It’s hard to win elections. Thank goodness for that, says TOM HARRIS


Democracy, eh? What a pain in the backside.

All this having to campaign, argue, persuade and cajole the voters. All those compromises that are an inevitable part of a mature democracy… who can be bothered with all that?

Well, according to mainstream SNP thinking, Scotland can dispense with it. Because, apparently, we are a homogenous society with only one political viewpoint (left of centre, of course).

Therefore, in an independent Scotland, the Left, in whatever guise (usually assumed to be an amalgam of Scottish Labour and nationalist types who, having achieved their ambition of independence will be every bit as enthusiastic about political involvement after we’ve shrugged off the English yoke. Ahem…) will hold sway. We will rule unchallenged by any serious right wing opposition.

All we will need to do is stand leftie candidates at the first – and every subsequent – Scottish general election and go to bed early, in the absolute certainty that, come the morning, only the size (not the existence) of our parliamentary majority will be in doubt.

Online nats never tire of repeating their claim that a vote for the Union is a vote for Tory rule. Cameron nearly won the last UK general election in 2010, so therefore (goes nat logic) the 300-year-old Union must end. Why resign ourselves to having to fight – and fight hard – for the election of a Labour government at Westminster when instead we can have perpetual Labour government at Holyrood without having to lift a finger or deliver a leaflet?

But here’s the thing: elections should be hard to win. Politicians should never be allowed to take votes for granted. We should always be expected to come up with new ideas, to redefine and modernise our principles and policies.

Any country where it can be lazily assumed that X or Y party will take power no matter what is a badly run one. The harder it is to win the votes of the electorate, the more determined will the winning party be to make their term in office a success. And in any modern democracy, no party should assume they will retain power ad infinitum; however healthy any living thing, it must die eventually, and the same should go for governments. The principle that governments govern better when they’re held to account by strong oppositions is more than a soundbite. And a strong oposition is one that stands a realistic chance of being the government next time round.

None of this is envisioned by our nationalist compatriots. Their utopian vision of Scotland’s future is one where the right is frozen out in perpetuity, where left-leaning governments are re-elected with the certainty of day following night. Join us in our fight for independence, they say to Labour members, and you will never again have to endure a Tory government.

No, thanks. I don’t want a Tory government any more than do (most of) our nationalist friends. But unlike them, I’m prepared to fight, argue and campaign for the alternative. And yes, I’m also prepared to lose if we get our arguments and our policies wrong.

Damn this democracy lark.

Tom Harris is the MP for Glasgow South and is a Shadow Environment Minister. Follow him on Twitter at @TomHarrisMP.

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14 thoughts on “Democracy: what a pain in the backside

  1. “Politicians should never be allowed to take votes for granted. We should always be expected to come up with new ideas, to redefine and modernise our principles and policies.”

    Never mind about taking votes for granted, what about taking voters for granted? Why should politician’s ideas to redefine and modernise principles and policies – with their blanket implementation – be accepted as the norm? What about letting people come up with their own ideas and principles with true devolution of local government on all matters that do not affect the defence/international relations of our country?

    What about politicians dropping the idea of ‘representative democracy’, which is another name for democratized dictatorship, and really setting the people free? What have politicians to lose – other than their self-ordained power to decide people’s lives?

    Of course that would put the boot on the other foot, resulting in us deciding your lives – fancy that? No, thought not!

  2. Democracy, eh? What a pain in the backside.

    Since the UK is an Elective Dictatorship with NO written constitution, how do you perceive democracy?

    1. The UK does have a written constitution. The Scotland Act, Representation of the People Acts, Parliament Acts are all constitutional. We do have a written constitution – but not a codified one.

      Setting that aside, a written constitution (codified or otherwise) doesn’t make or break a representative democracy. What does is people engaging in that process.

  3. I don’t think with all due respect that that is the point. It is pretty much a given than Scottish politics is currently to the left of the centre of the UK mainstream. Whatever happened after independence will start from that default position. It would be up to the left to lose the goodwill of the electorate in that scenario. Given the ability of all politicians to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory a putative SNP government, followed by a Scottish Labour government could, indeed, be followed by the Grandsons of Thatcher. But only if they completly mess up. I therefore find that scenario extremely unlikely, and debates are more likely to be around the practicalities of running a half decent welfare state. At least Mr Harris is addressing the possibility of a Yes vote in the referendum. If that were to happen it would not be ‘the end of history’.

  4. Completely agree, Tom.

    This is why I want to see a strong and focused centre-Left AND a strong and focused centre-Right in Britain. If one side is too strong and the other too weak, it’s bad for everyone in the end.

    The strong party starts feeling they have a right to rule and don’t have to do anything to earn it and that in turn leads to a very poorly run nation.

    We fought a revolution to be rid of the Divine Right of Kings, but the Divine Right of Party X is no better and in some ways worse. Bad kings die naturally given enough time, but a bad party can go on forever, institutionalised in aspic, as it were.

