UK politics are boring due to an absence of big ideas

Politics right now is little better than a populist bidding war for votes. No wonder people are bored. But there are some big issues that could really shake things up. Are our politicians and journalists equipped to deal with them if they do?

Not products of big ideas
the commentator
On 15 December 2013 18:20

Apart from the activists and the Westminster hacks, is anyone in Britain fired up these days with a passionate enthusiasm for our politics? Endless headlines about "time running out" for Cameron, or for Clegg, or for Miliband ahead of the 2015 elections are understandable since, the polls show, none of them has a certain chance of being in the next government.

Nor is our argument a sop to the lazy apathy of those who say it doesn't matter who wins: things will never change; they're all as bad as each other. It does matter; things do change according to which government is in power; and they're not all as bad as each other.

It's just that in the absence of an overarching sense of what we stand for as a nation, the danger is that politics becomes little more than a bidding war among parties pledging to this or that constituency a share of the spoils in public spending that the taxman can get his hands on.

Just as depressingly, it can turn into a somewhat pathetic attempt to score points about whether a given politician's off-hand remark or embarrassing photograph can be used to point the finger of blame.

The defence against this argument is that it's democracy in action: voters have a right to demand their fair share, and if their party wins they should get it. The hacks will argue they're just holding the politicians to account, and rightly so.

But without dismissing those points entirely, ultimately, it's just populism and trivia. No wonder people are bored.

In the Cold War it was different. A world-historic standoff between freedom and totalitarianism framed a far more substantial political debate -- both in foreign policy and domestic policy: the two, in a sense became inextricably intertwined.

And it attracted far more substantial leaders as a result. Margaret Thatcher wouldn't have stood a chance in today's environment. The time finds the man, or in that case, the lady.

Thank goodness the Cold War is over, of course. But if it doesn't all go swimmingly and we are at one of those calm before the storm junctures, it isn't entirely clear that we have a Thatcher (or a Churchill) waiting in the wings. What applies in Britain, applies elsewhere. Are the leaders of America, France and Germany, for example, really made of the kind of stuff necessary to deal with Iran and North Korea if it all goes pear shaped? We shall see.

On a more parochial, British level, there are in fact two major issues that could really shake things up in our politics, not that there is any certainty they will happen, and not that everyone wants them to.

The first is the possibility of an independent Scotland, the break-up of Britain for the first time in over three centuries. The second is the potential departure of Britain from the European Union pushing us to forge an entirely new role in the world.

Either or both of those eventualities would force us to ask questions that go way beyond what we have been used to in the quiet and lazy calm that our domestic politics has languished in since the end of the Cold War.

Again, we shall see. But if people really are bored by the politics we have today, one can hardly be surprised. Then again, to those of us who crave something deeper in our political debate, perhaps we should be careful what we wish for. There are much worse things in politics than mere boredom.

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