Red in tooth and claw

With ethnic conflict showing no sign of abating in the former Yugoslavia - and still simmering in the Caucasus - with fundamentalism threatening the Israel/Palestine peace process and undermining political freedom in Algeria, with levels of electoral participation plummeting in the new democracies, and with the essential neighbourhood linkages breaking down in our own society, those who hold optimistic views of human nature are having a bad time. Michael Meadowcroft argues for a much more aware and rigorous Liberal response to the current crisis.

It is almost enshrined in Erskine May that MPs have to believe that the House of Commons is the crucible of politics and that parliamentary debates represent the pinnacle of political awareness and sophistication. Cocooned in the Palace of Westminster, or deferred to outside it, MPs greet criticism of the parliamentary processes with an indulgent smile. I did the same in my time in the House and I am disappointed now to find myself amongst the critics. The sad fact is that "mainstream" politics is increasingly superficial at the precise time that it should be getting more thorough. It is not just the wearisome parliamentary rituals and the scripted insults but the irrelevance of almost all the agenda itself. Viewed from outside it seems bizarre that all the main parties assent to the trivialisation of a massive political crisis.

A complete outsider seeing the House of Commons at play, or watching current affairs programmes on television, would be inclined to conclude that Britain had no serious economic or social problems and that, at worst, there was nothing wrong with the country that a short, sharp change of Government would not cure within a few hundred days.

If that same outsider went walkabout in any major city he or she would find a very different picture. Graffiti and the consequences of vandalism are all too visible. Older people feel vulnerable, even in their own homes. Almost all young people are completely uninvolved in voluntary, community or political organisations. And respectable, well-intentioned men and women despair of ever restoring the values and linkages that are crucial to healthy communities.

Looking further afield the shrewd observer would no doubt be aghast at the sheer innate inhumanity of those obsessed with ethnicity and the enforced promotion of micro-states in the Balkans. With the new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe failing to deliver the economic transformation naively expected by the people, the momentum for developing the electoral process is rapidly running into the sand, and is feeding a narrow nationalism and the search for "strong" leadership.

This perceptive observer would also note the widespread rise of religious fundamentalism which is threatening the foundations of civil society - not only in Algeria and the Middle East, but also - more insidiously - in the United States.

Finally, he or she would quickly perceive that global ecological imperatives are being blatantly ignored in the selfish interests of the perpetual search for still more economic growth in the northern hemisphere.

Given the vividness of the contrast, why then is there such an increasing gulf between the reality and the presence? The simple answer can only be that the winning of political power in Westminster at any price crowds out all other considerations and can be achieved by playing the headbanging game better than one's opponents.

In other words, politicians with an eye for main chance have above all to concentrate on the next soundbite, the slick slogan and the immediate media interview. It is just not good electoral politics to admit what is glaringly obvious to the public - even if they are instinctive rather than politically sophisticated - that human society is facing a serious and growing crisis which any government is impotent to reverse within the existing political constraints. What is more, put at its simplest, what evidence there is suggests that western democracy is incapable of coping with economic decline. The search for scapegoats and the continuing right-wing, or even obscurantist trend in West European and North American politics is a symptom of a deep malaise.

Nor is electoral apathy confined to the new democracies. It needs to be noted that the so-called Republican "landslide" at the recent Congressional elections was accomplished by barely one in seven US citizens actually voting Republican. Democracy cannot be sustained indefinitely at such a poor level of participation.

It is perfectly clear from his tactics that Tony Blair has grasped the self-evident truth that, whether rightly or wrongly, existing governments of whatever political hue will be blamed by the electorate for all that makes up the "feel bad" factor. If the opposition keeps its nose clean it is bound to win, whether it is the Conservatives in France or Labour in Britain. But, in its turn, the new Government will soon lose its popularity in the face of its own apparent impotence. Who would have conceived, for instance, that a worthy but uncharismatic Socialist such as Lionel Jospin could have come so close to winning the French Presidency so soon after the Left's parliamentary election debacle?

The situation is far too serious to carry on indulging in the party game for its own sake. All the time the Opposition spends on short-term and trite answers to the deep-seated malaise in the struggle to get itself sat on the green benches on the opposite side of the chamber the less likely it is that the illness can ever be cured. The parties are just addressing the symptoms not the disease.

It is, I suppose, no use expecting Conservative or Labour politicians to understand the nature of the sickness. Conservatism has a desperately pessimistic and cynical view of human nature. Its myopic drive towards the commercialisation of every public institution over the past sixteen years provides abundant evidence that it knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.<

Take three examples. Two are small but significant: the fact that in Tory Britain we have had to have a handful of seats on buses and the underground designated as being for the elderly and frail shows what we have come to. Second, the acceptance of ugly signs on Leeds roundabouts and verges to indicate which company is sponsoring the flower beds is indicative of what we are reduced to. The third example is much more important. We now have a disastrous national lottery through which the Conservatives have nationalised gambling, have got the poor voluntarily to tax themselves to make the few rich, and have made charities and voluntary projects depend on lottery handouts rather than being able to rely on their own fundraising. Week by week this monstrosity is undermining community solidarity and social interdependence.

On the other hand, socialism, of whatever brand, relies on too optimistic a view of human nature and is therefore continually disappointed. Only by moving into the Conservatives' territory and embracing incentives for everything can Labour escape its fatal dependence on individual altruism which, thanks to the past sixteen years, is even less forthcoming than hitherto.

The situation cries out for the application of a forthright, radical Liberalism which historically has always understood the dichotomy of the human personality, with its tension between altruism and selfishness, and addressed it by reliance on reason and rationality, within the context of a secular, civil society. The analogy for Liberals is that of the jury. In a court three key factors apply: first, the twelve jury members act collectively and each's opinions influence the others; second, the arguments for and against are rehearsed in detail before them; third, what they decide actually happens. As a consequence juries are remarkably liberal and rarely prejudiced. With equivalent treatment the grand jury of the electorate may well be "right thinking" rather than voting for its own prejudices.

What is urgently needed is to enhance the quality of public debate, particularly on television. This requires an abrogation of the slanging match and an acceptance of common factors in the analysis of the political situation so that the party debate can be joined on the prescription. It requires a commitment from the media to deepen the debate on current issues rather than accelerating its superficiality. It is also crucially needs an electoral system that encourages political depth rather than inhibiting it.

The choice, frankly, is between intellectual rigour and rigor mortis. The challenge involved is huge and requires parliamentarians of substance and stature. Who will be first?