‘Dreadful, ill-qualified and parasitic’ politicians have contributed to the end of politics, Douglas Carswell MP tells Andrew Williams.
Another week, another political reputation in tatters. What started out a decade ago as (to put it mildly) an administrative ploy to escape a driving ban snowballed into a sordid affair of marital indiscretion and bare-faced deceit. Chris Huhne, pipped to the Liberal Democrat leadership by his fabulist colleague Nick Clegg by just 511 votes in 2007, has paid with his job and can look forward to spending some time at Her Majesty’s pleasure.
If trust in our politicians is not at an all-time low – the MPs expenses scandal surely represented the nadir of public faith in our esteemed representatives – the Huhnes of this world are doing their level best to strengthen our collective cynicism. There is a growing anti-political groundswell in this country; disaffected students and grumbling pensioners are, on the whole, united by a belief that politicians are little more than ceaseless careerists who employ the U-turn as their stock in trade.
Such sentiments are inevitably expressed by friends and colleagues over a pint at the local pub, but it is far from the rhetoric you would expect from a fully paid-up member of the political establishment. Yet here I am, having traversed the labyrinthine corridors of Parliament, sitting opposite an MP who is putting his colleagues to the sword to the extent that he declares politics “dead as we know it.”
“Of course politics hasn’t finished in the sense that elections still happen,” explains Douglas Carswell, a leading light of the Tory right whose book The End of Politics and the Birth of iDemocracy paints a stark picture of the state we are in. “The winners still grin stupidly from the platform and make typical politician speeches during their tenure of office – all of that carries on as before – but politics is dead in the sense that none of that really makes much difference to how we live our lives.”
Carswell is not the first person to proclaim the death of politics, but his position as a sitting Conservative MP places him, quite uniquely, at the heart of the system which he believes requires a drastic overhaul. His is a wide-ranging attack on British political life, and Carswell clearly has no qualms when it comes to castigating the behaviour of his peers. On the contrary, he is positively appalled by a considerable number among them.
“Being an MP has given me a ringside seat so I can observe at close quarters the parasites. I have a very low opinion of many, many politicians. I think most politicians seek to justify more power for people like them, and they will jump on a particular bandwagon that they’re not actually fundamentally interested in, and they will feign compassion. But they are fundamentally interested in giving themselves a greater say.”
“Have you watched the House of Commons recently?” he asks, folding his arms in defiance. “I’m sorry, but I have a very cynical opinion of most politicians.” Can he think of any particularly egregious examples of the sort of behaviour he describes?
“A couple of days ago I listened to some MPs debating education, and they kept on talking about ‘our children’s future.’ And I just thought, what planet are these people on? My child is my child, your child is your child. If they care so passionately about children’s education, go and work in a school. It makes me angry.”
Scathing stuff, and it does not end there. “For years and years and years we’ve listened to a group of people who supposedly make collective decisions on our behalf, and we’re suddenly realising that they’re dreadful people and ill-qualified to make any decisions.”
To describe Douglas Carswell as ‘outspoken’ is plainly an understatement, but his diagnosis is not a publicity-seeking ruse. A former hedge fund manager, he is driven primarily by his libertarian conviction and a loyalty to his Essex constituency. As such, he harbours absolutely no desire to climb the greasy ministerial pole, bemoaning repeated attempts by government whips to force him into line. “I see my success in politics as the extent to which I can reduce the size of government, not to join it,” he explains.
Not that he is likely to be invited to join their ranks. Relations between Carswell and those at the top of his party are frosty at best; last year, David Cameron flagrantly dismissed a question from Carswell in the Commons, spitting back, “I think the Honourable Member needs a sense of humour”. The Prime Minister’s apparent contempt for Carswell does not appear to concern him in the slightest. “If I wanted to suck up to the government I would have applied for a career as a special advisor. I’m a Member of Parliament for Clacton, not for Notting Hill,” he quips with a mischievous glint in his eye.
His refusal to toe the party line has seen Carswell carve out a reputation as a maverick figure with a cursory regard for authority, and I sense that he is in his element as the outsider; the very big hitters are unlikely to darken the door of his Westminster office (complete with Eurosceptic motif), but he has plenty of “massively frustrated” visitors who are far from happy with the government’s direction at the halfway point of this Parliament.
