to organise online in a way that would have been unimaginable in the previous age. In this climate, the old Machiavellian principle of division and rule becomes far harder for even the most skillful politicians to implement.
Enter the age of the liberated Troll.
The disconnection between the voters and the politicians is real and it is toxic. A week after Jo Cox MP was assassinated in the street, millions of voters engaged in one of the most astonishing protest votes in history, by voting en masse to leave the European Union. Every ‘voice of reason’ called forth from the political class was dismissed as conspiratorial, and Westminster was given its biggest ever beating.
Before long, the fragile link between our rapidly-changing, globalising society and our political process will break if it is not reformed. The EU Referendum was one break in the chain. The Scottish Independence Referendum was nearly another. The visceral anger which swept the most deprived parts of the nation last month will not simply dissipate. It will need to find an outlet, or it will boil over even more dramatically than in the decision to choose Brexit.
I doubt there is a single political commentator who truly knows what is going to happen next in this uniquely fluid situation. The situation is not confined to the UK either. If Donald Trump becomes US President later this year, it will be time to declare the death of the political centre and the birth of a new age of anti-politics in which nothing is certain anymore.
Diagnosing the causes of the current crisis in western democracy may take many years to do. Addressing its immediate symptoms, however, may be more simple in some instances than presently realised. If law-makers are no longer equipped to reflect the views of the millions of voices out there, perhaps we will have to move to a more representative democracy.
A democracy which does not hide from the Internet, or its immense power to influence and shape opinions. Where people can vote directly on a whole range of laws. Referendum after referendum after referendum. A nightmare for many (me included, because I view referenda as an abdication of good governance), but perhaps the only way to bridge the divide between a majority with more information at their fingertips than ever before, and those who rule us.
I hope that the current pull towards the fringes and the extremes does not sustain itself; but one thing is clear – democracy must reinvent itself if it is to survive in anything like its current form. And it needs to, or we will all suffer the consequences.