    Strong opposition is not only a good thing, but, I would agree, wholly necessary.

  5. The thing is Tom that real participative democracy doesn’t happen and there is this huge power gap – most potential voters feel powerless to effect change so switch off. Then politics becomes the almost exclusive territory of professional politicians like yourself and political pundits while the rest of us at best contribute with our vote every 4 or 5 years. Every potential reform of the system to open it up and refresh democracy is resisted tooth and nail by the political classes of all parties at Westminster – from AV to Lords reform. And as for accountability – MP’s expenses would still be shrouded in secrecy if it hadn’t been for whistleblowers and brave journalists. Much of the appeal of the nationalist cause is arguably about this aspiration for more democracy and there is something politically enlivening about the process of challenging and taking back from the concentration of power at the centre. Don’t tell me it’s not really satisfying to watch the FM take on the PM and send him back to London with a flea in his ear. And if it’s not nationalism or Nationalism that rocks your boat then what is your democratic vision for the future of Scotland ? The genie’s out the bottle now so for the sake of democracy rather than party politics please don’t say more of the same.

  6. In the 2005 general election, 65% of the electorate voted against the New Labour Party. The result was a New Labour Majority. It is for the above reason that the FPTP system, as used in UK general elections, is used by countries such as Iran, Yemen and Zimbabwe. It gives defacto dictatorships an appearance of democractic legitimacy.

    Also, the SNP are not per se a left/socialist party, but a generally centrist (both on economic and social scales) party with a slight left leaning on the economic scale. Their centrist stance is what is attracting voters to them; they put forward policy which those on the moderate of all scales (left, right, authoritarian, libertarian) find attractive.

    The overall centrist stance of the Scottish electorate used to be epitomised by a rough 50/50 split (1950’s) between Old Labour (pre-Tony) and the Old Tories (pre-thatcher), i.e. moderate left/liberal and moderate right/authoritarian respectively. Both parties started losing core support in Scotland when they lurched further the right/authoritarian (Tories under Thatcher, New Labour under Blair). Scotland’s inherent centrist stance is now largely reflected in the strong vote share for the SNP; the other more traditionally centrist/liberal party – the Lib Dems – having lost support rapidly too when it moved to the right under the charge of the orange bookers (hence the ease in forming a coalition with the Tories).

    I don’t expect this comment to pass moderation.

  7. Interesting post.

    Given that the main attack from the SNP seems to be the “Labour/Tory coalition”, curious this is not being used against Salmond who essentially found the same thing “Mostly Harmless”.

    Would he have done a deal with the Tories to get into goverment? Would he do one now to secure indepedence? Would he do a deal with the Tories in the future if Scotland was independent?

    1. He might’ve, and he might. Who can say? The point is that you are actually doing it right now, for all to see.

  8. I think that the ONLY way to get a revival to normal left/right politics in Scotland would be if we became independent( or the total demise of the SNP, which appears unlikely). There is a lot of dancing around the centre and left of centre, but, on the right,the Tory Party are perceived as being Anglo-centric and unwilling to fight for the Scottish interest ( whatever that may be in the voters minds). The Scottish Tory Party would also have to find some people with personality and popular ideas, they are sorely lacking in both right now. It may be that by 2020, a general realignment of parties would have occured here, in any case.

  9. For Elliot Kane, care to tell us when Scottish Kings had, “The Divine right of Kings”? In 1320, when monarchs still had, “Sovereignty”, (The divine right of Kings), the then international authority of all Christendom, The Pope had not only ex-communicated The Bruce, for murdering the Red Comyn on the alter steps of Dumfries High Kirk, but also the whole country of Scotland. Ordering the English to begin every church service by cursing Scotland. So we had a dead contender for the throne and another an ex-communicant who thus could not have the Divine right as that came from a Christian God. This engendered the, “Declaration of Arbroath”, declaring, not only, Scotland was a sovereign, independent country, but that in Scotland the Monarchy was NOT sovereign because, “The People of Scotland were. That the people of Scotland appointed their Monarch as, “The Protector of the People’s sovereignty”, and Scottish Monarchs are King/Queen of Scots NOT OF SCOTLAND, and Scottish independent law is based largely upon that fact to this day. We have always had, “Right to roam”, because we own Scotland and there is no English style trespass law in Scotland nor can a private person clamp, or tow away a vehicle in Scotland and demand a fee to release it or they are charged with demanding money with menace. BTW: We Scots have asserted our, “Claim of Right”, several times, first before the Treaty of Union and another with such signatories as Gordon Brown, Alistair Darling and Donald Dewar. In the latest reaffirmation every Scottish Labour & LibDem MP,MEP & MSP signed it together with most Trade Unions and other civic bodies. So just when did Scotland fight to get rid of the Divine right of Kings? Also, as The People are sovereign and reaffirmed this how did Westminster get sovereignty over Scotland? King Jamie Saxt of Scots couldn’t do so as he was Monarch but not Sovereign in Scotland.

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