For the best part of 50 years I have listened to politicians who are outside of government telling us that the politicians inside government are misguided/incompetent/useless/corrupt/driving the country to wrack and ruin (select as many options as are applicable).
And the politicians who are in government never tire of telling us how the country will descend into chaos if we are careless enough to let those who are not in government get their hands on the levers of power.
Over the course of those 50 years some of these politicians have succeeded in doing some useful things but the general trend, across the political spectrum, has been one of abject failure.
My local newspaper – the West Highland Free Press – runs a weekly column that revisits news from its archive that was printed 35 years ago. It is striking how many of these historic stories chime with those which are being reported in the same newspaper 35 years later. Potholes in the roads, unaffordable housing, failing ferry services, crumbling schools, fuel poverty: all of these (and more) appear to be perennial, as does the lack of political action to sort them out.
The phenomenon of long-term chronic failure extends beyond the north-western seaboard of Scotland. At a national level we still have public services that are under-resourced, endemic postcode poverty, a taxation system that penalises productive activity, private cartels that milk essential services for all they can get, public bureaucracy that is infuriatingly obstructive, and swathes of the population with inadequate and precarious incomes. Internationally we still have war, famine and accelerating environmental damage, all of which are interconnected and all of which present an existential threat to our place on the planet.
The politics of the last 50 years have done nothing of any substance to address any of these problems in any definitive way. There has been no attempt by any of the major political movements to understand the root causes of our problems, local and global, never mind describe the systemic changes that are required to solve them.
Instead we have political parties which are almost indistinguishable in their acceptance of the ways in which politics and economics are done. None of them question the validity of our crude attempt at democracy, which so obviously favours an elite at the apex of the pyramid of power at the expense of the rest of us. All of our political parties appear to believe the lie that economics is limited by finance rather than physics, which means they get stuck in stupid arguments about who’s going to pay rather than working out how to get useful things done.
This wrong-headed consensus on the fundamentals of political economy means that our politicians have very little room for manoeuvre when trying to distinguish themselves from their opponents in the competition for power. Which means that they all trade heavily on patronising paternalism: we are the only ones that know what’s best for you; everyone else will give you the wrong sort of government.
The Right tells us that free-market capitalism is what we need and they are chaps to manage it on our behalf, which includes keeping the captains of industry well-fed and the loathsome left-wingers at bay.
The Left tells us that socialism is what’s best for us, and they will organise everything for us, which includes the destruction of the evil capitalist system.
The Centre tells us that a reasonable compromise between Right and Left is what we need and that they are exactly the right people to find the exact point of balance around which we can gratefully congregate in the shelter of their overwhelming reasonableness.
And the Nationalists tell us that nothing can work properly until it is enclosed within some imaginary geographical line that was scratched onto a map in some distant heroic past, and that they, the guardians of nation will magically make all good things happen within the borders of this special land.
Note that, as well as being firmly welded to dysfunctional democratic and financial systems, our political leaders of all colours share the belief that the business of government is to dictate and enact policy upon the population: we know best; our ministers shall decide, and so it shall be done.
The ridiculous, arrogant, hubristic idiocy of this belief is manifest in the 50 years of failure that I have witnessed. The idea that a handful of individuals sitting on a seat of government can decide and direct detailed policy that effectively addresses the very different needs and aspirations of hundreds of thousands of communities is ludicrous. No matter how talented and well-meaning said individuals are they don’t stand a snowball’s chance in Abu Dhabi of doing what we, in all our extensive variety, need to be done.
Regardless of who is in power, diktat from above means that we always get the wrong sort of government.
Our system of government is essentially still feudal. Instead of hereditary barons calling the shots and enforcing them by sword and cannon we have a hierarchy of overlords who are periodically shuffled about by election rather than war. It’s an improvement – a very rudimentary form of democracy – but our governments’ hopeless responses to pandemic and climate change have highlighted just how foolish we are to rely on the mediocre talents of a few self-appointed leaders, and how desperately we are need of something better.
The proper business of government is empowerment of communities to do for themselves the things that they need to be done. Potholes, health services, education, housing, transport, social care, etc., etc. – the decisions required to make all of these work properly should be made within local communities. Likewise, the resources required to implement these decisions should be controlled and deployed locally.
The job of central government should be the provision and maintenance of systems of decision-making and finance that communities can use to deliver the things that we need for our collective security and comfort at local, regional, national, and international levels.
The right sort of government is one that allows policies to grow out of our communities, and facilitates the development and adoption of these policies for the common good: government that serves the needs of the people.
Instead we have government from on high that dictates policy according to the whims of ministers and their acolytes, which inevitably ends in failure. This is, unarguably, the wrong sort of government.