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Pacy and provocative: John Nicolson reviews 'Why Politics Fails'

September 2019: Parliament Square | Alamy

3 min read

Ben Ansell’s argument that it is our failure as citizens to compromise that undermines our ability to deliver on collective goals may prove a comforting message to politicians

There’s an early tale in Ben Ansell’s pacy and provocative Why Politics Fails when he recalls that, three years into Theresa May’s tortuous search for a Brexit deal solution, he and the election expert Iain McLean were invited into Westminster to offer potential routes through the parliamentary quagmire which had paralysed the Commons. Only two MPs turned up to hear their expert analysis. Westminster – cross party and within party – had become so polarised into camps that “parliamentary democracy had frozen in stasis”. 

Ben Ansell’s thesis – one which may offer some comfort to elected readers of this magazine – is that it’s not politicians who are the main problem for many disappointed voters, but rather our collective failure as citizens to compromise to achieve the goals we have set ourselves as democracies. It’s not all the politicians’ fault! 

Self-interest undermines our ability to deliver on what we agree are these collective goals. Although we think we are a divided society, in reality, we have many shared aims. Professor Ansell’s focuses on five: democracy, equality, solidarity, security, and prosperity. And to those who question universal support for democracy he points out that 90 per cent of citizens in authoritarian China say they want to live under a democratic system – a higher percentage, he argues, than in Trump’s America.

Ben Ansell offers no pat solutions to our dilemmas

So, if we are agreed on where we want to get to, why do we find it so difficult to arrive at those destinations? Our lamentable inability to tackle the existential climate change crisis is perhaps the grimmest example he cites. Global warming was first directly linked to carbon emissions in 1861. The New York Times ran a front cover story warning of the calamitous effects in 1956. Yet in 2023 we are still paralysed. Why? Short-term gains which benefit us outweigh our concern for future generations: 80 per cent of us globally think we have as good a life or a better life than our parents. That figure rises to 90 per cent in China. 

Ansell does offer some light amidst the gloom – in an example which would make any Scot weep. “Oil finds make citizens richer,” he says. But he focuses on Norway, not Scotland, for his European analysis.

WPFOnce poor, Norway chose to impose sovereign ownership on all its oilfields. Windfall taxes? They’re ongoing – Norway taxes private energy companies a massive 78 per cent on profits. The Norwegian public benefit. Norwegian politicians tend not to interfere, with the vast riches going into a prudently managed sovereign wealth fund. 

This delivers un-flashy but socially transformative benefits – a cradle to grave welfare system, including maternity leave on full pay. And, remarkably, there is political consensus over the system and benefits – which now include huge investment in renewables.

Ben Ansell offers no pat solutions to our dilemmas. But he does believe that making a success of democracy requires us to protect institutions like Parliament, the courts and independent media where we argue and, crucially, compromise to defend us all against the inherent dangers from destructive radical right populism.


John Nicolson is SNP MP for Ochil & South Perthshire 

Why Politics Fails: The Five Traps of the Modern World & How to Escape Them
By: Ben Ansell
Publisher: Viking

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