How will the decade just beginning end?
The turning of the decades is an opportune time to lift our gaze from the transient ephemera of polls, speeches and even by-elections to the deeper questions of where politics is headed over the next ten years and what are the drivers of that change.
However, before looking forward, a brief glance back. The first decade of the 21st century has not been a good one for politics or politicians. Two events and one non-event in particular did deep and lasting damage. The Iraq War greatly undermined the electorateâ€™s faith in its ability to influence the course of events on matters it judges important and of representative democracy to use the greater knowledge and understanding of the issues that professional politicians are supposed to have to reach the make the right decisions.
The second hammer-blow was the more recent Expenses Scandal, all the more damaging for taking place during a deep recession and serving to further distance the political class from the public. Therein lies one of the greatest challenges of the next ten years: reversing the trend towards the marginalisation of both politics and politicians. This will be all the more necessary because of the nature of the policies that will have to be adopted, whoever is in power. The good times are over: the country spend todayâ€™s money yesterday and is spending tomorrowâ€™s money today even faster.
That ties in to the non-event: the anticipated improvement in public services, widely believed not to have happened, or at least, not to be worth the extra cost. Put another way, the perceived usefulness of politics has been eroded by its failure to increase happiness.
All this leaves the system increasingly brittle and fractured. Mass participation in a duopoly is long gone but despite the increasing number of parties, overall party membership is both falling and aging. Political involvement is increasingly tied to single-cause issues rather than a willingness to ally to the broad coalitions necessary to enable party-based democracy to work.
Increasing the stresses still further is the intolerance for independent viewpoints within parties. It is surely no coincidence that the rise of minor parties and the decline in membership has occurred at the same time as the established main players have demanded ever greater central control.
The next decade may well then see a breakdown in our current party system. Four times since the modern parties emerged in the early nineteenth century have there been great convulsions: the splits of Peel, the Liberal Unionists, the National Government and SDP. Each time it was because the politicians of the day were unequal to mastering the policy questions asked of them while keeping their supporters on board. However, once the dust settled and despite the drama of the events, the picture remained substantially unchanged.
If it happens, it may be different this time. For one thing, the pressure is as much from outside as from within. The big gap in such an analysis is the lack of an obvious beneficiary; someone or some party to reap the harvest of discontentment. Even so, such movements can spring up from little or nothing. Politics abhors a vacuum as much as nature.
The politicians and public of the 2010s may well be asked bigger questions than have been in play at any time since at least the 1980s and maybe the 1930s. Itâ€™s going to be an interesting decade.