UK

Neil Mackay: UK is an ailing state that could so quickly become a failing state

BRITAIN feels wobbly, shaky. The killing of MP David Amess is just the latest event to unmoor us a little more from stability. In truth, the whole of the Western world feels shaky. Democracy seems to quiver wherever you look. The smart money is on Trump returning to Washington. France toys with the far right. The European project looks ready to implode. China looms over the once dominant West, threatening to eclipse America.

How did we get here? Just 20 years ago we were enjoying ‘the Great Holiday from History’ – the end of the 1990s when stability, peace and prosperity (at least in the West) seemed on an ever upward trajectory. Today, only the flagrantly optimistic don’t fear the future.

Three great historical forces put untold pressure on Western democracies from the beginning of the 21st century: September 11 and the War on Terror – which fomented hate, bred extremism of all stripes, caused war and revolution in the Middle East, and made immigration spike; the Iraq War – which ramped up terror and shattered trust between US-UK electorates and their governments through an invasion based on lies; the 2008 economic crash – which proved people mattered less than banks, and guaranteed the death of the post-war promise that our children would fare better than us. Additional to these three monstrous proofs of political failure, which fed populism, layer in social media – with its promulgated lies, hatreds and conspiracy theories – and you’ve the recipe for disaster.

READ MORE: Politicians endanger democracy

Perhaps historians – centuries from now, if humanity makes it that far – will call this period ‘the Great Disruption’, when everything was in flux and the world seemed broken.

Here in Britain, though, matters look even more dark and dangerous than in other democracies – aside perhaps from America with Trump waiting in the wings.

We’ve had two MPs assassinated in five years. The country is quite literally coming apart as Scottish independence and Northern Ireland threaten to turn the Union into a failed project. England is utterly divided between remainers and leavers. We’re facing a Winter of Discontent – a breakdown of functioning business. Britain has become a byword for treachery among our closest neighbours. After the Aukus deal, France views Britain with contempt. Dublin warns Britain cannot be trusted following threats to rip up the Northern Ireland protocol – a treaty negotiated by Number 10 but now up for destruction because it no longer suits.

All these woes have one thing in common: their source is Brexit, itself a symptom of the populism which has grown in the West throughout the first two decades of this new century.

But Brexit isn’t the only matter undoing us. The Conservative Party is tilting in a direction which directly threatens democracy. There’s plans to restrict voter rights and allow ministers to overturn court rulings the government doesn’t like: these imperil liberty and the rule of law. The Home Office is considering immunity for border guards who kill refugees.

Marie Antionettism abounds, with one rule for the rich and powerful and one for the rest – not just when it comes to paying taxes, but on simple matters like obeying lockdown. Boris Johnson and his wife apparently flouted restrictions at Christmas so they could meet a friend while most Britons pined for family.

We also seem to be in something of a snapback moment when it comes to civil and human rights. Whatever your views, it’s clear that the trans community in Britain has become a target for the most appalling levels of hate and vilification. Misogyny and homophobia also run rampant. It appears that the expansion of rights for all that so typified the 90s and 2000s has come to an end – and those who wish to roll back those advances now have the upper hand.

READ MORE: Think again, it could happen here

Hate, division and conspiracy isn’t just stoked online – it now comes dished up in our mainstream media, from once reputable papers to broadcasters. Commentators fuel rage and seek scapegoats; the comment sections of newspaper websites drip with venom. In Scotland, the worst elements of unionism and nationalism make you fear how any future referendum – if it ever happens – might be conducted. Politicians – themselves the victims of so much hate – also stoke rage, with loose, dangerous language. Words in parliament profoundly affect the nature of British debate.

We’re an ailing state. What worries the mind is that an ailing state can become a failing state – and failed states turn very dark very quickly.

It’s not that the major forces currently at play in politics are wicked: Euroscepticism, unionism, nationalism – they’re all legitimate positions to hold. It’s how we’ve conducted the debate around these issues which has broken Britain so badly.

We are all better individually than the collective mess we’ve made, and we must all share some portion of responsibility for what’s happened, because we’ve all played our part in one way or another.

The great project of the 21st century in the West should be the reimagining of democracy. We must do it, and we can. There are fixes: putting a stranglehold on social media, banning party political donations, creating citizen assemblies to advise and call out politicians, and establishing full proportional representation. The mainstream media could quit the clickbait and end below the line comments – just for starters.

Perhaps the greatest fix would be some sort of move towards sortition democracy – where each of us plays a role in politics similar to the jury system. The idea can be best imagined through the creation of a second chamber in Scotland. Instead of an unelected Lords, have a chamber filled with ordinary citizens selected along the lines of juries – those selected spend a year sitting in the upper house, monitoring legislation, holding Holyrood to account.

Set up a sovereign wealth fund dedicated to ending child poverty. End corporate tax avoidance. Set a real living wage.

The list of matters we need to fix is endless. We all know what the problems are: the biggest problem of all is not having the courage to fix the problems in the first place. If we don’t start addressing the failings of democracy we’ll just continue along this broken road which appears to lead somewhere quite dark indeed.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald



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