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"Number of the month – 34
The House of Commons has debated the HS2 project. There were 34 votes against. This might seem derisory, but compared with the magnificent five who voted against the 2003 energy bill, which has all but destroyed the British economy and is now as expected killing people, it is a triumph. This is a sign that vertebrates have begun to evolve in the primeval swamps of British parliamentary politics."
I think JEB actually means the 2008 Climate Change Bill rather than the 2003 Energy Bill. The sparsity of voting against HS2 is however I think a lot more excusable than the even more sparse voting against the Climate Change Bill. The problem with voting against HS2 is that all the three main political parties, as I remember it, were committed to HS2 at the 2010 general election. The Conservative MP Douglas Carswell explains in this article that he wanted to vote against HS2, but couldn't because it was in the Conservative manifesto, and he hadn't voiced any opposition to HS2 in the election address for his constituency:
I would imagine the 34 who voted against HS2 were mainly MPs with constituencies affected by the proposed route, rather than voting against it on economic grounds. But my view of HS2 is that it's just a temporary product of David Cameron's "Vote Blue Go Green" malarky. The Conservatives announced in 2008 that they were opposed to Heathrow airport expansion and adopted high speed rail as the greener alternative to airport expansion. Then Labour responded to Cameron's move by coming out in favour of high speed rail as well, probably because high speed rail tends to be seen as a left-liberal policy (Obama was even talking about introducing high speed rail in the USA in the first couple of years of his presidency). My guess is that HS2 will be cancelled if we go back to normal politics at the next general election, but it may retain some life if there is another coalition government.
In the case of the Climate Change Act, there was no mention of this in any of the election manifestos of the three main parties in 2005. It was introduced in response to lobbying by Friends of the Earth. The Climate Change Act could even be regarded as a major departure from the 2005 manifestos, because they had only promised serious British involvement in international negotiations, whereas the Climate Change Act ignores international negotiations and is about unilateral action. The fact that only five MPs voted against that is a disgrace.
The MP Jacob Rees-mogg came up with an interesting historical analogy for the increased energy pricing associated with the Climate Change Act, regarding it as a 21st Century equivalent of the "Corn Laws":
In my opinion there should be a public inquiry about how the Climate Change Act got introduced. It raises all sorts of questions about the quality of people going into British politics, their susceptibility to lobbying, and their tendency to indulge in 'grandstanding'. But the way it works in Britain is that we only tend to get public inquiries over subjects that are of concern to the influential 'chattering classes', such as Britain's involvement in the invasion of Iraq, and questionable behaviour by the tabloid press.
On the subject of a public inquiry into how the Climate Change Act got introduced, I remember that Bishop Hill did a bit of groundwork into that issue a couple of years ago in this blog post:
The post provides a video link, together with a transcript, of a talk by Byrony Worthington, describing how the Climate Change Act came into being. Worthington was a Friends of the Earth activist who is regarded as the main architect of the act, and was later made a baroness for carrying out this work.
The three politicians she specifically mentions are Elliot Morley (who later ended up in prison for expenses fiddling), David Cameron and David Miliband. According to Worthington, Cameron played a critical role as Miliband was not initially enthusiastic, but Labour then seemed to change their position in response to Cameron. David Miliband has subsequently left British politics and is now head of the international NGO "International Rescue Committee". So I can't see David Cameron being interested in an inquiry into this, as he wouldn't come out it very well.
An important part of the story that Worthington has left out, as I remember it, was that a huge number of MPs signed a thing called an "Early Day Motion" ,EDM 178, which called for a Climate Change Act to be introduced:
These EDMs are a sort of internal petitioning system in the House of Commons. EDM 178 attracted 412 (out of a maximum possible of 646) signatures, only one of a very small number of EDMs that have had more than 400 signatures. I would imagine the individual 412 MPs were being heavily lobbied by Green groups. This is how I think the legislation got introduced without it actually having to appear in any of the general election manifestos. So the EDM system provides a route for a powerful lobby group to get what it wants, something like a modern day equivalent of the Corn Laws.
"My guess is that HS2 will be cancelled if we go back to normal politics at the next general election, but it may retain some life if there is another coalition government."
The progression from democracy to a police state is such that going back to normal politics at the next election is highly unlikely.
One of the reasons, in my opinion, for the failure of Cameron to win a clear majority at the last election, apart from Cameron himself, is as you mention the tendency of all the major parties to offer the same policies. This leaves the electorate without a choice. Democracy is supposedly about choice, choosing candidates who best represent your views. If they none of them represent your views then you can abstain or vote for the party likely to do the least damage.
Blair's response to low turnouts was to make voting as simple (and corruptible) as possible where the real solution would be to provide more choice through better differentiation.
That Cameron failed to win a clear majority after the Blair Brown years speaks volumes both about Cameron and the lack of choice.
