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When the Traffic Lights Stopped by Martin Friel


Chapter 2


The whole thing began with a political decision. In the words of the Prime Minister of the day:


You know better than I that we a have a problem. Membership of political parties is down, the last election saw a record low in voter turnout and you, the people just aren’t engaged anymore. We haven’t given you anything to be engaged about. I recognise that and today I make a commitment to you, the Great British public, to change that.

This democracy of ours, one that has been adopted by nations across the globe, is based on basic fundamental human rights. The right of the people to have a voice and to be ruled by the majority. That is what underpins our freedom, our prosperity and our social justice.

Without that voice, that true representation, our democracy will fail to operate in the way we all need it to. Which is why this Government has decided to do the opposite of our predecessors and tackle this issue once and for all, tackling it in a way that is not only fit for purpose but fit for our times.

So today, it gives me great pleasure to launch what I believe is one of the most radical constitutional changes this, or indeed any other nation, has seen for many generations. What I am announcing today will put power back where it belongs, where it comes from and where it should remain. In the hands of every single one of you.

This new policy will mean the end of an old fashioned and frankly inconvenient means of administering democracy. It’s remarkable to me that we still expect you all to take time out of your busy days to go to the local school or community centre once every four or five years, mark a bit of paper and then head all the way back home.

That’s just not feasible in today’s digital age and I just don’t think it is right to expect you, the voters, to do that anymore. Which is why we are, and I say this will no little pride, changing the face of democracy.

Today we are launching the People’s Politician, a unique opportunity for everyone in this country to vote for one of their own into a position of power in Parliament. This individual, who will be chosen by you through a rigorous selection process in a brand new reality TV programme to be screened on the BBC every Saturday night, will bring your hopes and dreams, your fears and troubles direct to Parliament. This individual will be your voice. Their sole purpose will be to represent your views as voted every Saturday night. It is a direct, immediate and proportional democracy for a modern age.

I simply will not entertain the idea that a remote and unrepresentative Parliamentary system is acceptable any longer. You deserve more and we are giving you more. So I implore you, accept this challenge and watch the People’s Politician which starts this Saturday. We are bringing democracy to you in a manner that suits you – direct to you living rooms where you can now make the decisions that matter from the comfort and safety of your sofa.

This is a unique opportunity and I urge you to grab it with both hands or both remotes [chuckle and smile here] and make the choice for who you want to be the People’s Politician.


“Have you seen this crap?”

I turned to see one of my colleagues pass the draft speech to me.

“Have I seen it?” I responded. “I’m running the thing.”

Which, unfortunately, was true. I had never before, in all my years working in the civil service, come across such a cynical, patronising and disrespectful government initiative. One thing in that speech was true - there was a problem with engagement of the electorate. They just didn’t care anymore. They didn’t vote, they didn’t listen to the political debates of the day and it didn’t seem to bother them which party was in power at any given time. As long as they were allowed to get on with their lives, they were happy enough for whoever had the desire to run the country to do so. On behalf of the people of course.

The government knew it had to do something. There had been a steady decline in voter turnout since the 50s and in the last election, it hovered close to the 50% mark. Politicians may not be the brightest bulbs in the box but even they could recognise that if fewer than 50% of people actually bothered to vote, our democracy, our whole political system would begin to look a bit shaky. A sham at best and corrupt and broken at worst. So this lot took ‘action’, as they put it and responded to the growing constitutional crisis. In tackling an issue that their predecessors had avoided, they were going to do the right thing and get the people engaged in the political process once again.

Only they didn’t. Rather than look at the root cause of the problem, which was of course themselves, they thought up this ridiculous People’s Politician idea. Rather than understand and accept that it was their behaviour as a class that had turned the people off, they chose to believe that it was the fault of the populace, which was just too damned lazy to get off the couch to vote. Rather than recognise that they, the politicians had long since stopped genuinely representing their constituents, the decided to install a representative of the people in their grand little club.

This was the bit that really got me, that made me realise that the whole system was genuinely rotten and was probably, heartbreakingly, beyond repair. The very fact that the politicians believed that the people needed a representative in Parliament showed just how far gone they really were. They weren’t just out of touch, they were in another dimension.

They seemed to have forgotten, either wilfully or through intellectual neglect, that the very reason they were in Parliament every day, the very reason they were travelling to London, the very reason they were sitting on their little committees, was to represent the will of the people.

