SPQR (Senatus Populusque Romani = the Senate & People of Rome) may be ancient history. But it was the first political system Britain ever knew. How those politics evolved to today is relatively simple.
Post Romans came chaos of internecine tribal warfare. This gave way to (mostly) strong kings who ruled by divine right. But when regal heads rolled, Parliament made the laws as a bulwark against chaos.
In all of this, the vast bulk of people had no say, but some vested interest, as it allowed them to get on with their lives in some sort of framework. They still had no say, as Parliament consisted entirely of aristocratic landowners. That they were divided into Whig (Liberal) and Tory (Conservative) parties had little meaning for the peasants who worked their estates, served in their houses or toiled in early factories and mines.
But, as the Industrial and Agricultural revolutions brought in rising wealth and a middle class, the idea that change was possible fomented the American and French revolutions, leading to growing worker agitation through the 19th ©.
After WW1, politics changed. Though most politicians still wore top hats and spoke with ‘received pronunciation’, the flat cap, the regional accent and the brazen iconoclasm that would culminate in Dennis Skinner\s ‘Beast of Bolsover’ presence became common (to turn a phrase) at Westminster.
But much of the gentlemanly deference and discretion continued, extending to the media and private lives.
The 1960’s started the change with the Profumo affair, when the media went for the jugular and the ‘News of the Screws’ invented the tabloid journalism of today. Forelock-tugging respect for politicians was damaged by their impotence in the face of de-industrialisation and devaluation in the 1970s ad -80s, compounded by Thatcher’s un-gentlemanly hand-bagging and the rise of Harry-Enfield-esque ‘Loadsamoney’ Masters of the Universe products of the City’s 1988 Big Bang. Deference and the rising gig economy were simply incompatible.
It was Blair who first realised that presentation was also needed in politics, who re-invented Labour as Proctor & Ganble might have re-launched a soap powder. Old Labour may have railed against Peter Mandelson not being able to distinguish guacamole from mushy peas but the new middle class with their shares, their semi and their sunshine getaways had no such problem.
But it was Alastair Campbell and his SWAT team of fresh-faced Special Advisers (SPADs) that made the 1997 landslide happen. Media training became the order of the day. Spokespeople became adept at avoiding the issue or answering a different question. As a result, media became more combative and looked deeper for the cracks the SPADs toiled constantly to paper over.
After Blair bestrode the noughties, other parties got wise, with the Tories and SNP adopting these methods and both being rewarded with electoral success. Strangely, Labour has regressed and fallen foul of factionalism in the dace f repeated electoral defeats.
But those in charge have not. The Johnson administration has taken the Blair model even farther, using Dominic Cummings as the quarterback in an American football team. While Tory Minister forwards block the public by appearing in the press, he snaps the policies back to the fast moving SPAD backs, who can throw policies about and touch them down with minimal public scrutiny.
What the public see is either endlessly boring or increasingly acrimonious sessions in parliament, substance-free interviews and debates n the media and news reporting that focuses on personalities and their mis-steps in true tabloid form.
Superficially, this has the trappings of democracy, but not, as Star Trek’s Dr McCoy might say, as we know it.
The general public, it looks evasive, abrasive and unedufying. Those most fluently devious are those who present to the public. As an exception, Lord Steel resigned for not having handled abuse by a colleague in the 1970s properly. Yet, the last politician with that sense of public propriety was Lord Carrington over the Falklands in 1982. Sajid Javid’s recent laudable stance was entirely over internal turf wars. Boris’s own resignation from the May Cabinet was grandstanding and calculated furtherance of career.
So it’s no wonder so many voters are scunnered wi’ the hale clamjamfrie. Were we considerng the board of the East India Company 200 years ago, nobody but the nobility would care. But in this modern democracy, these people run our lives while hosing £1 trillion of our money about the place. It’s even less wonder that young people who march with Greta Thunberg to save the planet are losing interest in being elected to anything.
Instead, many are thinking of becoming SPADs