David Cameron studied politics, so he ought to be familiar with the concept of ‘political culture’. I was taught that the way in which politics happens in a country isn’t simply about formal political systems – who has a vote, free and fair elections, that sort of thing – but also about the customs, manners, and tone of politics. In a democracy, I was led to believe, courteousness and tolerance of opposing opinions, mass political participation, and respect for minority rights, was fundamental. So, for example, Russia, with free elections, but little respect for dissent or minority rights, looks a lot less ‘democratic’ than, say, Germany, which doesn’t tend to imprison or poison critics of the Chancellor.
So what of Britain? How ‘democratic’ is our political culture?
The so-called ‘Challengers’ Debate’ last night illustrates just how hollowed out our democratic reflexes have become. This absurd ‘debate’ featuring only one Member of Parliament, Ed Miliband, plus a bunch of wannabe back-benchers and the SNP leader who isn’t even standing for election to the UK parliament, was risible in its conception. It wasn’t the debate the public or the media wanted; it happened because David Cameron has embraced a political strategy designed to flatten and constrain any kind of public engagement that might not be susceptible to manipulation by his well-funded team of mind-benders.
The result is that we have had some absurd shows that bear no relation to electoral realities, and which are designed to insulate the Tory leader from voters, even at the cost of our democratic political culture.
Consider this. The leader of Plaid Cymru, the 4th largest party in Wales, gets a national platform, despite being less popular than UKIP in the Principality. And this: Nicola Sturgeon gets applauded by an English audience, because far from the 55 million on the island scorning the 5 million in the northernmost bit, as seems to be believed in Scotland, the English and Welsh have by and large also had a bellyful of the Westminster elite. It’s all pretty tangential to who gets to form the next government.
I understand that these are dangerous times, and leading politicians may need protection from guns and bombs, but they neither need, nor deserve, protection from voters’ sharp tongues. There was a time the ukulele man advising Cameron to “piss off back to Eton” was an everyday occurrence. He was the unsung democrat, preserving our right to be rude to our rulers.
Cameron – if you daren’t face either us, or your main challenger, head-to-head, you are no democrat, and you coarsen and weaken our political culture.