This Glorious General Election

This Glorious General Election

Brian Brivati: How the UK’s Three-Party Race Might Just Change British Politics

I HAD not realized until the events of the last year unfolded in the UK, the extent to which much of the literature on democracy and modernization is written by Whigs or, at least, by people heavily influenced by the Whig interpretation of history. The Whig view of the world can be summed up in the song lyric that greeted Tony Blair?s arrival in Number 10: ?Things can only get better.?

But it goes deeper than this. It implies that rather than history being seen as cycles of development followed by periods of barbarism, the ?British genius? for government had broken the cycle and from now on there would only be gradual improvement through cautious reform. This worldview was dented by the mid-Victorian crisis of faith, wounded by the brutality of the Boer War, and then massacred in the trenches of the First World War.

After such mass killing, who could reasonably believe in the notion of cautious improvement? The death of Whig history was also hastened by the development of nationalist movements in much of the British Empire. Manifest destiny, divine right, and the white man?s burden are all ideas that have faded to dust. Along with them has gone the linear view of human progress. Any chance of its revival seemed to be doomed forever with the rise of the Nazis and then the holocaust.

But out of the ashes of the Second World War, the long economic boom seemed to bring these ideas back into vogue. It was in this period of the 1950s and 1960s that a significant portion of democratic theory was written and many of the political and economic models applied in the lands of the former Soviet Union were developed. These theories and blueprints were renewed but not essentially changed in the 1980s as it became clearer how the cold war was going to end.

So the end of history arrived, and the Whigs set about building the new Europe. But how poor a guide the Whig view of history proved to be? Cycles returned with a vengeance, progress came in some areas and not in others, tyrants rose, revolutionaries toppled them, and new tyrants came in their wake. Then the unpredictability of populism seemed the only constant. The new Europe struggled and moved forward on time scales and in steps that now seem realistic. But from the perspective of 1989, they would have seemed impossibly slow.

But it is in old Europe, and the UK in particular, that the notion of Whig history now also needs revising. The Whig view of politics has entirely dominated debate on the reform of the British constitution since the Second World War. While the 1945 Labour government remade the welfare state and the economy, they barely touched the constitution. An outmoded electoral system, a hereditary house of lords, and a unified state structure limped on until the 1990s when Labour was elected and for 13 years tinkered around the edges of constitutional reform.

Sitting safely under the Whig roof, it was broadly speaking business as usual. Then the expenses scandal blew the roof off entirely. Now we are in the midst of a very British revolution. Unless things are transformed by the last debate and Browns gaffe, if the polls are transformed into seats, there will be the election of three broadly balanced blocks who will have to deal with each other and the currency of exchange will be constitutional reform?a new voting system, a reformed upper house, and other measures that will be demanded by the Liberal Democrats who will hold the balance of power.

What is so wonderful is that this has made politics interesting and engaging. Suddenly every taxi driver has a view on a hung Parliament. The discourse of politics has moved in a few short weeks from disgust to engagement. The motor of this change have been the first ever televised debates between British party leaders, propelling the third party, the Liberal Democrats, into contention for power. A glorious election just might transform this old democracy in the space of three weeks.