Is the United Kingdom a one party state?
(You might be forgiven for thinking this is a joke question, but please bear with me.)
Three main political parties have substantial representation in the House of Commons in Westminster; there are a handful of independent MPs and members of regional or minority parties, but in general governance is in the hands of the Conservative Party, the Labour Party, and (to a lesser extent) the Liberal Democrat Party ...
It's fairly clear that, in addition to having rich tribal identities going back centuries, the individual members of these parties hold very different beliefs about how the UK should be governed. It would be hard, for example, to find much in common between the beliefs of my local MP (an old school Labour Fabian Society member) and those of the conservative back-benchers who lately thumbed their nose at the Prime Minister by sneaking an Alternative Queen's Speech motion into Hansard, calling for various policies that surprise no-one ("bring back hanging" being about the most progressive of them). Scratch a Liberal Democrat and, along with a lot of hand-wringing, you'll get broadly socially liberal policies (and, unless they're an Orange Book type, broadly socialist ones as well).
So why, when we have three clearly divergent political cultures, do I have the feeling that there's nobody to vote for — that whichever government is formed after the next election will continue to iterate and evolve the policies that have dominated British politics since May 1979?
I'm nursing a pet theory. Which is that there are actually four main political parties in Westminster: the Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and the Ruling Party.
The Ruling Party is a meta-party; it has members in all of the three major parties, and probably the minority parties as well. It always wins every election, because whichever party wins (or participates in a coalition) is led in Parliament by members of the Ruling Party, who have more in common with each other than with the back bench dinosaurs who form the rump of their notional party. One does not rise to Front Bench rank in any of the major parties unless one is a paid-up Ruling Party member, who meets with the approval of the Ruling Party members one will have to work with. Outsiders are excluded or marginalized, as are followers of the ideology to which the nominal party adheres.
Your typical Ruling Party representative attended a private school, studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford (or perhaps Economics or Political Science at the LSE). If they took the Eton/PPE route they almost certainly joined the Oxford debating society. Alternatively they might be a barrister (a type of lawyer specializing in advocacy before a judge, rather than in back-office work).
The Ruling Party doesn't represent the general electorate, but a special electorate: the Alien Invaders and their symbiotes, the consultants and contractors and think-tank intellectuals who smooth the path to acquisition of government contracts or outsourcing arrangements — the government being the consumer of last resort in late phase consumer capitalism — arrangements which are supported and made profitable by government subsidies extracted from taxpayer revenue and long-term bonds. The Ruling Party is under no pressure to conform to the expectations of the general electorate because whoever the electors vote for, representatives of the Ruling Party will win; the only question is which representatives, which is why they are at such pains to triangulate on a common core of policies that don't risk differentiating them in a manner which might render them repugnant to some of the electorate.
Now, here's the problem with the Ruling Party system:
Democracy is a rather crap form of government, with several failure modes (of which the tendency to converge on an oligarchy is but one), but it has one huge advantage over other forms of government: it provides a mechanism for peacefully transferring power when a governing clique has outlived its popularity. We hold elections, not civil wars: we kick the bums out, their replacements clean house, and some time later the bums — chastened and perhaps minus some old, familiar, unpopular faces — get another chance.
But with the Ruling Party consolidating its grip on the front benches of the Nominal Parties — and this is not merely a problem in the UK, but in Canada, Australia, and elsewhere — the mechanism for ensuring a peaceful succession has broken down.
Moreover, we are now discovering that we live in a panopticon, in houses of glass that are open to inspection and surveillance by the powers of the Deep State. Our only remaining form of privacy is privacy by obscurity, by keeping such a low profile that we are of no individual interest to anyone: and even that is only a tenuous comfort. Any attempt at organizing a transfer of power that does not ring the changes and usher in a new group of Ruling Party faces to replace the old risks being denounced as Terrorism.
Regimes that brook no peaceful succession have to clamp down on dissent as their policies become increasingly unpopular. (Unpopularity can be avoided for some time — often for decades, in periods of economic prosperity — but eventually even the most enlightened regime loses the Mandate of Heaven, if only due to natural forces beyond their control.) And the new tools of surveillance guarantee that the scope for repression will be vast, for once you begin looking for subversion you will find a populace with no options for legitimate dissent provides unlimited targets.
My conclusion is that we are now entering a pre-revolutionary state, much as the nations of Europe did in 1849 with the suppression of the wave of revolutions that spurred, among other things, the writing of "The Communist Manifesto". It took more than a half-century for that pre-revolutionary situation to mature to the point of explosion, but explode it did, giving rise to the messy fallout of the 20th century. I don't know how long this pre-revolutionary situation will last — although I would be surprised if it persisted for less than two decades — but the whirlwind we reap will be ugly indeed: if you want to see how ugly, look to the Arab Spring and imagine it fought by finger-sized killer drones that know what you wrote on Facebook eighteen years ago when you were younger, foolish, and uncowed. And which is armed with dossiers the completeness of which the East German Stasi could only fantasize about.
Some folks — typically the American libertarian peanut gallery — seem to feel the need to piss on the comment-thread fire hydrant to mark their opinion that all politicians, as a class, are corrupt. I will be deleting these comments. Because that mind set is not helpful; it breeds cynicism and apathy rather than addressing a very real problem. Moreover, they're wrong — at least based on my highly subjective appraisal of all politicians I've ever met. (I may disagree with them, but I don't think they're imbeciles or corrupt just because they don't share my outlook.)
I also reserve the right to delete comments that derail the discussion into a dead-end siding on the topic of American Exceptionalism. (Discussions of how the USA does/does not fit within this theory: fine. "But America is special!" Not so fine.)