“Shall I at least set my lands in order?” Easier said than done

Why We Get the Wrong Politicians is a worrying book. It places before us a picture which tells us that all is not well in the British political system. Our own everyday observation makes it clear, however, that the malaise in that system is one which is mirrored in many if not most western democracies. Nor is it just the rise of what we rather lazily call “populism” which is at the heart of what is troubling us. That is just a symptom of the deeper problem infecting our political souls.

This book was written by Isabel Hardman and published late last year – the fruit of more than two years research carried out largely in the heart of the mother of parliaments. Hardman is a political journalist and the assistant editor of The Spectator. She has written for The Observer and currently writes a weekly column for The Daily Telegraph. In 2015, she was named Journalist of the Year at the Political Studies Association.  

Essentially, the concerns she raises about our electoral choices stem from the breakdown of that vital connection between the governed and the governing. This crucial element in the structure of a functioning political system has been damaged to the degree that it is no longer fit for purpose. The challenge which Hardman lays before us now is that of finding a solution to this rift.

It is a good book, descriptive and anecdotal rather than severely analytical. Despite its provocative title, it is a very balanced and honest examination of the workings of British parliamentary democracy, a kind of limited version of de Tocqueville’s 19th century masterpiece, Democracy in America.

On the basis of what she has observed over those years watching the system at work – or not at work – we can surmise about what needs to happen.

On the one hand the elected governors have to be wise enough and willing enough to address both the deficiencies in the system and the personal inertia which for decades – if not for the best part of a century – has prevented them from doing so to date. On the other hand, the governed have also to be wiser and more willing to appreciate the very nature and limitations of the system they expect to serve their common good. As a consequence they must demand integrity and better leadership from their politicians. They must also be reasonable and not demand that their representatives combine fixing their parish pumps along with legislating wisely and well.

Hardman accepts, by and large, the basic good intentions of those who present themselves for election as public representatives. The picture she presents us with is one of men and women struggling with conflicting demands on their time, conflicting loyalties, and conflicting responsibilities. These are men and women whose first responsibility is to legislate wisely and well but who end up neglecting that in the pursuit of other ends: power in government; trying to satisfy the demands their constituents make on them for things that have nothing to do with legislation or government, trapped by the awareness that failing to satisfy those demands may mean the end of their parliamentary careers. On top of all this is the debilitating culture of what is now called the “bubble” effect.

The Westminster Bubble, she tells us, was first identified in the late 1990s. It was a description of the tight community of politicians, researchers, think tanks and journalists around Parliament. “It has gained increasingly negative connotations as an insular community in which insignificant things seem enormous and the things that matter to everyone else are ignored. Bubble members are out of touch with the rest of the world, and their lack of understanding of the people they purport to represent leads them to make serious mistakes on a regular basis.”

Whether or not that perception is accurate, it is held by a large proportion of the population and feeds the distrust with which so many now harbour about the assemblies of their representatives in many jurisdictions, including Ireland.

MPs are the least trusted professional group, surveys tell us – below estate agents, bankers and journalists – with just 21 per cent of Britons saying they’d trust an MP to tell the truth. The public don’t like politics as a line of work generally, but they also tell pollsters that the quality of the politicians is the feature they dislike the most.

A YouGov poll Hardman commissioned for her book asked those who wouldn’t even consider standing for Parliament what put them off. Worryingly, 41 per cent of them said, ‘I don’t like politicians and the way politics works’, and 16 per cent said, ‘none of the main political parties reflects my views’. 

This is, to an extent, a form of disenfranchisement. If 16 per cent is bad, think of the 30 plus percent of the Irish who now consider themselves disenfranchised. Over 90 per cent of Irish legislators passed an extremely liberal abortion law (they deny that it is extreme, of course) with the effect that the 33 percent who clearly opposed abortion in a referendum last year now consider that they have no effective representation in parliament.

In the Irish context two major factors have produced this chronic dysfunction in that country’s political life.