That they were so brazen about the fact that the populace currently didn’t have a representative in Parliament and needed to get one through some trashy reality TV programme, deeply depressed me. If this was a success and people actually took part, the politicians would have won. They would have been able to show the people, without shame or any sense of decency, that they had robbed them of their constitutional rights with the consent of those same people. Raped them without a whimper of refusal. Taken the last vestiges of self respect from us all.

I never did have the highest respect for the intellectual vigour of our politicians but in this instance I don’t believe it was stupidity they were exhibiting. They knew exactly what they were doing and why they were doing it. The system worked insofar as we voted them in and furnished them with prestige and power but what was increasingly missing was the validity of their position. If the people were not transparently engaged and having a real say in the political process, as a political class and system, it stank of illegality.

The real reason they did this in the way they did was that their arrogance, their sense of entitlement and their belief in the stupidity of the masses led them to the conclusion that they could get away with it.

They genuinely believed that the people would fall for it and would get on board with this new People’s Politician programme and vote in numbers that they had never done before. The politicians had no respect for their voters, they had long since dispensed with that.

It’s difficult to pinpoint in my memory when it became clear to me that the political class had ceased to give us respect. I had joined the civil service from university and in those 18 years I had seen different parties take control and many individuals pass through, with their own ideas and agendas. But I had always believed the lie – MPs were the representatives of the people. They were in Parliament to push forward our agenda, argue for issues that mattered to us, fight our corner. That was why we voted for them, why they existed at all.

But by the time the People’s Politician was launched, I had discarded those juvenile beliefs. Although I was often dealing directly with MPs, saw them in the cafes and bars in Westminster and bumped into them coming and going in Parliament, you didn’t need that proximity to see that they were all acting in a play, performing for our benefit. They were approximating what they thought people wanted to hear because they just didn’t know anymore. They had long since stopped listening.

You could see this whenever they appeared on TV or were quoted in the papers. When they mugged for the camera at the opening of some school sustainability garden or touring an ice cream lid factory in Sheffield or the tender touch offered to the sick at the new ICU unit at some hospital somewhere. The most offensive aspect of that was the pretence of care. They were acting, always acting because it was what the pollsters and their advisers told them that we, the people, the ones that vote them in, wanted to see. They really didn’t give a shit about any of the photo opportunities they went to or the people they feined empathy with. Believe me, I had the ‘privilege’ of hearing them talk about such events.

“Where are we going? Why? Oh, right I see. So should I be looking concerned in this one or is it more of admiration of their stoicism? OK, I’m with you. So initially concern at their condition and then I move on to admiration then a bit of ‘you are what makes me proud to British’ stuff? Great, let’s get this over with. I’ve got lunch with the Saatchi’s at 12.30.”

Politicians have been performing like this for time immemorial but what started out as glad handing and baby-kissing in constituencies had become the cynical and wholesale exploitation of people for the benefit of political careers. We were there simply to facilitate the pursuit of their career - a prop, a patsy and we gladly participated in it.

Worse than this, politicians had lost all sense of ideology, of purpose, reason for doing what they did. They did nothing because they believed it was the right thing to do. The only did what would help their career, get them into positions of power or keep them there once they had won them. The idea that they would believe in an actual idea was frankly ridiculous. One MP told me the days of ideas were long gone. Now was the age function – Parliament and the political process was about allowing the country to function. It wasn’t about guiding the country in a certain direction in the pursuit of an ideological ideal. It was to perpetuate the status quo, a status quo that benefited only politicians and their chums in business. They were custodians. Well-suited, well-fed, expensive and entitled janitors.

And you could see this lack of conviction when they were interviewed on the late night news shows. Traditionally these news programmes would pick a contentious issue of the day, drag some MP in to talk about it and then give him a verbal kicking. It was a parody of holding politicians to account. The interviewer represented us, the people but it was a charade. Both the politician and the interviewer were going through the motions. A puppet show to keep the people clapping, happy and infantilised.

What was most telling about these interviews was that the vast majority of politicians, when pushed on their position on something, just could not talk around the issue. They would simply repeat the same three lines over and over again. I got the idea that they simply didn’t know what they were talking about and were parroting what they had been told to say by their advisers and PR people. If they’d had any idea whatsoever of the rationale behind the subject, the decision or the strategy, then as cognisant human beings, surely they could have argued the case with some passion, some conviction?

But no. They acted like robots programmed to say three things and three things only. Any deviation from the script and they experienced a malfunction of the nervous system, repeating the same lines over and over, regardless of the question posed. If you have a look you’ll still find some of those old clips. Watching them now is chilling. These people used to run our country. They used to make decisions for us. We used to permit them to make decisions for us. They used to be our masters, our masters until that first Saturday when things began to change.


Chapter 3



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