Now’s the time to start swearing at Westminster


Tony Benn: committed republican

Politics is a dirty business at the best of times, and it’s about to get dirtier. General elections bring out the worst in people and, in case you have missed the hoo-hah, there’s one in May.

For most of the past 100 years there has been a cosy compact between the left and the right, and Conservatives and Labour have carved power up between them.

The government governs and the ‘loyal’ opposition challenges. It has all the appearances of being an adversarial process – but like professional wrestling it’s a fix.

The British electoral system is designed to sustain the carve-up. It gives the illusion of democracy but, in reality, not all votes have the same currency, and the number of MPs in the Commons is not a fair reflection of the popular vote.

Governments elected by this ancient and corrupt system each claim a mandate for what they do in office. But the so-called mandate is a fiction.

No post-war British government has been elected with more than 50 per cent of the vote. The highest Maggie Thatcher achieved was 43.87per cent in 1979. Blair’s 1997 landslide was no revolution. He secured only 43.21 per cent of the popular vote.

Does the outcome matter? In look and feel yes, but in policy terms? The truth is it doesn’t matter who wins the election – the government always gets in.

The only real difference between the two main British parties is that Cameron scores more highly on the charisma stakes than Milliband.

If Labour were to be returned to power, it would follow Tory policies in much the same way the Tories followed Labour’s. The leaders hurl abuse at one another and they claim they offer different visions. But in reality, there is a free market, soft right consensus. They are opposite sides of the same coin.

That is how it has been for decades, and that is how they hope it will remain.

This time around the electorate may have other ideas. The fragmentation we have seen over recent years – the election of independents, the Greens and now UKIP – is gathering pace.

Labour is not yet electable, and won’t be until it jettisons Milliband. The cruel caricature of him as Mr Bean is grossly unfair (to Mr Bean). As a consequence, the result of this election is too close to call.

The Scottish Nationalists – and the Ulster Nationalists (aka the DUP, for that is what they are) have muscles to flex.

Last week Nigel Dodds set out some of the things on the DUP shopping list if it were to sustain one or other of the UK parties in power. As one would expect of a statesman of Mr Dodds’ calibre he reassured people that the DUP “would not seek to exploit for narrow and selfish reasons any leverage at Westminster over devolved matters”. (Give that man a knighthood.)

Of course it would – as indeed would the wizened remnants of the SDLP.

One party unable to trade its support – explicit or tacit – for political advantage is Sinn Fein. They have been refused entry to the Commons by the British insistence that they swear an oath to the Crown, and by their own unwillingness to see the oath for what it is – a meaningless irrelevance.

The United Kingdom’s claim to democratic credibility is undermined by this naked protectionism. Whatever one thinks of the party – those who have been elected should not be disbarred from representing their constituents because of an archaic tradition.

Tony Benn and Kevin McNamara each twice tried – and failed – to have the oath overturned. In 1997, Benn himself began his oath with the words: “As a committed republican, under protest, I take the oath required of me by law, under the Parliamentary Oaths Act of 1866, to allow me to represent my constituency…”

It’s time Sinn Fein called Westminster’s bluff and turned up. Some left wing MPs have slurred their words, others have crossed their fingers behind their backs, some – it is claimed – have resorted to jibberish. Gaelic is acceptable, apparently; that opens up a whole host of possibilities.

Working together – as they do so well now in Stormont – there’s no end to what Sinn Fein and the DUP might be able to extract from a government keen to stay in power.

And you never know – depending on the outcome of the next Irish election – we might have the tantalizing prospect of Sinn Fein in government in the Dail, the Northern Ireland Assembly and at Westminster. Somebody’s day will have come.

* A version of this article was published in The Irish News on Monday March 16 2015.