Thursday, 17 June 2010

Lies, Damn Lies and Politics

Daniel Finkelstein wrote an interesting piece here in the Times the other day about how politicians are, by convention, forced to lie.

Finkelstein quotes the example of political parties in government operating under 'Collective Responsibility' where members of the government must publicly support all decisions made by Cabinet. He goes on to make the point that governments (and opposition parties) go way beyond this and require all politicians of their party to 'express the same opinion about every issue in the same way'.

It's a very good point - but one that needs further exploration. It's inevitable consequence is that politicians who disagree with a particular political issue are forced to lie and cheat and say they agree (or vice versa – say they disagree when actually agree) which is why we constantly witness elected representatives saying things they do not believe or do not believe to be true and we rightly view politicians as being insincere and dishonest.

When a political question arises, a Member of Parliament is not required to search their conscience, to weigh up the pro's and con's of a particular issue, but instead is merely required to hunt out their Blackberry. There, they will find the prescribed 'Line to Take' delivered to them centrally by their political party.

Even if there is no prescribed party line, the politician does not need to apply their own judgement to a given issue, (because if they did they might contradict a later 'Line to Take' email) they simply enter a holding pattern and say something like, 'this is a very complicated issue and until the facts of this become clear I think we should all carefully consider the position on this'. In other words no email from on-high = no position.

So there is a huge mismatch between what we expect our representatives to be - honest, principled and forthright individuals and what they have to be to conform to their own political party machine's requirements - insincere and dishonest apparatchiks.

This time last year, in the middle of the expenses storm, Finklestein described the moment as a 'Gotcha moment'. He put his finger directly on the issue. The entire furore wasn't essentially just about the public making objective, reasoned judgements about whether or not certain politicians had made reasonable expense claims or not, it was more a chance to finally point the finger at politicians and prove, without doubt that they are liars and cheats – rather like Al Capone being finally convicted, not for his infamous racketeering crimes, but instead for tax evasion. Justice was done even if the conviction was not, in fact, for the major crimes committed.

Since the expenses scandal the business of politics has, more or less, continued as usual. The expenses issue has been cleared up a bit but the underlying fundamental issue has not, at all. Politicians still behave in exactly the same way.

Right now, the new government is going through it's honeymoon period. The media is still in the early stages of getting to grips with the new beast that the electorate has created and the opposition are looking inwardly and trying to find a leader.

But, in the not too distant future, the natural divisions in a coalition government will make the disagreements between members of the government obvious. The media will bang wedges into the inevitable cracks that appear and expose them to us all and then we will watch with bemused detached distaste as a steady progression of politicians appear on television prostituting their own rapidly diminishing credibility for the ignoble cause of yet more ‘Collective Responsibility’.

They will deny division and disagreement. They will pedal the same lies and once more the electorate will file away yet more evidence of their unsuitability to govern and coalition government will become, for politicians, like wading uphill, through particularly thick and sticky treacle with concrete boots on...


They can start doing things differently.

They can stop insulting everyone’s intelligence. They can acknowledge publicly that people in government have different views. Politicians can talk about their party’s position on an issue but be sincere about their own position on something. In so doing, they will draw respect for their honesty and understanding about the inevitable compromises that democratic politics entails.

There is nothing for politicians to be scared of in being honest with those people who elect them and who they are paid to represent. We have reached a point where a great watershed moment is possible.
But there is one big question for me..

Is it possible for the current generation of political leaders to really clean up politics?

As anyone who has been involved in politics at a grass-roots level knows, there are many honest, principled and forthright people involved in politics. But these people rarely progress far. As a senior politician put it to me. ‘To succeed in politics, you need to be nice to everyone’.

Now you might think that being nice to everyone is not inconsistent with retaining integrity and honesty. But in the long journey from initial involvement in politics to the Cabinet there are thousands of points at which the aspiring cabinet member will find themselves in a position where they will be asked to support something or take a position on something they disagree with or which conflicts with their own ideas.

And each time they choose not to declare themselves against a particular idea or position, a small chip is knocked off their personal block of honesty.  Being ‘nice’ in many instances costs nothing but inevitably in others it has a small incremental cost because it also entails being insincere. Every instance in which the aspirant politician does not stand up for what they believe in or say what they really think, contributes to a tiny but heavily cumulative debasement of their own honesty.

So perhaps it is logical to assume that by the time anyone completes the long journey to the Cabinet table, their own integrity will be completely gone. They will have made so many compromises and bitten their lip so many times that their inner soul will just be a hollow worthless husk. Every decision they make or position they adopt will not be one taken on the basis of fact and principles but merely a political calculation dressed up to look vaguely and unconvincingly like a reasoned judgement.

Now call me a dreamer, but I do have a hope that within this current government there are a sufficient number of senior politicians who have now finally ‘infiltrated’ the upper echelons of power who do retain their integrity. They have bitten their lips and held their tongues for years making a long-term calculation that in order to make a real difference they have had to smile, and be nice to everyone just waiting for the day when they have sufficient power to really change things.

In other words, they have compromised their honesty but ultimately not their integrity.

And perhaps now these ‘sleepers’ will awake and re-cast politics in a way that will avoid it being the preserve of those who are prepared to be dishonest (or those without integrity) and instead be a vocation which demands and delivers honesty, integrity and respect.

The changes needed are quite small but have huge ramifications. It doesn’t mean abandoning cohesive party politics or even a proper kind of shared responsibility for decisions made that take account of different views. It just means that politicians should take real personal responsibility for saying what they mean and meaning what they say.

There’s no need to throw the Blackberrys away but they should remember what they are for – a useful aid to communication. Not a substitute for conscience.


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