THIRTEEN years of Tory government, and the malaise and dysfunction at the heart of UK administration, politics and democracy is obvious.

Everywhere are signs of rot, arrogance and amorality, and not surprisingly a groundswell for things to be different and radical change – but nowhere yet is that desire for change fully formed and focused.

There is, though, one new boom industry - an emerging genre of books on the theme “what’s wrong with Britain?”

Such has arisen in similar previous periods of Tory crisis, exhaustion and failure such as the early 1960s and mid-1990s. Both produced Labour governments that at the time people thought would bring change, renewal and modernisation. The difference today is that few people, including many senior in Labour, have that kind of hope.

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The state of British democracy and politics is not healthy and nor is the condition of society. Economically, UK living standards have not yet recovered to the level they were in real terms at the time of the 2008 banking crisis – a decade and a half of falling living standards.

If UK economic growth had continued post-2008 on the average trend it had in the previous decade, UK workers would be £11,000 per annum better off, according to the Resolution Foundation.

Socially, huge numbers of people in the UK face poverty and hardship, while the younger generation are priced out of the housing market with a shrunken rented sector. The money advice expert Martin Lewis highlighted the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute’s findings that 17% of people they surveyed had suicidal thoughts in the past nine months due to financial worries.

But in some areas, the UK is booming more than ever. The number of billionaires has increased from 15 in 2000 to 177 today – according to an Equality Trust survey – with their wealth increasing by more than 1000%.

Democratically, the UK Government has tightened up the credentials people need to vote, requiring photo ID which two million adults do not have. In the English local elections, 60,000 people (3%) of those without appropriate ID applied for new validation. This led to many instances of people being turned away by polling stations in a move expected to hurt the young, the poor and Black and ethnic minorities disproportionately – none especially known as Tory-supporting groups.

UK Government spending involves allegations of conflicts of interest and cronyism. “Levelling up” funding is disproportionately targeted at more affluent Tory areas, which is a point Rishi Sunak boasted about prior to becoming PM.

The scandal of PPE contracts during the Covid pandemic saw the likes of Tory health secretary Matt Hancock reward friends, while then Tory peer Michelle Mone and her husband have since been accused of misuse of public funds and are under police investigation for fraud which they deny.

There is the added stain of what the UK stands for internationally. In a climate of dehumanising language on asylum seekers and refugees, Tory ministers regularly talk of “people breaking into the country”, “an invasion” (Suella Braverman) and asylum seekers “undermining cultural cohesiveness” (Robert Jenrick), as they roll out policies described as “performative cruelty” by refugee rights campaigner Bridget Chapman.

The Illegal Migration Bill closes off the right to seek asylum in the UK, while stating on its front page that it may break international law.

All the recent books that critique government and politics, for all their differences, agree that the current political system is deeply broken and not working. From this common ground, they have very different analyses.

Politics: A Survivor’s Guide by The Guardian’s Rafael Behr is both informed and very human, as Behr acknowledges that covering the toxic battles of Brexit contributed to him having a heart attack. UK politics literally made him sick.

He describes UK politics as “a fracked political system” which is “marked by mistrust on two axes – the horizontal one between citizens and the vertical between institutions of government and the people being governed”. He blames this “fracking of British democracy” on “something we do ourselves, with mischievous outsiders as marginal accomplices”.

Behr’s book concludes philosophically with his health in a better place, but without offering any real prognosis for how the UK escapes from its current misgovernment and diminishing of democracy.

Ian Dunt’s How Westminster Works … And Why It Doesn’t looks at the inner workings of the core elements of the UK political system. He describes this system as one which “rewards short-term tactics over long-term strategy, irrationality over reason, amateurism over seriousness, generalism over specialism and gut instinct over evidence”.

Westminster is shaped by machismo, posturing and a winner-takes-all approach to dominance and control, whether by Downing Street or the executive. Dunt is of the view that the cramped, dishevelled operation that is Downing Street is redolent of the malfunctions of the centre defined by “pathological national sentimentality” which aids “a primitive emperor-like structure that values base demonstrations of political virility over rational communication arrangements”.