But given the election result the last mechanism within the existing political mechanism should have been that on such a result we get weak and unstable government. It would mean its powers to do anything, good or bad, are strictly limited due to the problem of enacting legislation. That the government is weak and likely to fail is the opportunity for all parties to try and re-connect with the electorate and the one that emerges with enough popular support then seeks to force an early election so that they may be returned with a working majority.
But we have the abomination of the fixed term act.
Purportedly designed to prevent strong stable but unpopular governments hanging on to power beyond what is reasonable, an act which set a strict limit on the maximum term would have admirably served this purpose. However, Cameron and Clegg saw this as an opportunity to corrupt the purpose and use it to make their own coalition strong and stable. Cameron even went so far as to suggest that the coalition was what the electorate wanted and appears to be contemplating another coalition (presumably because he recognises that he remains unelectable and especially so as he has clearly demonstrated his lack of credentials whilst in office, something that could only be suspected prior to the last election).
I believe it may have been Churchill who said "it is the duty of opposition to oppose". Opposition is another of the planks of democracy. It helps keep even strong stable governments in check and is vital to the weather vane of public opinion. In the last decade or so it is ironic that the most striking example of "opposition politics", perhaps the only example given the tendency of all the parties to offer the same policies, is the strong opposition provided by Clegg as a sort of fifth columnist - within the coalition. Not quite how it is supposed to work.
In any event I do not see how we can expect a return to normal politics under such conditions. None of the parties has sufficient connection with the electorate to want such a return and the present system is quite acceptable to them it would seem. Democracy is not high on the agenda of any of the major parties.
I suspect there are some money spinners in there somewhere for some of them and it is unlikely to go away. The fact that it does nothing except create more debt - and jobs for immigrant workers - seems irrelevant. The concept of spending vast amounts of public money to stimulate the economy is a typical Keynsian proposition, a version of economics almost designed for politicians since it justifies raising taxes and investing heavily in vanity projects.
(On the other hand, Heyekian economics would seem far more effective but is the least attractive to politicians).
But, of the two possible candidates for public money, airport expansions would seem the preferable.
Railways have never anywhere made money and all exist on subsidy. That means that the money invested is lost. We will have to borrow it and then eat the debt and the interest. On the other hand, air travel is profitable. There is the prospect that at some point in time the debt will be repaid. Also, a high speed rail link serves only internal needs, if it serves any at all, while airport expansion would enhance our position as an international destination.
I would welcome an inquiry into the climate change act and Bryony Worthingtons part in it. But it is unlikely to happen - look at Cameron's response to the NHS scandal, all directly and unequivocally attributable to Blair's government, and yet he very nearly was able to sweep it all under the carpet.
Why he should want to is another question.
My only hope is that the rising power of UKIP will do something about a return to normal politics. Failing that I could only wish we were more like our European neighbours....they have become rather fond of revolutions, civil wars - but also, unfortunately, rather too fond of totalitarian government which we seem to have acquired even though it remains dressed up as democracy.
In reply to JMW the 'normal politics' I had in mind was actually not having a Coalition government at the next general election.
However I take your point that we haven't really been in a state of 'normal politics' in the UK for quite a few years. UK mainstream politics has been stuck in the so-called 'centre ground' for about 15 years or more. Many people might say that all this started with Tony Blair and his 'New Labour' project, a centre ground version of the Labour party that is similar to the Lib Dems. But the Daily Mail's Peter Hitchens used to claim that the Blair government was just the Major government 'with go-faster stripes', implying this style of politics may have actually started up in the Major years. David Cameron has certainly bolstered up centre ground politics even further. Back in 2006 Nigel Farage of UKIP observed that the three main political parties were effectively all social democrat parties, with policies so close 'that you can't get a cigarette paper between them'. The main way out of the centre ground political fashion might be through the rise of UKIP, as you say, but I think if Scotland becomes independent next year that might also help, as it would make the Conservatives a bit more confident about winning a general election on their own.
Incidentally I've always thought that the biggest pusher of centre ground politics in the UK is someone who is largely unrecognised for doing so, Ian Hislop, who has appeared on the BBC's "Have I got news for you" for just over twenty years. I came to the conclusion that Hislop had in effect the biggest political influence in the UK about ten years ago. I was surprised to see the assistant editor of the Guardian, Martin Kettle, express a similar view a couple of years ago:
Hislop's satire is basically the Sensible party versus the Silly Party (for people familiar with the lengthy old Monty Python sketch), where the Sensible party is the centre ground (which is defined by the Lib Dems in the UK), and the Silly party is anybody who deviates from the centre ground. It doesn't surprise me that the era of centre ground politics in the UK seems to coincide with the continuous TV exposure Hislop has been given by the BBC. If I was involved with the BiasedBBC blog, I would have been campaigning against Hislop for years, but I don't think they really notice him because he's not pro-Labour. A public service broadcaster like the BBC should really be doing everything it can to encourage the citizens of the country to vote, and providing Hislop with a TV platform is in my opinion inconsistent with that. Hislop promotes a cynicism about politics which contributes to the low voter turnout.
Thanks Dave, for these very interesting posts.