Currently living in America makes it a challenge to follow the general election happening in my homeland in anything close to real-time. Apart from living in a relatively self involved continent which has its own electoral obsessions, not being able to read every paper or watch and listen to as many media outlets as possible has meant I have a time-delay on debates, policy announcements and anything interesting. This means I end up boring American friends who have no real personal investment in this election, assuming that my excitement and interest is just because I happen to come from there. Whilst this is true, this election is looking to be very different and objectively exciting (if you’re not from the UK please watch this ever so slightly patronizing guide to our electoral system by the BBC).
The overwhelming probability of this upcoming election is that no one will win an overwhelming majority. This, David Cameron and the conservative party have insinuated that this will lead to a chaotic political landscape and that this will be a bad thing. I will contest that the only way anything will ever change for the better in the UK will be a period of political chaos forcing the hand of political actors toward structural change.
If nothing especially exciting happens in the next three weeks the parliamentary dynamics of the UK are probably going to look something like this:
To do some brief electoral maths; Whilst the Conservatives would be the largest party by six seats the fact that the SNP-Plaid Cymru Westminster alliance has explicitly stated they would support a Labour government vote-by-vote brings a potential voting block of 322; 4 votes short of an overall majority which, once you take Sinn Fein’s almost certain absenteeism into account that block becomes 1 vote short. Add this to potential SDLP and the Green Party support if properly bought with the right legislation would make a potential voting majority of 326. This is as opposed to the a potential Conservative led coalition comprising the Liberal Democrats, the DUP, UKIP and the UUP, which using probable results adds up to around 317. Meaning that despite leading the largest party David Cameron is unlikely to get back into Downing Street. Whilst this isn’t uncommon in other European countries this has literally never happened in the history of British politics.
It was a desire to avoid this exact scenario that lead Nick Clegg and David Cameron to come together last time around. The prospect of a ‘constitutional crisis‘ looms in the background of this election, (for the benefit of foreigners I should point out that we don’t have one of those fancy written constitutions, we have a long series of precedent and statute, making the idea of a ‘constitution’ in British politics much more abstract and fluid than the average state) this is all made more ‘dire’ by the existence of the fixed parliament act. This act, introduced in 2011 ended 400ish years of executive privilege to call elections at will. This means that whatever combination of MPs we end up with on May 8th – barring some kind of mass resignation – will stay there, more or less, until 2020. This means that, if the result currently projected are slightly different, or the various parties decide to organise themselves into different combinations or – for some reason – no one wants to work with anyone initially; we cannot simply have another election if no one gets along, they have to get along. This will force the all to long ignored issue of Britain’s antiquated parliamentary system, meaning we will actually have to reform instead of holding an ill-informed, half-hearted referendum about one aspect of the system, we will have to reform almost everything. If you’re a reform minded Briton I recommend you hope for this result, as the last time anyone had both the mandate and the power to reform anything in the UK; Tony Blair made the house of lords less hereditary and called it a day. Sadly as a people, we don’t tend to change anything unless we absolutely have to. Incidentally, a parliamentary free for all would have the added benefit of making the Daily Telegraph reading contingent of Parliament fluster with rage as the fact that they’re the largest single party lies flaccid in the face of a progressive anti-tory coalition.
That by the way is a worst case scenario. I mentioned what I think is the best case scenario in a previous blog post; That being a progressive, Celtic orientated coalition. This could ultimately change, not simply the austerity driven policies of the last five years but the balance of power in the United Kingdom as a whole. Whilst the way we send MPs to Westminster may not change at all, autonomy to the nations and regions are exponentially more likely to increase with the SNP and Plaid Cymru selling support to a Minority Labour Government. Whatever the combination of MPs the UK wakes up with on May 8th; I believe we have in front of us, gradual move to normalizing coalition governments or a chaotic parliamentary flux that will ultimately lead to a better form of government. Either way, I recommend we all embrace the chaos; it will certainly be interesting.