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Matthew Goodwin made a name for himself in academia with studies of Ukip and Euroscepticism, but in recent years has gone native and increasingly become an advocate for right-wing populism – a tendency which continues in his latest book Values, Voice And Virtue: The New British Politics.

He believes that what is wrong with UK politics is the power of “a new elite” and “ruling class” defined by university education at Oxbridge or a Russell Group institution, cosmopolitan and pro-immigration attitudes, and economic and social liberal views which they believe are enlightened and give them the right to look down at others.

This sweeping thesis is undermined by the breadth of people Goodwin puts into this “elite”, which he defines as a quarter of the population – clearly not making it much of an elite. Its catch-all nature is illustrated by Goodwin lumping together the values of Thatcher with Blair, Brown, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn in some “liberal conspiracy” against voters. That is some conspiracy, whose only common characteristic is that they have views Goodwin disagrees with.

One area Behr, Dent and Goodwin pass over is the fundamental nature of the British state at its core – one which came centre stage in last weekend’s coronation. The UK, in the words of Stephen Haseler in his book The End Of The House Of Windsor, is “a monarchical state” whereby power is concentrated at its apex, in the crown and political elites, with all else subordinate to that – including Parliament.

We are subjects, not citizens, have no fundamental rights and the monarch and Prince of Wales can exempt themselves from laws – and pay tax on a voluntary basis. Crown power and the royal prerogative provide a cloak of secrecy over how decisions are made, including how the UK goes to war. The UK declared war on Germany in 1914 and 1939 at the outset of the First and Second World War without a parliamentary vote.

The UK’s politics are bust, broken, debased and in a worse state than any time else in living memory. The well-worn argument of, “look at Westminster, things are so much better in Scotland with our Parliament, despite its imperfections”, is still resonant. In the past few years, this has been one of the main impulses behind independence: “Never mind our own failings, let’s get out of this place.”

Yet reading Ian Dunt’s closing litany of what is wrong with Westminster – short-termism, hyper-partisanship, executive dominance, presidential-style leadership – it sounds like it could also describe what is wrong in the Scottish Parliament and politics.

The past week saw the Stevenson Lecture at Glasgow University held in honour of the late Nigel Smith, presented by James Mitchell of Edinburgh University. Smith was one of the most influential figures in the establishment of the Scottish Parliament but someone who worked behind the scenes, bringing people together and establishing cross-party dialogue.

These efforts included the 1997 devolution referendum (which is where I first got to know and work with him), where Nigel worked across the political spectrum to establish the choreography that brought Labour and SNP successfully together. He got Donald Dewar and Alex Salmond to share common ground with LibDem Jim Wallace, and made sure the voices of partisanship were marginalised – including Labour haters of the SNP and Nationalist purists who opposed involvement with devolution.

James Mitchell offered a summary of the main campaigns and activities of Nigel Smith, “a businessman who stumbled into politics”. He was also involved in discussions on the structures and processes of the Scottish Parliament, in relation to broadcasting where he challenged BBC Scotland and London to better reflect the diversity of the UK, and calling out a Londoncentric political culture which had no interest in a UK of different political centres beyond Westminster.

As well as this, he was a member of the Bank of England Scottish consultative committee and a thoughtful Eurosceptic – an unusual quality, even more so in Scotland. The list doesn’t do justice to Nigel’s most enduring characteristics: an endless curiosity, ability to listen, lack of tribalism, and a softness combined with inner steel.

His take on devolution has been put into print in a posthumous publication brought out by close friends with the permission of his family – The Scottish Parliament Partial Success: Could Do Better? This examines the hopes of people like Smith prior to the Parliament, his successive engagement with politicians and the institution and his disappointment with much of what has happened in the past 24 years.

The Scottish Parliament has, according to Smith, been shaped by “a rather conservative middl-class social democracy, a strong inbuilt bias to the less risky status quo”. He described the modus operandi of the SNP in office as “not emulating Westminster seems more important than finding the best options for Scotland” and a political culture “too managed or self-censored”.

Smith expected that the Parliament would “break the binary pattern and usher in a new, more diverse, tolerant public discourse”. The reality has been rather different: “Scottish governments, from the outset, simply utilised the big tent mono-culture, adding as gatekeepers special advisers who would decide what is permissible and what ideas are beyond the pale.”

