Back in July 2012, I did an interview for Panorama, in which I tried to suggest that the political situation was deeply unstable. Politics had drifted out of alignment with culture, there was a crisis just over the horizon and the rise of UKIP was a forerunner. I subsequently wrote this piece for an old blog, trying to clarify my thoughts a little. I reprint it here because my new book, All In It Together (published in June), is essentially a full-length treatment of the same theme: the insecurity that was already evident, long before the Brexit referendum blew it into the open and prompted the reconfiguration of the main parties. I’ve resisted the temptation to rewrite this piece.
Much of what I write is the story of modern British politics, as filtered through popular culture. And the justification for this approach is that I think the changing mood of the nation can be detected through its sitcoms and soaps, pop music and pornography.
I claim to be a historian, rather than a commentator on the present, since my knowledge of contemporary culture really isn’t extensive enough. And I’d add that the one thing that can be learnt from history is never to make predictions. But, for the purposes of this blog, let’s ignore those two caveats.
It feels to me that the last fifteen to twenty years have seen a fairly major shift in popular culture away from elitism and towards a celebration of the everyday. On television, for example, you can see the trend start with the toe-in-the-water docusoaps of Airport, The Cruise and Driving School, before moving into full-blown reality TV with Big Brother and its derivatives, and on to The Only Way Is Essex.
You can see it in music, with the notion of stardom being replaced by overblown karaoke contests on mainstream TV. You can see it in the British response to American porn. You can see it in the making of Jade Goody into an ersatz star.
And, most of all, you can see it in the rise of the internet, particularly those parts that look like a local radio phone-in writ large.
Running parallel to the democratisation of culture, however, has been the rise of a super-rich elite. Wealth inequality is back to levels not seen since the 1920s, and is widening on a daily basis.
There’s an inherent tension between these two forces, which was okay during the long period of growth from 1992 to 2008. But now, with the economy likely to stagnate for years to come, I’m not sure that the current arrangement is sustainable anymore. Self-evidently we are not all in this together.
Politicians, from Tony Blair onwards, have sought to keep up with these developments. But they fall between the two stools, and all they’ve done is persuade ever increasing numbers to turn away from Westminster politics altogether. They try to use the imagery of mass culture, but fail because they simply don’t belong to the same world (the picture of Ed Miliband in Gregg’s is hard to forget). In any event, they are inevitably attracted more towards the super-elite.
And there’s a problem here. Through the twentieth century, the parliamentary system continued its pretence of being representative, even though it was originally constructed with a far smaller electorate in mind, and with the intention of keeping the power of the monarchy in check. The democractic deficit was made up by the media, which held politicians to account in the name of the people.
Now, politics and the conventional media have effectively merged to form a single class. And it is fast losing its claim to democratic legitimacy.
Where we go from here is a mystery to me. History takes odd, unexpected turns. I don’t think it was obvious in the 1970s that the crisis of confidence in politics would have resulted in the oldest and most successful party in the country being hijacked by the entirely alien forces of Thatcherism.
Where we should be now is in a different political landscape altogether.
When Paddy Ashdown was in talks with Tony Blair in the 1990s, he argued for a realignment of parties. What we needed, he thought, was a Eurosceptic Conservative Party, a centre party that included Blair, Kenneth Clarke and Ashdown himself, and a Labour Party that retained its union links.
But it didn’t happen and instead we have three parties chasing the same, dwindling band of swing voters. And increasing numbers of people feeling disenfranchised.
I don’t believe this can continue. New political forces will emerge, whether within the existing parties or outside of them.
As I said, predictions are futile. But it feels to me that there is a parallel with the 1970s, and that things are about to change quite radically.