Addendum: Around ten hours after writing this, Sinn Fein did something they haven’t done for about a century and decided to actively participate in this general election, bringing the number of seats needed back up to 326 and putting another party into the mix.
Preface: every time the word ‘Libertarian’ or any of it’s derivatives appears in this article, I’ve put quotation marks around it. I have done this because I object to people who think that the problem with society is that corporations and robber barons don’t have enough power over their employees using any word associated with ‘Liberty’ to describe themselves. I do however Understand that that word is in common usage and that i don’t have superpowers that can erase fallacious definitions from people’s heads…. yet.
Earlier this week Kentucky’s junior senator, eye doctor and Second generation ‘Libertarian’ Rand Paul announced his intention to run for the presidency of the United States in 2016. Paul’s announcement was much better than his now rival, Ted Cruz’s announcement speech as he managed to get actual supporters along, rather than forcing students to attend. Unlike his father Paul has something close to a chance, not enough to win the nomination but probably enough to drag whoever does toward his ‘Libertarian’ points of view come the general election, possibly putting parts of his agenda in the GOP’s platform. This is likely as ‘Libertarians’ are the part of the republican party that are going to be alive in large numbers come 2020 and 2024. As a result I felt the need to quickly talk about Rand’s Announcement speech and the specific policies and implications he laid out in it.
Paul began with some fun bluster around the need to have a government that adheres to the constitution; something I always find tedious in American political dialogue as it usually comes from people who have very little interest in reading the, actually relatively vague, document itself, rather than idolizing the rich, white slave owners who wrote the thing. After a loud round of applause Paul began to make the argument for a Balanced Budget Amendment.
The Idea of a balanced budget amendment; That is making it a matter of constitutional mandate that the United States cannot go into debt, has been a pet peeve of mine ever since I found out what it is and politicians began reviving the idea around 2009 to stop some black guy spending all the money. Dissecting the idea that we need a balanced budget at all times and in all circumstances misunderstands how sovereign debt works and why it is possible, sustainable and in fact, probably necessity for a nation-state to run a national debt is a subject for better researched and learned blogs to explain. From this poor position I will simply make the point that if we have learned anything from the collapse of Soviet Communism, it is that pre-ordaining how a government will react to hypothetical future economic events and trends cannot end well. And that it is strange that someone who claims his ideology is actually an anti-ideology, devoid of isms or dogma to propose such a restrictive and undemocratic measure.
Paul’s second big idea is term limits for members of Congress. Now the 22nd Amendment is a great idea. particularly coming as it did at the dawn of the atomic age as it shut down the possibility that any one person might have their finger on the button for longer than eight years. However, term limits for the executive branch make sense in a very specific way as it means that presidents cannot realistically try to destroy their internal political rivals in a way prime ministers, or other presidents do, without at least raising up successors to take over, meaning that their political ideology cannot run on the demagoguery of one powerful individual (George H. W. Bush is a fine example of this political truth). This however does not apply to members of legislators, (theoretically) representing as they do interests of the general population rather than the authority of an organ of the state, legislators should stay in power as long as people want them there. I’m not saying all of congress are wonderful democratic flower children, far from it. I’m simply pointing out that the unrepresentative nature of American democracy has a lot to do with money, Gerrymandering and other many problems, none of which are the lack of a govern-by date.
