How Westminster politics failed us when it mattered most

Brexit’s place in the genre of storytelling is hard to pin down. Part tragedy, part thriller, part farce — even whodunnit. The Thick of It refrain has become ubiquitous. But beneath its well-worn exterior, a more careworn temperament lurks. For all the gallows humour that gets us through the moment, these are deeply troubling times. In fact, this is none of the above. It’s a horror story.

The dominant narrative is Brexit itself. Disconcerting enough. But there’s a subplot which increasingly steals the show. A monumental failure of politics. At a moment when we needed it more than any time since the second world war, British politics — its institutions and its actors — has been found wanting.

And a new poll for ComRes published today suggests the public has had enough. Confidence in Parliament has plummeted. Three-quarters of those polled think MPs are not up to the job while almost the same proportion want to see a major overhaul of the political system.

I speak as an ardent Remainer but frankly, it doesn’t matter where you stand. I doubt I’d feel better as an ardent Leaver in Lincolnshire. This story just doesn’t have a good look. It repels rather than compels. It’s the stuff of nightmares rather than dreams.

Worse, it’s the moment you know you’re dreaming but can’t wake up. Except now we’re not even sure if we want to. I’m just glad when I do, I’m in Scotland. There’s turbulence here too right now but it’s a picnic in comparison.

I voted first in 1979. Quite the moment to come of age. The first election to leave its mark on me took place more than five years earlier though, in February 1974 when I was 12.

Those were the days when political impersonations came in the form of Mike Yarwood rather than Rory Bremner. Harold and Ted, Vic and Len; this was the corporatist 70s. We weren’t a political household by any means. My dad’s vote was a secret between him and the ballot box.

But for some reason, I was curious, sufficiently so to take a night off from Radio Luxembourg’s Fab 208 on the tiny transistor radio that sat under my pillow, and listen to the results come in. Something that flickered that night has been a constant for me. Politics matters.

I’ve never not stayed up for a general election. I’ve been an anorak, an activist and everything in between. I’ve even had the privilege of being a local councillor. It was, in many respects, both the most rewarding and the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And I’ve often wondered, what, if anything I really achieved. But then I remember a couple of modest accomplishments.

The first was helping to make a small difference to people’s daily lives; a play area on an estate, railings to stop scooters using an alleyway blighting the lives of nearby residents. I sweated the small stuff because it was worth it. And it was what I could do. I never felt powerful, but the burden of office was a constant reminder that I had a damn sight more power than most of those I was elected to serve.

The second, and just as gratifying, was a sense when I stood down that I’d won a modicum of trust. I’ve no empirical proof and the anecdotes I do have came mostly from community activists, not quite your average punters. But amongst the most precious are those from people who hadn’t voted for me but felt I’d listened.

As a citizen, politics has had a profound impact on my life. So many things I took for granted, free healthcare, a great education (which in those days was free too). And even though it didn’t work quite so smoothly, a lifeline when I broke down. But that’s the state, isn’t it? Well sure, but it’s a consequence of political choices about what the state’s there for too.

And then, remarkably, as a result of tumultuous social change and made possible by the response of political actors to it, in middle age, I got married. Politics secured rights I never dreamt of as a young gay man and I even had the great fortune to play my part along the way.

As a young politics graduate working within a stone’s throw of the palace of Westminster in the early 80s, politics enthralled me. I could just walk in and watch. But now — my younger self would be astonished at the very thought of this — the spectacle of the crumbling edifice of Westminster makes me recoil. This is a shitshow.

And what distresses me almost as much as Brexit itself is its potential legacy for our belief in the capacity of politics to do good. Our trust in politicians is hardly sky-high to start with, even if it is worth remembering despite the headlines the data suggests it’s been pretty stable for the past 30 years — albeit they languish pretty near the bottom of the table.

But what has declined is trust in governments to place the needs of the nation above those of their party. After the Government’s unprecedented defeat on the deal, the outcome of the confidence vote which followed tells you everything you need to know about why that’s unlikely to get better any time soon.

We have a Government whose biggest concern is anything but Corbyn — and an Opposition whose leadership has played fast and loose with Brexit entirely in its own interests. Despite the fact, there’s scant evidence a change of government would make any difference to the outcome. Brexit is the ultimate game of charades and more tiresome than any you can imagine.

Wherever the data on trust is heading in the longer term, the cynicism now is palpable. Even people who make their living out of this stuff are switching off, while the voting public is reportedly just bored with the whole saga. Yawning at the most significant moment in domestic politics for three-quarters of a century.

It’s not hard to see why — when the modus operandi of the two largest parties becomes playing politics rather than doing politics — self-serving rather than serving. There is no shortage of decent hard-working MPs. But with some honourable exceptions, Westminster politics is failing.

Its bandwidth has narrowed so far the everyday concerns of citizens are at vanishing point. It has abandoned us when it matters most. The test I used to judge my own tiny local contribution is proof enough. There’s precious little listening and even less doing.

After two years of unedifying wrangling, today’s ComRes poll should come as no surprise but it should alarm politicians — and concern anyone who believes in politics as a force for good. Whatever the outcome of Brexit we may be counting the cost for a long time to come.

Chair @SAMHtweets, Non Exec @socsecscot & runner @EdinburghAC, Views my own