“I’m not betraying any confidences when I tell you that a large number of ex-ministers, and one or two current serving ministers, have sat in that very chair where you are and shared with me their incredible frustration about the complete inability of them to do anything that requires change in their departments,” he tells me.
Carswell has a particular gripe with the government’s ongoing deficit reduction plans which are, in his view, bogus. “They ought to be straight about the fact that yes, the deficit gap is being closed, but the amount of public debt is being doubled… in five years the Coalition will acquire more debt that [Gordon] Brown managed to in thirteen years. There is a slight element of weasel words when we talk about ‘the deficit’. I don’t think they’re being straight with people.”
His accusation that the government is playing fast and loose with the truth, Huhne-style, is unlikely to see Carswell reinstated to David Cameron’s Christmas card list, but he is unwavering. “Look at it this way. They talk about austerity, but on what planet is spending £108 billion more than you take in tax every year austerity? It’s a massive fiscal stimulus. The British government borrows billions of pounds every year by lending to itself… as David Cameron once said, we can’t go on like this. The pity is he’s kept on trying.”
“In opposition I’m sure he was a free marketer,” he continues. “But in government, they’re all corporatists. I think George Osborne has basically made very few changes to the economic policy of the government compared to when Gordon Brown was in charge. It’s ‘continuity Brown’ at the Treasury, I’m afraid. There are a few marginal changes, but nothing significant. Look at the flatlining nature of the economy – no change, no chance.”
Much has been made of the scramble for the centre ground in British politics – “a completely fake competition between two and a half parties” who, Carswell suggests, basically agree 90% of the time. It is yet another symptom of his utter disenchantment with the prevailing attitude of those in the Westminster village; inhibited by a constant regression to the status quo or, as he puts it, “dimly lit by second-hand political thinking.”
“The very first day I walked into the House of Commons I thought, wow, this is one of the most exalted days of my life,” he recalls. “Within six months of that day, I was bitterly disillusioned – so disillusioned that I basically thought, I’m going to jack it all in.”
His salad days instilled within him a ‘me against the world’ mentality which is evident throughout his book and peppers our conversation. “I started to kick out against the system, not really caring whether I stayed or went. The great game changer that turned me from a pessimist who was about to quit, into someone who is optimistic about the future of politics, is the internet.”
Carswell’s unshakeable faith in the power of the internet is at the epicentre of his theory of iDemocracy. The second half of The End of Politics is devoted to an explanation of the transformative power of new and evolving technology; not only do blogs and social networking sites enable the public to hold politicians to account, but online petitions allow us to apply pressure to the government and, ultimately, enact change in a way that our token general election vote every five years does not.
“It’s breathing new life into our politics,” he argues. “We’re not a proper democracy because government is no longer accountable to parliament and parliament is no longer accountable to the people. The internet is changing that.”
“We can see what our representatives are doing and, bluntly, MPs can no longer bullshit the voters. One of the reasons why this is one of the most rebellious Parliaments ever is because they have to [serve their constituents]. Your MP has no wiggle room.”
Far from seeing Twitter as a hub of banal, frivolous gossip, Carswell praises “its ability to deconstruct bullshit. A budget, as we’ve discovered, can be unspun by teatime… it’s a wonderfully democratising tool. It allows us to collaboratively deconstruct what the elite is saying, and fact check, verify independently and crowdsource judgements.”
I put it to Carswell that the government has embraced the digital revolution to some degree; David Cameron has, for example, had an app installed on his iPad to keep him abreast of economic facts and figures. “Digital Dave’s dashboard – has it fixed the economy yet?” he asks, wearing a wry smile. “I think that the government desperately wants to be seen to be modern and with it and happening.”
When it comes to the future of politics, it is clear that Carswell ‘gets it’ – his blog, Talk Carswell, was featured by Total Politics as one of the best of the internet, and he understands the vital importance of harnessing people power. But there is, to some extent, a contradiction at play here; though ultra-modern on the one hand, on the other Carswell is openly sceptical about the scale of climate change and, only last Tuesday, voted against equal marriage.
His passion, however, lies in a determination to see British politics reinvented. “This place is beginning to get up off its knees, it’s beginning to do its job, and the internet has been massively transformative. The transformation has still got a long way to run – it needs to tear the two and a half party system apart – but that will come.”