Is England on the verge of revolution?
To those who know this most peaceful of nations intimately, the question is bound to sound bizarre. Boasting attachment to the rule of law and democratic government, the English have not had a revolution since the 17th century.
Nevertheless, these days it is hard to be in the company of Englishmen without hearing talk of the need, indeed the imminence, of revolution.
“I do sense a revolutionary mood,” David Starkey, one of Britain’s foremost historians, told the BBC. “I won’t be surprised if we did end up having a revolution.”
Starkey is not alone in his analysis.
Even Gordon Brown, believed to be the most unpopular Prime Minister Britain has ever had, admits that “revolutionary change” might be needed to “reform the way we are governed.”
According to Plekhanov, one of the architects of the Russian revolution, revolutions happen after a society has experienced a period of uninterrupted prosperity followed by the sudden shock of a severe economic crisis.
Well, theoretically at least, this is the case in Britain.
The period of prosperity started in the 1990s and came to an abrupt end with the financial crisis and subsequent economic meltdown of 2008. In that period, British gross domestic product, the key measure of economic performance, almost doubled, enabling the average citizen to enjoy levels of prosperity never experienced before.
Over the past 18 months, however, the British economy has been in reverse gear with GDP shrinking by an average of 2.7 per cent. At the same time, Britain has gone from full employment to unemployment rates approaching 10 or 11 per cent, something unheard of since the 1970s.
Nevertheless, like all Marxists, Plekhanov was wrong in assuming the primacy of economic factors. Revolutions do not happen because of economic crises or even widespread poverty. Revolutions happen when a system suffers a major loss of political legitimacy.
This is precisely what has happened to the British political elite. The loss of legitimacy started wit the loss of credibility. The average citizen could not understand why his rulers did not know what was going on in the global economy or, if they knew, why they did not inform him.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan did not help either. Many Britons feel they should not have remained involved in two distant wars for such a long time. Some believe that the performance of the British military in the latter stages of the Iraq war was marked by incompetence and cowardice.
What may be the coup de grace for the elite’s credibility, however, came with a scoop pulled off by the Daily Telegraph two months ago.
The scoop is built around official information about expenses claimed by members of the British House of Commons over the years. Using the Freedom of Information Act, the paper succeeded in obtaining documents that would have remained classified a decade ago.
Under old rules, members of The House of Commons, the lower chamber of the British parliament, claim reimbursement for expenses incurred in the performance of their duties.
The trouble is that scores of MPs appear to have been claiming reimbursement for expenses that often had nothing to do with their duties. One MP received money to clean the moat of his castle. Another used public funds to build a duck island in a lake in his property. Some MPs claimed their wives, mistresses and children as special assistants and put them on the pay roll. Some, including a Cabinet minister, drew monthly sums for the payment of mortgages that did not exist. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, the man in charge of public finances, hired someone with public money to advice him on how to pay less tax. The most widespread abuse came in the form of using public money to buy property in London and then selling it at a profit without paying the necessary taxes.
To make matters worse, the Speaker of the house, Michael Martin, tried to stop the revelations by asking the police to investigate those who leaked the documents. The outcry was such that Marin had to resign, the first Speaker to be booted out since 1690.
Hs resignation came just days after two members of the House of Lords, the upper chamber, were suspended after being found guilty of trying to amend laws in favor of lobbyists who offered them money. That, too, was a first in almost 300 years.
What has shocked the Brits above all is the extent of the corruption and its long duration. It seems that almost two-thirds of the 650 members of the house were involved in one way or another.
Rather than publishing the whole of its scoop at one go, the newspaper decided to offer it as a serial on a daily basis. This has had the effect of Chinese torture, with the nation holding its breath to see who would be in the next batch of villains to be exposed, and dispatched to the guillotine.
The amounts involved in these scandals are not high. One calculation puts the sums illegally siphoned off by MPs over the past four years at around $30 million. This is something that “fixers” could pocket in an afternoon in some so-called “developing countries.” The mistress of one African despot made $300 in five years before being replaced by a new favorite.
Nevertheless, the fact that such a large number of British politicians, perhaps a majority in the parliament, were prepared to profit from practices current in the Third Would, has come as a rude shock to many Britons. Every nation has a number of founding myths. Britain’s principal myth is that it is the birthplace of modern democracy and a land where the law is supreme. The shocking realization that “the mother of parliaments” may have been acting as the rudest of street sluts is not easy to stomach. Some of the same politicians who go around the world lecturing others, especially in the “developing world”, against corruption, have been exposed as practioners of petty larceny.
So far, a dozen or so parliamentarians have been suspended or announced that they are retiring from the house in the next election. However, most observers believe that more than half of the current members are unlikely to be re-nominated by their parties.
England may not experience a classical revolution with barricades and gallows in public places. However, it certain to witness a major re-shuffle of political elite with a new prime minister, new government and a House of Commons where, for the first time since 1945, a majority of members will be newcomers.
For staid England, that would be revolution enough.
Amir Taheri’s new book, “The Persian Night”, is published by Encounter Books in New York and London.