11 May 2010

GE2010: The confusions of "legitimacy"...

One amusing dimension of the post-election uncertainty is how ludicrous many commentators are forced to appear as the grave certainties of one day totally dissolve in the next. I imagine that the hard discs of many a journalist are littered with rent scraps of their prose, lovingly crafted but tossed aside at the final moment, as the storied narrative of this post-election pre-government phase unexpectedly rears and bucks, launching from a canter into a brief sweaty gallop. 

Blissfully, pressures of work have justified me avoiding participating in this cavalcade of speculative absurdity and will keep me occupied through much of the rest of this week. There was just one point I wanted to flag up, largely because it is something which the optic of London commentary generally fails to realise. What I've found fascinating are the warring accounts of democratic legitimacy which have been blossoming in the press and on telly. There has much senatorial talk of acting in the national interest and invocations of ideas of victory, defeat, democracy, authority, legitimacy. In the rapid-fire, testy, argumentative ordeals that are being conducted in news studios and on the foot-trodden lawns of London, all sides have been making some reference to these notions. Yet this shared terminology seems amazingly flexible - to the extent that in different quarters, both a a Conservative-Liberal or a Labour-Liberal coalition can presented as a democratically legitimate government.  What's going on? What sense is there to be had in the constant resort to discussion in Sky's studios or on the BBC? 

The answer - as is so often the case when one is trying to understand complex arguments - is in the definition of terms. Disagreement is furnished by the different premises beneath the shared vocabulary of legitimacy, nation and democracy being used by politicians and their associated jobblegobbers, be they Labour, Tory, Liberal Democrat, SNP or Plaid or Green. The media can be very impatient - and ask impatiently silly questions like who is really legitimate - as if appeal could be made to an impersonal standard that could straightforwardly and "impartially" dispose of the present complexity. Obviously, most of you will have some sort of position on these ideas yourself. Suspend your own ideas about what constitutes a legitimate government emanating from a Westminster election for a moment, follow your natives and record their imbroglios. Instead ask questions like - what does legitimacy look like in the Tory argument? How is that legitimacy different from the SNP position?

The chattering media have been presuming - pretty daftly - that the same register and ideal of legitimacy applies equally to all of the political parties involved in this. Hence their clumsy attempts to isolate a single version of legitimacy that would allow them to straightforwardly call the election for one party or another.

I trust I've made myself obscure? This isn't all Scotch metaphysics, I promise. Consider the following concrete but hypothetical example. You lose your mind briefly and tune in to Sky News. One of their howling tumshie reporters is playing inquisitor before a row of pale-faced politicians, a Liberal Democrat, a Tory and a Scottish Nationalist. "Are you acting in the national interest?" , our newsman prods. Now, we know that Mrs Liberal Democrat and Mr Tory are from a UK-wide political party, standing in seats from Orkney to Cornwall (Northern Ireland obviously excepted). Nation, for them, will clearly denote the whole geographic range covered by Westminster constituencies. They cannot consistently resort to argument  of no mandate in one area, since on what basis would they draw the distinction? But what of the SNP speaker? Nation for him only means Scotland - Scotland's national interest. He might well mention that 80-odd % of Scots didn't vote Tory, that he doesn't regard the Tories as a legitimate force to govern Scotland. There is no point asking him about the real national interest. The two conceptions of national interest are different and incompatible. If you are a puffy, testicle-faced commentator, you might resort to accusing him of screwing the English voters over. Firstly, he won't care - because he doesn't stand in England and thus unlike the Liberal Democrats, is not beholden to English constituencies. There is no risk involved in pursuing his different conception of the nation. The whole Westminster idea of legitimacy appealed to by the questioner just doesn't apply to him - or you'll have to pin it to him and induce him to agree with you by brute argumentative force. You still won't ultimately convince him, however. His unarticulated presumptions about the whole idea of national interest just isn't the same as yours. If this proves difficult for you to understand, frustrations follow. Meaningful conversation and argument becomes pretty much impossible. Instead everyone just huffs and puffs getting more and more vexed. In the press impatient for a 'government to emerge', in part I think we can detect how ill-equipped they are to even begin thinking about the convoluted idea of politics which are emerging from different quarters.

Not convinced yet? The same thought-experiment can be conducted about the different versions of democratic legitimacy which sprouted into violent life after Broon's speech yesterday. "Would this Lib-Lab coalition be legitimate with the people. Sir Wimple Stanley-Whipshot, Conservative MP for Buxomdame South. Your thoughts?" The Tory version of legitimacy, with its support of first past the post, isn't terrifically concerned with the number of votes they actually won. Theirs is a parliamentary emphasis. After the 2005 General Election, despite narrowly beating Labour in the popular vote - this didn't become a point of significant contention because they got thumped on the constituency count. Last Thursday, they may have one over 400,000 votes in Scotland, but they grin and bear their one seat, without too many gripes. So much, so consistent.

