Democratic politics is all about choices. The choices the politicians make will determine the choices the voters make and that will determine what lives and what dies.
After years of apparent convergence, British politics has entered a compelling phase of binary choices that should remind voters everywhere – including here in Ireland – that democracy really matters.
First, there was the referendum on Scottish Independence. For many European nations the fact than this secessionist question was even put to a vote was shocking enough. The threat of independence winning the day caused as much panic in Madrid as London.
In the end, the union held. But all sides deserve huge credit for the manner in which they debated the issue and engaged in a remarkable campaign.
We know – from his unfortunate aside to the Mayor of New York – that the threat of break up had caused the British Prime Minister some considerable worry and that his relief on informing the monarch of the result was such that David Cameron imagined his Queen purring down the line.
He knew that his own political mortality was bound up in the survival of the United Kingdom. The pre-referendum polls had placed a noose around his neck, but the final result had spared him from the gallows.
With Scotland settled, for now, it was time for David Cameron to play Conservative Leader rather than UK Prime Minister. He announced a plan to curtail Scottish votes at Westminster with English votes for English laws.
If implemented, the change would make it much more difficult for Labour to achieve a majority government. If Labour reject the plan, the Tories can make it an electoral issue in England – forcing Labour to tell English voters why Scottish MPs should have the right to rule them when English MPs have little role in Scottish affairs. Difficult choices for Labour. Clear choices for voters.
Then Tory voters were presented with some unexpected choices as one, then two, conservative MPs announced their defection to the UK Independence Party, resigning their seats and forcing by-elections.
Nigel Farage, UKIP Leader, could perhaps be described as David Cameron’s mortal enemy. The man who could rob the Conservatives of any chance of a general election victory next year.
But enemies can be useful and it appears UKIP’s assault has prompted the Tories to rediscover their political mojo.
At their party conference this week, Mr Cameron and his Chancellor George Osborne unveiled a pre-election package that redistributes wealth – from the poor to the rich. It’s a kind of inverse Robin Hood tactic – take from those on state benefits and give back to those on the highest rate of income tax.
It’s a risky strategy, but it seems like the most coherent plan to win an election the Tories have offered in a long time. All will depend on the what the voters decide come election day. This is real politics: it can be brutal and nasty but their are clear choices and consequences.
Step across the Irish sea to Stormont and you enter a parallel universe where the laws of real politics do not apply.
Sinn Féin – the second largest party of government – is refusing to implement cuts in welfare mandated by Westminster. As a result the Executive is facing financial penalties from the UK Treasury which will either lead to cuts elsewhere or, more likely, the collapse of the Executive itself at which point the welfare cuts will be imposed.
Sinn Féin say that they won’t implement the cuts as people in Northern Ireland did not choose this Tory policy. But even if they fight an Assembly election opposing the cuts, voters will have little choice in the matter – unless all the other parties join Sinn Féin in proposing a separate welfare system in Northern Ireland.
Because of the system of government – which guarantees parties a place in government based on their electoral strength and which gives unionist and nationalist voting blocks a mutual veto – elections in Northern Ireland don’t offer voters much choice.
It looks like a democratic system – people vote freely and politicians are duly elected – but what an SDLP leader once called the “ugly architecture’’ of the Good Friday Agreement obliterates any chance of meaningful change.
It’s a system that doesn’t offer choice to voters and seems incapable of making choices itself. This is not a minor issue but the most fundamental flaw at the heart of the political settlement.
Imagine how things in the South might have played out had voters not been able to express their righteous wrath with Fianna Fail in the aftermath of the financial crisis and send them packing from government. Imagine how difficult Ireland’s economic recovery might have been had a new government not been empowered by a decisive popular vote.
The argument against normal rules applying in Northern Ireland is simply that normal rules won’t work. Well, the abnormal ones don’t seem to work either.
As the parties consider a new round of all-party talks, the governments need to consider the option of radical reform. Rights can easily be protected without the need for all-party government. Real democracy requires real choices and consequences.
But there is little to no chance of that happening. If the talks get underway – and that’s far from certain – their best chance of success is a patch-up job on the current zombie structures. It will remain an undead political process.
First published in Sunday Business Post, 5th October 2014