The fundamental re-alignment of British politics, the death of the two-party system and the reform of both the House of Lords and even the monarchy could be an accidental by-product of British voters not understanding what the Conservative Party actually stands for.
Latest Edelman Trust and polling data, carried out by Populus for discussion at this week’s Tory Party Conference, confirmed a general swirl of support for Cameron (principally, for not being Brown) and a general sense of mystery about prevailing Conservative values. While Brand Dave exudes trust, Brand Brown speaks to disillusionment and disappointment. If Labour is ‘tired’ in the eyes of the voters, then the Tories are ‘confused’ – both in how they come across and in what the general public thinks they represent.
What this suggests is that what many think is the most enduring legacy of Tony Blair – the emergence of a Presidential-style of politics – may well in fact be the new reality. Popular opinion (or is that just the Daily Mail?) derides the Presidential construct for being, well, so very un-British. But perhaps we should take another look. The scale of disenfranchisement is such that some sort of new force is swelling and imminent. Better surely, for reform from within than anarchy from without, in the shape of the continued rise of ‘Others’… BNP, UKIP and ‘Not Bovvered’ included.
Blair was a man supposedly detached from his party – the New Labour project the dream child of a few modernisers whose pursuit of power (so the story goes) transcended Party values and abused its history. Cameron, meanwhile, looks set to be elected as a (social) liberal Tory surrounded in Parliament by a more Thatcherite mass, whose love for him – despite an occasional European blip – remains undimmed as long as he keeps on winning. Blair, however, chose a battle and fought one within the party to make change manifest. Clause 4 was as totemic for Labour as the European Union remains for the Tories. Yet that battle remains simmering, with an angry political violence currently suppressed. Britain is in effect being asked to vote for a President, not a Party, nor a set of known policies of values. Faith is being placed in the person, not the Party he leads.
This unspoken shift from Prime Ministerial to Presidential may be strangely liberating. In an age of chaotic networks, where a new ecology based on shared interests has been spawned by the digital age, we are learning to forge different partnerships and coalitions across the sphere of cross influence (an early model of which was developed in the original version of Citizen Renaissance) in all aspects of our lives – from personal interests to professional or political pursuits. In contrast, a combination of precedent and the Parliamentary system currently forces Party Leaders to choose from a generally shallow gene pool of vested interests in the formation of Cabinets. This is akin to swimming against the tide of networked reality. Prime Ministers, constrained by the system, end up repaying Party debts and rewarding internal political support with important public office, rather than genuinely delivering a Government of All The Talents for the common good. This has, of course, been one of the criminal charges levelled at Gordon Brown. National progress is thus impeded by an anachronistic hierarchy, out-dated precedent and the straightjacket of a two-party system.
Just as we atomise our choices surrounding TV schedules and musical preferences, surely we must now be able to adopt the same principles with our politics? For some reason, we are subsisting entirely on a diet of Political ITV and are being denied the fundamental freedom to build new coalitions in support of our trusted leaders – and to address what citizens, not a political elite, determine as the most pressing issues of our times. The fourth force of British politics is there, for sure, but currently only latent.
Moving to a Presidential system will allow the Blair’s and the Cameron’s far greater freedom to manoeuvre to improve Britain for the better. Future leaders could, for instance, mix the environmentalism of a Milliband, Ed, with the economic sanity (Mansion Taxes not withstanding) of a Cable. There would be fewer concerns surrounding the Defence post and the Health Service would hopefully be safe in someone’s hands. Fiscal prudence and social reform could become happy bedfellows once again. Not every minister would have to be party-allegiate. In an age where everyone rushes to champion the Knowledge Economy, better knowledge and best skills could be properly and more efficiently deployed.
The corollary of Presidential Britain would be a dramatic re-appraisal of the voting system and, regardless of what happens with the House of Commons, the need for an Upper Chamber that properly reflects civil society would become more urgent. Giving a political voice to the postmen and the health workers, community leaders and employee trusts, teachers and mums, would provide a compelling new framework for a more truly representative citizen democracy, to whom our Presidential leaders could be held to relevant account, and which might also mitigate some of the (often testosterone-charged) industrial friction of recent times. Such a civil framework would, of course, show no mercy for the old and irrelevant hierarchies of monarchy, as Britain regenerated on lines anew. No room, in this reality, for a President and a Monarch together – replaced instead by a coherent and properly structured constitution.
Many clichés have been spoken about the world not emerging from ‘this crisis’ with either the same tired or broken business models or values with which we entered it. The same must surely go for our political system also. The Crisis of Trust is such that there needs to be a wholesale re-think and a better system built on the reality of today’s chaos and new networks of influence. David Cameron, as with Gordon Brown before him, will be forced to do deals with opposing interests in order to form internal alliances that effectively put the polarising needs of the Conservative Party ahead of the needs of Great Britain. If the trust currently being shown in Cameron is to be properly re-paid, then we must grant our leaders real freedom to operate – away from the constraints of their respective parties, as well as from the policies dogmas of a broken two-party state.