Politics and expectations
My generation had an interesting induction to political life, you could say, aided, of course, by huge developments in communications in the mid twentieth century.
My first ‘political’ memory is marching round the primary school playground, aged 7, chanting: “2-4-6-8, who do we appreciate? Kennedy Kennedy Kennedy”. Even in Lancashire, it seems, our excitement at the prospect of a new, Irish, Catholic American President was only outweighed by our ignorance of what it would actually mean. No matter, my parents’ generation, despite the ravages of two world wars, and the complete failure of the ‘land fit for heroes’ to materialise, had grown up with a respect for elderly ‘one nation’ Tories, like McMillan and Butler, who knew what was best for the country, because, basically, they were ‘toffs’.
With the arrival of the young and charismatic JFK in the White House, it seemed as if it was going to be different for us.
As we grew, his election was followed by the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Berlin Wall, his assassination, the rise of Civil Rights and Martin Luther King, the escalation of the war in Viet Nam, the deaths of King and Bobby Kennedy, widespread rioting in American cities, the Paris Revolution, the growth of the Troubles in the north of Ireland, Watergate and Nixon’s resignation.
All of this happened before my 21st birthday, so it was no wonder that politics, to me, meant action, responsibility, serving and making people’s lives better. If this was a little naive, it was still inescapably true that, throughout my youth, politics was fascinating and influential; it was at the centre of everything. It seemed to me that turning your back on politics was tantamount to abdicating social responsibility, failing to play your part as a fully functioning member of society. I discovered early on that not all politics was clean and not all politicians heroes, but surely this gave all the more reason for getting actively involved and ‘making a difference’.
I thought of all this as I drove to work this week and listened to the parents of soldiers who had died in Iraq offering the opinion that Tony Blair’s appearance at the tribunal would at last ‘answer our questions’ and ‘bring some closure’. There was a desperation in their hope that the architect and defender of that particularly cavalier adventure, would somehow reveal the truth about his decisions, offer, perhaps, regret for his mistakes or deceits, and display some humility in the face of the terrible cost paid by so many ordinary families in the UK and Iraq.
Unsurprisingly, all they got was the characteristic self justification of a man who sought to convince his listeners that ‘I believed it was true’ means the same as ‘It was true’.
I wondered how we had got to this position in my lifetime, and I realised, gloomily, that part of the explanation was that fewer and fewer people actually care.
My twenties and thirties were spent active in politics; even then I was aware that the approach to politics in these islands was not exactly encouraging of a wide ranging involvement. There are not too many people for whom, envelope filling, meeting protocol, door knocking and conference promoting are exciting pastimes. Beyond a doubt, the system encourages a political class of electoral anoraks, often seeming to live apart from the real world and, for the most part, non-representative of actual voters. Ask young people, if they were interested, how they would go about becoming a councillor or an MSP, and most would have little idea. And, if you informed them it involved a lot of sitting in drafty meeting rooms, arguing over procedure for raising points of order, and being prepared to do this to the probable exclusion of a normal social life, any interest they did have, in most cases, would soon wane.
It seems that, if you are to become a politician in our state, you need to be in love with the idea of politics, rather than representation, power rather than service, and cliques rather than constituencies.
At one point, I would have queried how politicians could have let this state of affairs develop. Now, of course, after our experiences in the 80s and 90s, it is self evident that it was a case, not of laissez faire, but of positive encouragement. What better way to retain power than to disenfranchise those with most to complain about, reward those with the power to elect you, and restrict any real chance of election to those who are part of the political establishment. That way you can develop your projects without the inconvenience of scrutiny, and impose laws and ideas on people who, whether through Bread and Circuses, social ennui, or lack of input, will rarely bother to react. If you can tie in a couple of newspaper barons as well, so much the better. All you have to do is make sure your plans don’t too obviously hit people’s spending power (Poll Tax, anyone?), because then, and only then, you may get some reaction.
If this seems harsh, consider today’s soundbites: “I never watch politics, it’s boring”, ‘I just switch off when they come on, they’re all the same” and the regular internet ads titled “How to jump the queue in the NHS”. Where once politicians sought to convince us that they wished to serve for the common good, they now talk about ‘targeting the floating voter’, ‘doing what’s necessary to convince people that a vote for us will make you better off’, and changing the ‘message’ to become ‘electable’. We are happy to pander to your most selfish instincts, they say, surely that will make you vote for us? And when parties are rash enough to suggest raising taxes, even minimally, to improve healthcare or education, they are treated like political morons for even floating the idea that, once in a while, well off citizens may be prepared to help the less fortunate. Likewise, the now acceptable political tenet that, unless we help the rich get richer, we will all be less well off, no longer merits even discussion – even after the credit crunch, it seems.
So, when 50% or more of the electorate turn away from politics, leave the politicians to get on with it, and fail conspicuously to involve themselves in political life in even the smallest of ways, how is it surprising that politicians are discovered to be generally a bad lot, fiddling expenses and being economical with the truth? If you give them the message for a generation that they will always be ignored, no matter what they do; that, if they pander to our financial and consumer greed, we will let them get on with it – without really knowing, or caring, what ‘it’ is, and that we basically despise them for being boring, do we still have the moral authority to complain that they’ve been irresponsible, let us down and should have done better?
It seems it really is true that we get the government and politicians that we deserve. The question is not only what should we do about it, but also, are there enough who care to do anything at all?
Tony Blair’s predictable performance at the Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre this week suggests he is quite confident that he knows the right answer to that question as well.