Alistair Burt is a former Foreign Office Minister and MP for North East Bedfordshire.
When those abroad congratulate the UK on its soft power icons, such as higher education, the monarchy, the British Council, and so forth, they will add – with even more awe than they do currently – our democratic system.
That we have been able to handle one of the world’s most divisive issues, that of identity and governance, in the manner which Scotland has demonstrated is nothing short of miraculous to places where self-determination is invariably accompanied by violence and loss of life.
When our Ministers and Ambassadors are confronted by the most serious of civil unrest abroad, and challenged with: ‘What would the British do?’ our answers, however unpalatable to their ears, urge tolerance and attempting to resolve underlying grievances may be heard with a little more acceptance.
That we are prepared to place a commitment to democracy over territorial integrity gives us a diplomatic edge which might just assist in resolving some of the most difficult issues affecting other parts of the world.
However. one aspect of current debate may puzzle our friends – and I accept I am now entering tricky ConservativeHome territory. We are falling into the American trap of so denigrating our seat of government that the authority it needs to act on our behalf is being eroded – at our peril.
It is a running joke that every US politician for the past forty years aspires to ‘fight Washington’, and manages to remain there for a lifetime, whilst still pretending to be in conflict with it, and using the US pork-barrel system to protect constituents.
Cheap shots breed cheap shots. The US system is polarised, and almost non-functioning in places. Alex Salmond used ‘the Westminster elite’ to divide the Scottish people. Even those who might be classed part of that elite (whatever that is), are now using it as a form of ‘look at me, I’m different to all the rest’ rallying cry.
Can we just think this through a bit? That every Westminster Government makes mistakes is clear, but rarely are all its actions bad. This is true also of every single council in the land, regional authority, or almost anything whose responsibility includes elected members required to determine between opposing, conflicting positions.
And of course the parliamentary scandals of the recent past (though look closely at almost any profession or institution you care to mention to view similar ones) need addressing and reform is not to be minimised. But this country looks as it does not just because of its people, but because of Westminster, too. From modern social reform, to actions needed to correct financial mechanisms we all indulge in, to taking the decisions which result in the referendum we have just seen, Westminster plays its part.
How on earth do we attract people to politics, or political parties, if we allow the laziness of the US attacks to become our watchword, too? To allow people to believe that you only respect those who share your views and prejudices, and that you heap abuse on those who don’t? (Fox News). That democracy has gone wrong if ‘we get a Government we didn’t vote for?’ Where on earth has that come from? Rural Bedfordshire, to my knowledge, has never voted for a Labour Government, but we aren’t proposing to take our ball home and secede if there is ever another one.
I’m sticking up for Westminster, not just because I plead guilty to being there a long time, but because I don’t believe it’s that difficult for the sort of people we have seen energised by Scotland’s referendum to get there too. There are a lot there already. It is not illegal to get stuck into domestic politics and the issues that parties battle with every day, with the same verve and enthusiasm – though some of them are a lot more boring than independence, I grant you.
And if we want Westminster to change and develop, and be closer to people, we need to encourage them, not put them off. Constitutional reform provides a great opportunity – but let’s work with Westminster, rather than create something motivated by spite against it.