Britain is a much better place today than it was when I was born in the early 1970s. People are free to live as they choose. We are more open and tolerant, and most of us are more prosperous.
As the father of a young daughter, I’ve also come to appreciate how much feminism has achieved within my lifetime. Boys and girls growing up today have far better life chances because of greater equality. And there’s been a revolution in attitudes toward disabled people. What people once attacked as “political correctness,” we now recognize as good manners.
My country is better in so many ways — except when it comes to how we do politics. Our government is no longer accountable to Parliament, and Parliament no longer answers meaningfully to the people. Most laws made in Britain this year emanated from the European Union, a remote, unaccountable bureaucracy with zero democratic legitimacy.
Those who ought to make our laws, members of Parliament, mostly sit for so-called safe seats. This means that they represent districts that will never realistically change hands between parties at an election. Since voters have no power to recall them, M.P.s answer only to their peers.
Lawmakers become lawmakers mostly by working in the offices of other lawmakers. It’s a club. Recent research found that over half of Labour candidates in seats where the party stood a good chance of winning in the next election had already worked in Westminster.
Instead of using primaries to select candidates for parliamentary seats, party hierarchies parachute in those whom they favor. Politics has become an exclusive game played by insiders, little more than a competition between two cliques, at the top of the Labour and Conservative Parties, to decide who sits on the Downing Street sofa.
In 2010, I ran for office on a Conservative platform promising to change all this. In four years of governing, my party demonstrated again and again that it was not serious about political reform. It was this failure to deliver meaningful political change that drove me — amid much sadness and many sleepless nights — to quit.
Government by clique is not just a bad way to do politics but a shoddy way to run a country. People sense it, not just in my corner of Essex, but in Scotland, where the strength of the Yes vote in Thursday’s independence referendum has been fueled by contempt for smug, self-satisfied Westminster.
Without choice and competition in politics, there is no incentive to change and little public policy innovation. Despite the most serious banking crisis in modern times, there has been little reform, only tinkering. The regulators who presided over the disaster have actually been handed more powers.
The natural gas and solar revolutions — Britain sits astride billions of cubic feet of shale gas and, in fact, we get plenty of sunshine — offer us a tantalizing prospect of cheap, plentiful energy. Yet government energy policy remains rooted in assumptions decades out of date. A result is high and rising energy prices — thanks to the subsidies we pay corporations to build ineffectual wind turbines.
Nowhere is this sclerotic thinking more evident than when it comes to Britain’s relationship with the European Union. When we joined, nearly 40 years ago, we imagined we were becoming part of a prosperous trading block. In the early ’70s, the European Union’s precursor accounted for almost 40 percent of world economic output. Today, it accounts for a mere 25 percent; in a decade, it’s expected to be 15 percent. The European Union is the one continent on the planet not growing.
Yet who in Westminster is prepared to envisage real change? Ministers and officials still think as if it were 1972.
At a meeting of the Conservative parliamentary party in June, the prime minister said he would not seek a relationship with the European Union that would promote trade without sacrificing sovereignty. Such a deal would not even be on the table. His advisers told me their strategy: Obtain just enough concessions from Brussels to persuade enough voters to stay in Europe at the referendum on membership in 2017. They are not serious about change.
I am an optimist about the challenges that we face here in Britain: a mountain of public debt, the need to improve health care, the threat of terrorism, the need to recalibrate our relationship with Europe. We can find answers to these problems, but only if government is made accountable to Parliament, and Parliament is accountable to the people.
That is why I left the Conservative Party, and joined the UK Independence Party, or UKIP, a party that believes in direct democracy and far-reaching political reform. Unlike the established political parties, UKIP is not the private property of small cliques. It is a party committed to free markets, free trade and direct democracy.
Far from being anti-immigrant, we recognize and respect the contribution that migrants make. It is surely reasonable that we decide who comes, and that we expect our government to control our borders.
“Government of the people, by the people, for the people,” said Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg. Those were not, in fact, his own words: The 16th president of the United States was echoing John Wycliffe, the 14th-century translator of the English Bible.
Wycliffe lived at a time of extraordinary change. Technology, in the form of printing, was challenging the authority of established elites. Priests and princes were losing their position in the hierarchies across much of Europe. So, too, in our own time. The Internet is redefining the relationship between the governed and the governing. The former are no longer going to be willing to take at face value the presumptions of the latter.
UKIP is not an angry, populist rejection of the modern world. Modernity has raised the people’s expectations of how much better things could be.
Douglas Carswell was the Conservative member of Parliament for Clacton, Essex, until August, when he resigned his seat in order to run for it as a member of the UK Independence Party.