THIS limits the vibrancy of Scottish democracy which cannot be blamed on Westminster: “There is a risk in a small country that government is the one big player able to dominate and all else is sidelined. This is not healthy nor does it build the confidence needed to tackle the big issues well.” There are many reasons for this, but one major factor is MSPs who, in the words of Smith, “are not demanding high enough standards of government”.

These issues need debating, and proposals for change need to be made, which Smith’s publication, coming from a practical reformer, is filled with. MSPs from the outset should have training in how to do the job, the closed system of the Additional Member System should be replaced, parliamentary committees strengthened – and the government payroll vote curtailed and limited. Smith would have been horrified, but not surprised, that the current SNP administration has 26 ministers – the largest ever – 41% of its parliamentary group; plus two Green ministers.

This begs the question: is there a desire among the Scottish political classes to embrace change or is their self-preservation and conservatism so deeply ingrained that they cannot advance reform? For now, the SNP have become a party of the status quo and institutional Scotland – with the party’s leadership having little interest in a more effective Parliament.

In the discussion following Mitchell’s Stevenson lecture, John Curtice of Strathclyde University summarised the difference between expectations pre-devolution with the post-devolution environment: “We thought we would democratise Scotland. Instead, we politicised it” – the inference being that devolution has failed to open up decision-making and hold institutions to account.

Talking of the scandalous level of Scotland’s drug deaths and the conspicuous failure of government and public agencies, Annemarie Ward of the FavorUK charity said, of her promoting a Right to Recovery Bill in the Scottish Parliament, that hyper-partisanship and Scottish Government conservatism is a major problem. She observed of the political process: “The status quo protects itself. It is sclerotic and characterised by a scleroticism.”

The National: British and Scottish democracy are not in a good wayBritish and Scottish democracy are not in a good way (Image: Getty Images)

British and Scottish democracy are not in a good way. Some problems are self-inflicted and homegrown and a product of politics, governments and cultures that can be changed, but we have to guard against British – or even Scottish – exceptionalism in how people defend and castigate each. Rather we should look at the wider picture and context.

All across the world, democracy is under retreat and attack, hollowed out by the forces of wealth, privilege and reaction, and threatened by the emboldened populist forces of the right who have adopted the cloak of posing as insurgents railing against the liberal establishment.

There is in British politics already a degree of consensus as the major parties pose little challenge to the discredited economic and social order. This is a political version of what the late left-wing academic Mark Fisher called “capitalist realism” which created “a pervasive atmosphere acting as a kind of invisible barrier constraining thought and action”.

Where is the room, politically and culturally, when generational closure by older affluent voters marginalises the young – “What happens if the young are no longer capable of producing surprises?” asked Fisher.

This invisible straitjacket has been used to underpin the age of post-democracy in the UK and most of the developed capitalist world today. This is made much worse, more brutal and entrenched in the UK by the fossilised, archaic political institutions and traditions which have their roots in pre-democracy. This has allowed them to be captured by the forces of post-democracy: the collusion of political, corporate and media elites.

We need to wake up to the realities around us. A broken economic model. A social model without compassion and solidarity.

The ripping up of the social contract which used to define society. Government is now less there for us and much more about protecting its own interests. This is the story of Westminster and too much of the West. But Scotland is not immune from these tendencies, with an atrophied democracy and the capture of the system by the forces of self-preservation.

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We cannot continue to bury our heads in the sand and not recognise the scale of decay, moral stupor and elite entitlement in Westminster. But nor can we just pretend that things are fine in Scotland, or take comfort from them being not as much an affront to our sensibilities.

We need to talk about fundamental change across the UK and Scotland. Of system change, cultural change, of not hiding behind the loyalty of party or abstracts of independence and the Union.

In recognising the bankruptcy and degeneracy of Westminster, we have to collectively take responsibility for how we run Scotland. We need a good, hard look at ourselves, and to challenge and change the limited, atrophied democracy which works in the interests of the insider political classes and those with privileged access and voice. We are letting down those in Scotland who need support and assistance, and ignoring this make us all complicit in what for many are tragically matters of life and death.