Only dismal choices are on offer in Britain’s general election

Greetings from the cradle of liberal democracy. We're having a general election here in the United Kingdom and it's all going rather badly

Among the general population there's a marked lack of excitement about this once-in-five-years-opportunity to change the political order, while those who normally take an active interest in politics have split into two broad camps. The first is made up of the “politically homeless” who have become so disaffected with what's on offer that they're unlikely to vote. A new campaign urges against voting for the established parties, with the aim of reducing turnout to a mere 30 percent in order to trigger political reform.

The other camp consists of people campaigning for a party they manifestly despise in order to keep the party they detest even more out of power. This is tactical voting on a mass scale, rooted in tribalism and playing to the rules of a zero sum game. Neither camp is going to get anything approaching what they want.

To make matters even more complicated, these two groups are at odds with each other. Tactical tribalists are enraged by any suggestion that voting will change nothing, while voting sceptics think the tactical tribalists are fooling themselves.

None of this makes much sense until you realise that the state of disillusion afflicting Britain, as many Western democracies, may have a purpose. Dis-illusion – literally, the process of becoming free of illusion – enables realistic seeing so that new choices can be made.

The two groups described above – the disaffected voting sceptics and the desperate tactical voters - are at different stages in this process. At some point after this election or next, much of the second group will realise that the victory of the least-worst party hasn't saved them from anything. When freedom from illusion becomes widespread, society can start to discuss meaningful questions about political legitimacy and how to achieve genuine self-governance.

In the meantime, we're stuck, going round and round on an electoral merry-go-round.

Democracy in name only

Our stuckness has to do with an inability to see possibilities beyond the current situation. In Britain, it's widely recognised that the electoral system isn't going to bring about any positive change and that more top-down control is on the horizon. Yet this is accompanied by an attitude of “there’s nothing we can do; this is the system we have.”

We can begin to get beyond this passive mindset if we remember what that political system is about.

Democracy is an exceptional form of government. Most societies in recorded history have been ruled by monarchs, emperors and the like; liberal democracy, the modern West's attempt at popular self-governance, is only a couple of hundred years old. The rights tradition established by John Locke in the 17th century laid the basis for a new understanding in which political authority lay with the people and was delegated to a minority for practical purposes. Under the resulting “social contract”, government became conditional on consent and respect for the person. And so the rights on which Western society is founded came into being, first with the right to property, then with the freedom of speech, thought and belief and finally, with modern human rights discourse, the freedom of movement and freedom from medical interference.

In a liberal democracy – applied universally for little over a hundred years in Britain – elections are the mechanism for the handover of power; they do not in themselves guarantee basic rights or a democratic culture. Syria, a totalitarian country I'm familiar with, holds periodic elections to mandate a regime which has been in power for six decades, as do many undemocratic countries. Yet the populations of the West seem to have forgotten the conditions for democracy, instead putting all their faith in the exercise of a periodic vote.

But in the run-up to the UK's first election since 2020, many feel that the social contract underpinning democracy was broken with Covid. Fundamental rights were repeatedly removed without so much as a parliamentary debate. Freedom of association, even in private homes, was suspended. Censorship was everywhere. The National Health Service violated the principles of informed consent. There's been no public debate about this – the Covid Inquiry has failed to consider the harms of lockdowns and shelved investigation into vaccine safety. And politicians from all parties support the negotiations with the World Health Organization about measures that could end our way of life.

A two-party system which was formerly based on consensus about democratic values has become Uniparty, a political class whose loyalties lie beyond the borders of the nation-state. Keir Starmer, the man who will likely become Britain's next Prime Minister, has publicly said he finds meetings of the business elite at Davos more worthy of his time than the democratic seat of his own country. Much of the election debate surrounds how much his party will raise taxes to pay for the trillion-dollar Net Zero programme required by unelected supra-national bodies. In a short space of time, Britain has become a technical democracy only.

It's no wonder that disillusion is so widespread.

The bigger question is why the free peoples of the West forgotten that limits on power are essential to human dignity – and that when these are not respected, fundamental change is not only possible, but necessary. The powerful moral intuitions that got us democracy in the first place seem to have atrophied.

I think this forgetting is very much connected with a way of looking at the world that takes things at face value. This literalist mindset, rooted in the scientific, secular lens of the times, makes it difficult to see beyond the what-is. It fosters a politics of appearances in which the only two options seem to be credulity or disaffection – in others, to a monumental failure of political imagination.



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We must not wallow in the ‘slough of despond’

Regardless of the theology in which they are rooted, religious texts offer a perspective that gets beyond this surface-thinking.

John Bunyan's 17th century novel The Pilgrim's Progress, at one time the most-read book in England after the Bible, is an allegorical tale of the challenges and choices an ordinary man faces on his journey through life. Allegories are useful tools. They create a distance which helps to see a situation more clearly: it's not a coincidence that George Orwell's Animal Farm aside, allegories have fallen out of fashion in the West.

The pilgrim Christian has recognised his needs to get out of a bad situation – the City of Destruction – and thatsomething much better – Celestial City – is attainable if he chooses to leave his current life. But early on in his journey, he falls into a bog known as the Slough of Despond. “Why did you not look for the steps?” asks Help afterwards. It turns out that Christian didn't need to fall into despair. Had he been able to keep his eye on his goal, Fear would not have driven him into the bog and he would have seen an alternative path.

Subsequently, he gets imprisoned by the Giant Despair. But this time he has wised up to his self-imposed limitations and discovered the capacity to liberate himself: “What a fool am I, thus to lie in a stinking dungeon when I may as well walk at liberty. I have a key in my bosom called Promise which will (I am persuaded) open any lock in Doubting Castle.”

The lesson that we hold the capacity for change within ourselves is clear.

Centuries later, the theologian and critic of the Nazi regime Dietrich Bonhoeffer suggested disillusion may be a necessary part of the human experience: “The sooner [the] shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community, the better for both”. Disillusion presents the chance to rid oneself of immature emotions – “rapturous experiences” and “lofty moods” and develop the realism needed to create genuine community. But the passage through this process is difficult, and the disillusioned person tends to blame others and indulge in blanket cynicism: “When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.”

Bonhoeffer delineates a difficult balance, that of recognising the wrongness of things while maintaining faith in the ideal. Impossible in the political world? Martin Luther King's “I have a dream” speech was delivered to an audience of a quarter of a million and has since been read and heard by millions more. The speech uses a series of hyperbolic reversals drawn from the Bible – “every valley … exalted, every hill and mountain ... made low” – to juxtapose a reality of discrimination and oppression with a vision of a harmonious, equal society.

He bids listeners to get beyond their stuckness – not “to wallow in the valley of despair” and use their faith to create an alternative, hewing “out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope”.

This is real politics, one which involves recognising hard truths and is driven by grown-up emotions. Amid the gloomy electoral game playing out in Britain, I am cultivating my dreams.  

Is not voting really a vote for change? Tell us in the comments.  

Alex Klaushofer is an author and journalist. She writes about the changing times on Substack at Ways of Seeing.

Image credit: Bigstock  


Showing 4 reactions

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  • David Page
    commented 2024-06-25 21:40:15 +1000
    Labour moved to the center. Folks are swick of extremist politics. The Tories are about to get trounced.
  • mrscracker
    Yup, I have family in the UK & they’re not on board with the current choices either. The situation’s a shame.
  • David Page
    commented 2024-06-21 09:54:35 +1000
    When did England become the cradle of Liberal Democracy? I would have given that nod to the American colonies.
  • Alex Klaushofer
    published this page in The Latest 2024-06-20 17:37:06 +1000