It’s not enough to see Alan Duncan as an ignorant buffoon, we have to recognise him as a symptom of what is wrong with our democratic system.
Democracy, “for the people, by the people”. But this is Britain so we’ll have none of that nonsense here. Imagine the reception Abraham Lincoln would have got from the 1922 committee if he’d showed up with those crazy ideas.
Sir Alan Duncan certainly thinks democracy is a crazy idea and made this clear when he said “we risk seeing a House of Commons which is stuffed full of low achievers, who hate enterprise, hate people who look after their own family and who know absolutely nothing about the outside world”. Why? Because they’re poor? Because they didn’t come from privilege or start life with a gilded shove up the social ladder? I’m reminded of J.K. Galbraith’s comment that “the modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.
And selfishness in its most arrogant form is one of the problems that Duncan and his cohort have got. They seem to assume people hate them because they are rich. They don’t. People dislike them because they reek of privilege. Premier league soccer stars are rich (more so than Sir Alan). TV stars are well off too. People don’t hate them. No, what the public hates is hypocrisy and that sense of unfairness: that someone got where they are because of where they happened to be born, who their parents are and where they went to school.
I’m not making this point to have a go at Alan Duncan (though God knows he is certainly deserving of it and certainly unfit to be an MP). I’m saying this to explain that political parties don’t do enough to look like the people they serve. One third of MPs went to private school. One in ten went to Eton. That’s actually more than the total percentage of the UK population that went to any kind of private school (which is 7%). Ninety percent are university graduates and a quarter went to either Oxford or Cambridge. As the Sutton Trust puts it, “the best people should be able to become MPs, regardless of their social background, as parliament is intended to represent the people’s interests.” And right now it doesn’t like they can. Or, perhaps more to the point, don’t want to.
And this isn’t a Tory thing. The statistics make it clear that Labour is no party of the working class either. At least the majority of Labour MPs went to a comprehensive but for the SNP this rises to 90%.
And let’s look at gender, across the country we’re about half and half but not in Parliament. Only 29% of MPs and 25% of Peers are women. This rises to 35% in the last Scottish Parliament and 40% in the Welsh Assembly. The UK ranks 48thglobally for women’s representation (around the world, women make up more than half of MPs in only Rwanda and Bolivia).
So this is how a man like Sir Alan can stand up and get cheered for insulting the majority of people in the country. People he is supposed to represent. He can do this with impunity because he lives in an artificially maintained bubble of privilege. And he can do this because a tame and ineffectual populist media have fed the public on a diet of ignorance and anti-politics.
Yet, ironically, it is ultimately his ignorance and his isolation from reality that highlights the real problem that we have with our democracy and points to the future. Duncan’s appearance yesterday paints a dismal picture of representation and brings Parliament into disrepute. Worse, it re-enforces the growing sentiment of anti-politics. But this is dangerous because Parliament does matter and it is not Parliament that is at fault here. People turning away from politics is exactly what the elite want and need in order to thrive unchallenged. If, instead, the public stood up, put these comments under real scrutiny, held him to account and demanded an explanation for them we might actually start to see some change. If more of us got engaged we could push out the cronyism and self-interests of this stagnant incumbency. As it is, we continue to perpetuate elitism in big part through our disconnection.
Don’t get angry with Alan Duncan, he’s just a symbol of our democratic collapse. Instead, get even: get involved and make our parliaments look more like the people it represents. To paraphrase Sir Alan, it’s time to snap out of our indignation and build a democracy that’s fit for purpose.