Strange Times

Strange Times

It is extraordinary that a horrific sex scandal in distant Hollywood could perhaps have a much greater impact on the nature of Britain’s future relationship with other European countries than the actions taken by the current British government in their Brexit negotiations.

The revelations about Mr. Weinstein’s alleged predatorial actions towards people who depended on him for their career advancement have emboldened people from outside the world of show-biz who have also faced unwanted sexual attention or harassment to become bolder in denouncing the perpetrators. While this new bravery seems to be bound to surface in many walks of life in the UK, it has taken hold so far most visibly in and around Parliament. Already, the consequences have been far-reaching, with several MPs and ministers resigning or being suspended.

There is a high probability that many more heads will roll in the coming months. Even if, as seems probable, only a small minority of MPs is involved, this could still have very far-reaching political consequences. The government’s credibility, already low, seems bound to sink further, and it would not be surprising if it soon found itself without a majority. The resulting general election would almost certainly usher in a Labour-led government, which would conduct Brexit negotiations in a very different tone, possibly leading eventually to a decision that it would be in the UK’s national interest to remain as an influential member of the EU.

The immediate focus of public attention will be on the individuals accused of misdemeanours and their fate as well as on the measures taken to protect vulnerable people in future. However, the emerging scandal is the product of a cultural environment in Westminster which erodes MPs’ commitment to the standards of integrity that we – perhaps naively – expect politicians to uphold.  It seems to be a natural sequence in a different garb to the “expenses scandal” that emerged in 2009, showing how many seemingly responsible MPs, routinely claimed – and received – allowances for ineligible expenses. This time, however, it is likely to be a prelude to a probe into other aspects of British politicians’ integrity.

My wife has always believed that people who become doctors do so because they want people to be healthier. She also thinks that women and men who enter politics are driven by their desire to create a better nation. Unfortunately, though many doctors and MPs are driven by altruism, this is far from the case for all!

The problem with the current events – and with the earlier MPs’ expenses scandal – is that, though they stem from the improper behaviour of errant individuals, they have the effect of eroding our overall trust in the institutions – whether cabinet, parliament or local councils – in which politicians work on our behalf. We have to ask ourselves whether – as in the Weinstein case – if it is common knowledge throughout the institutions that such offences are quite frequent, why the powers-that-be have not taken timely action to clean the system up. It seems easier for our politicians to throw mud at the “bureaucrats in Brussels” and to blame them for our problems than to admit that much is wrong within their own institutional culture, and to pluck up the courage to address it.

Some anomalies in the political arena are at last receiving belated attention. Formal enquiries are starting on how foreign governments, notably Russia, might have influenced the outcome of the EU referendum. An in-depth examination is also going ahead on possible illegal contributions to campaign expenditures, which, in turn, could have had a decisive impact on the referendum result.

Surely, however, it would be opportune to use the present occasion to address other breaches of integrity in the political world so as to bolster lagging public confidence in our democratic institutions. Some of us have felt deeply disturbed by what appear to be behavioural shifts in the manner of politics that have occurred in the last few years and which, if not curbed in future, will not only further diminish our trust in politicians but also tarnish Britain’s reputation as a fair and tolerant nation, damaging our international standing.

The first and most subtle and sensitive change is in the shaping of attitudes towards foreigners living in Britain. It was necessary for migration issues to loom high in the debate on Britain’s future relationship with Europe, but an unfortunate side-effect is that many immigrants reportedly feel less welcome than before. It may be that British people are simply displaying their true colours, but it would seem that some politicians, aided and abetted by the press, have taken advantage of the situation to amplify the national xenophobic discourse. Around the time of the referendum there was a sharp rise in reported hate crimes in the UK. The leaders of the major political parties need to deal with all individual instances of xenophobic behaviour amongst their members with the same firmness that they are now applying to sexual offenders. Hopefully ministers will also ensure that, in their dealings with foreign residents, their departments act fairly and correctly, fully respecting their rights.

Secondly, it seems wrong that campaigners who have deliberately and collectively lied in order to influence voter behaviour should not be sanctioned for this. Even now, we are seeing a variant of the “big red bus” story in the persistent attempts by the same people, now in government, to conceal from parliament and the general public relevant information on the impacts of various Brexit scenarios on 58 different sectors of the economy.

Thirdly, there is growing disquiet over the possible abuse of social media and artificial intelligence in exerting disproportionate influence on voter behaviour: there is a need to explore the possible requirement for new guidelines on the use of IT in elections and to continually update these in line with emerging technologies.

Fourthly, one feels bound to question the morality of the use of public fiscal resources by a political party to buy the allegiance of another party so that it can achieve and retain a parliamentary majority. While this may now be technically legal, it makes a mockery of the concept that alliances between different parties should be voluntary and based on shared values.  It would be difficult for the present government to address this issue, but, should it fall, its successor should immediately legislate for an end to this dubious practice.

Finally, perhaps the time has come for leaders of the major political parties to recognise that, while the frequent application of 3-line whips on their MPs may give an impression of party unity, it has the effect of suppressing the debate which is so necessary to arrive at truly consensual decisions. It is difficult to see how a party leader can legitimately claim to be championing “the will of the people” while preventing MPs from responding to their own constituents’ positions on the issues under discussion. And, of course, it places concerned MPs in an extreme integrity dilemma in which they have to choose between loyalty to their party or to the people who elected them.

The danger is that hints of threats to their political careers will induce them to act against their better judgment in resolving this dilemma. Cameron, however, gave his party members the freedom to follow their own beliefs in the referendum campaign. In contrast to his liberal approach Tory MPs are now constrained to toe a line towards Brexit implementation that is dictated by the right wing of the party whose members, in their fanaticism, are prone to bully those who dare to question their stance.

Wouldn’t it be very interesting to learn how, if left to their own devices, MPs of all parties would now vote on whether Britain should leave or remain within Europe?

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