A common trope coupled with legislative term limits holds that the cornerstone of the rot at the core of American government is that every single legislator does not read the entirety of bills they vote for. The fact that this argument carries weight in certain circles speaks more to a disinterest in the mechanics of government rather than an actual problem. The fact that legislators don’t read all bills in their entirety is the basis of the committee system congress is based on. This system essentially delegates the reading of bills to small groups of Congressmen who listen to experts and try to understand and then decide if a bill should be voted on. This system exists because every single law will have to stand up to teams of lawyers at one time or another. I’m not necessarily saying this is a good or a bad system, just that to simply demand that everyone reads the whole of the bill is a non demand considering you’re asking every single congressman, who are not necessarily constitutional lawyers, to read every single sub-article and amendment in every bill, that can run up to several thousand pages, particularly if we’re dealing with something as complex as healthcare or military spending. Baring this in mind, getting them to read every word that goes into a bill would be somewhat redundant in a lot of cases versus having a legal expert read it and then explain it to them, like they do in committees. At best this argument is a naive attempt to make government accessible, at worst (and to be honest more believable) it’s a cynical way to make Paul sound down home. Either way it’s a stupid thing to say.
I’ve always found ‘Libertarian’ claims of standing up for individual rights suspect. For a start they seem to be standing up for very specific individual’s rights. Whilst building a factory that destroys the surrounding landscape, poisons the water-table and irradiates the soil is a part of the nature of freedom, forming a union against the perpetrator or trying to get them to clean up their own mess is tyrannical statism. Paul brought this to mind in me when he discussed phone records. In part I agree with him; no one should be allowed to keep someone else’s phone records and use them for purposes unknown and unwanted to the owner of those details. Not the NSA, not the FBI, not Google, not Verison, no one; which is where Mr Paul and myself part ways. If we’re into privacy and control over your online presence, we need to be for it in all circumstances or it means nothing. I focus on this specific because i believe it is my core problem with ‘Libertarians’ and why I resent them utilizing the language of freedom and liberty; They are not for privacy, they are against institutions having access to your records when they’re not doing so for profit, they’re only against tyranny when it’s subject to public oversight. In this sense, on a fundamental level, Rand Paul has very little to differentiate him from the Classic republican brand.
In what I assume he believes to be his main appeal to left-wing voters, Rand Paul makes the very laudable statement that any law that disproportionately affects people and communities of colour should be repealed. This is all very well, however it doesn’t really address why drug possession laws are overwhelmingly used against People of Colour verses their white counterparts. Decriminalizing drugs isn’t enough. If we made all drugs legal tomorrow instances of black teenagers being arrested for loitering, trespassing, damaging police property and resisting arrest, verses possession would sky-rocket. Trayvon Martin didn’t have drugs on him, nor did Mike Brown or Eric Garner or Tamir Rice or Walter Scott. It’s kind of cute that at the core of ‘Libertarian’ drug policy is a fundamental misunderstanding of why those policies exist and who they’re designed to be used against.
Prohibition is apparently just another example of killjoy liberals trying to control everyone, rather than a tool to use against America’s poor and dispossessed. The idea that if we just took one reason to arrest and harass black teenagers out the equation, police forces would stop this very lucrative practice is ridiculous. Wanting to legalize substances without changing anything else about law enforcement is doing the best you can to sound like you’re doing something without doing a damn thing. For a point of reference the 15th Amendment states that every male citizen of the United States gets to vote, it was specifically designed to enfranchise African Americans. It was ratified in 1870. Without reforming law enforcement or making an exerted effort beyond signing a piece of paper, the segregated south found other means to discriminate wholesale against their African-American citizens. As much as I think drugs do need to be decriminalized or legalized (depending on the drug) the fact that you could safely get high in your dorm room wouldn’t lessen the systematic racism of the police force. That said, what are a few civil rights violations between friends?
On the whole I hope that the kind of people who Rand is trying to bring in with this campaign; young people disillusioned with the ineffectiveness of the DNC and repelled by the GOP for being quite so tone deaf to modern America, see this upcoming campaign for what it is; a warmed over version of the Reagan ‘revolution’ with the moral outrage turned down from 11 to 6. What Paul is offering people is a world were underemployed people remain underemployed, where the cops still harass and kill people of color, where people generally are still denied healthcare and women are denied reproductive rights in defence of religious or economic ‘freedom”. But hey, we could all get high after our terrible underpaying job though. Swings and roundabouts I suppose.