Imagine our newsman asks our Liberal Democrat speaker the same question. We know that the popular vote will weigh on her mind. We know that she regards the first past the post system as manifestly unfair. Her thinking is thus in great measure autonomous from the parliamentary arithmetic that old Stanley-Whipshot would begin with. "Yes I believe it is. Last Thursday, more people voted for Labour and the Liberals than the ..." Riled by this, the brandy-phizoged Sir Wimple might well cite the largest number of Tory seats and for that matter, to bash those Luddite Scotch, mention that in England the Tories humbled Labour to the tune of almost 3,000,000 votes. This is a naughty movement, in the sense that the Conservative changes the reasons he is relying on to justify a Tory government and reject a "coalition of the losers". Here we see him appeal to some sort of proportional ideas of victory and an idea of a sectional English triumph. The first is formally ruled out by his support of first past the post, the second by his ardent Unionism. Nevertheless, the words lost mandate are likely to follow. It is worth recording the possibility and even the likelihood of just this sort of shifting argumentative appeals - since our natives are by no means consistent scholars of legitimacy. Just as the press don't understand what they devil they're talking about, neither have the speakers fully thought through the consistency of their positions. Theirs is an argument conducted in the spirit of a bar room brawler - whatever weapon comes to hand and seems serviceable can be pressed into their service in the pursuit of advantage.

Things can and do get even more complicated. For example, I saw David Steel on the telly yesterday, justifying a Liberal-Labour deal by saying "nobody won this election, therefore" a deal is to be done based on who can "command" parliamentary confidence. The first definition of "winning" is clearly one based on first-past-the-post. In the absence of such a legitimate outcome, anything goes.  Nick Robinson referred to the Tories as "the party which won this election". This isn't a cogent conversation. It is too hasty. It does, however, dramatise what I think is the fundamental point, and accidentally serves its purpose as a result. At present, we are in a situation in which competing and inconsistent ideas of legitimacy and authority are filling the public sphere. These are not consistent positions. There is no unproblematic, answering conclusion to the question - is this legitimate? The BBC cannot give the public, impartially, some definition that will serve. The definition and which version will triumph is precisely what they're fighting over as we speak. That contingency and the rhetorical warfare conceals an important lesson. Ultimately, we can't rely on social inertia to generate these ties, to sift the arguments, to reveal which is right. We're always creating, re-creating, mending and retying our web of social connections. Sometimes it takes an angry whale in the net - a crisis which blows a hole through our fragile ties - to make us recognise how much depends on continuous human action, without necessary, immediate pre-formatted answers. Thus far, the media seem to be the primary victims of their obliteration of easy certainties. Bereft of the self-evident vocabulary of reference and the triumph of uncontested ideas of legitimacy which would have followed outright Conservative victory, the media clearly feels totally lost. Might I suggest the consolations of philosophy...


  1. The public apparently wanted a hung parliament - is this a case of beware what you wish for as you may get it? Perhaps not so much hung as hamstrung in a blinding fog of posturing alpha male hormones.

    The consolation of philosophy only serves to confuse me by leaving me still confused - but at a slightly higher level. Perhaps that's the consolation.

    I suspect the end result will be underwhelming leading to another GE following the choking breaths of whoever has been thrust/impelled/implored/landed with drinking from the poisoned chalice of the next six months attempting to fend off crises - while the 'losers' (whatever that may come to mean in future democratic scenarios)consider themselves lucky to fight another day.

  2. - not only the chatterati but also the legal fraternity - this from 'Charon, QC':

    'I do not want to see a Rainbow coalition of Labour, the Lib-Dems and the ramshackle rag bag of celtic politicians who will only be interested in their own sectional interests and who will, inevitably , seek to push the needs of their constituents before the national interest.'

    The 'nation' is probably anglobritain or ukania; not quite England. But who knows?

    Norman Tebbit puts nicely today in the Telegraph that the 'national' interest in Scotland - i.e. anglobritain's interest in Scotland - is purely geopolitical: concessions to the Scottish nation inexorably entail European encroachment by the back door, which the English nation has been resisting since at least the Hundred Years War. In which case the 'nation' is not ukania but England. Erm...

    In any case, this is probably all just fluff, because(in a distant echo of the 'LABOUR VOTES NO campaign of 1979) Tom Harris MP has just handed the keys of No.10 personally Cameron and walked off, rendering Gordon Brown's dramatic intervention yesterday quite superfluous.

    And he invoked the national interest in so doing.

  3. Many Lib Dems seem comfortable (at the mo') with perpetuating the idea that the great dividing line is between democratic progression and conservatism. Yet they are still pursuing talks with the Tories while they simply could not thole the notion of coalition with a party that wanted to ask the people of Scotland, via a referendum, what their preferred constitutional position is.
    It seems clear that, however the Lib Dems portray themselves, they are first and foremost a Unionist party. Unionism before federalism. Unionism before electoral reform. Unionism before national interest. Unionism before the sovereign rights of the people of Scotland (as outlined in the Claim of Right and signed in 1989 by 58 of the 72 Scottish MP's including Lib Dem luminaries such as Chas. Kennedy.)
    Nothing more than a clan of charlatans.