The first is the fatal three-way nexus which characterizes politics there. The system is essentially one where a group of, at best, marginally trusted parliamentarians, locked into a rigid party system, represents the people. In her book Hardman does a great job of describing how the “necessary evil” – de Tocqueville’s term – of the party system militates against genuine choice in the British system. It is even more limiting in Ireland.

That group is assisted in the work of government by a cadre of elite public servants – particularly in departments with a brief for social policy – seriously infected with the left-leaning ideology dominating the Irish universities in which they were educated. This elite has been perpetuating itself in that ideological image for decades. Both these elements in turn are manipulated by a media establishment of the same essential colour. This part of the machine cheerleads when things are going according to its ideological principles. When they veer off course pressure is applied to bring them back by seeking to mold public opinion to the desired shape. This is done partly by the cultivation of a range of pressure groups driven by the self-same secular liberal principles.

This latter was the political force which radically changed public opinion to bring about two big referendum majorities opening the door to gay marriage and abortion on demand in Ireland over the past few years.

The second factor behind this effective disenfranchisement is effectively the child of the first – the collapse of trust in anything said by any of the people in power within this nexus. Surveys of this trust factor don’t exist in Ireland – suggesting perhaps the extent of control which the protagonists in this story have over the narrative about themselves.

Almost twenty years ago the late David Foster Wallace summed up what he saw as a major factor behind the killing of political interest among the young in America. Guess what? It was distrust. Things have moved on inexorably since then but there is little doubt but that what America is now experiencing politically is the direct descendant of what Wallace drew attention to.

Wallace was commissioned by Rolling Stone to cover Senator John McCain in the primaries for the US election of 2000. At that time McCain was the face of honesty in politics and as such seemed to electrify youth with a promise of integrity. Eventually his campaign was snuffed out by the power-brokers, but before that happened Wallace explained McCain’s appeal in terms of his commitment to telling the truth. McCain often finished his rallies with this refrain:

 “I’m going to tell you something. I may have said some things here today that maybe you don’t agree with, and I might have said some things you hopefully do agree with. But I will always. Tell you. The truth.”

Wallace did not think it was that simple. “But you have to wonder,” he wrote. “Why do these crowds from Detroit to Charleston cheer so wildly at a simple promise not to lie?

Well, it’s obvious why. When McCain says it, the people are cheering not for him so much as for how good it feels to believe him. They’re cheering the loosening of a weird sort of knot in the electoral tummy. McCain’s résumé and candor, in other words, promise not empathy with voters’ pain but relief from it. Because we’ve been lied to and lied to, and it hurts to be lied to. It’s ultimately just about that complicated: it hurts. We learn this at like age four —- it’s grownups’ first explanation to us of why it’s bad to lie (“How would you like it if. . . ?”).

And we keep learning for years, from hard experience, that getting lied to sucks — that it diminishes you, denies you respect for yourself, for the liar, for the world. Especially if the lies are chronic, systemic, if experience seems to teach that everything you’re supposed to believe in is really just a game based on lies. Young Voters have been taught well and thoroughly. You may not personally remember Vietnam or Watergate, but it’s a good bet you remember “No new taxes” and “Out of the loop” and “No direct knowledge of any impropriety at this time” and “Did not inhale” and “Did not have sex with that Ms. Lewinsky” and etc. etc.

It’s painful to believe that the would-be “public servants” you’re forced to choose between are all phonies whose only real concern is their own care and feeding and who will lie so outrageously and with such a straight face that you know they’ve just got to believe you’re an idiot.

Is this true of the culture of Irish political life today? It surely is, when, to get elected, the man who has driven Ireland’s abortion law through parliament assured the pro-life movement that he was pro-life. Irish mainstream media simply turns a blind eye to this deceit. To Ireland’s pro-life community, the campaigning columnists in the Irish Times, Irish Independent and Irish Examiner are very reluctant to report anything negative about the politicians who are pursuing the secular liberal agenda which they themselves have so close to their hearts.

Disenfranchisement may be a technical term denoting the formal removal of voting rights but the name of what has happened is not the important thing – “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” – and not having anyone to vote for, whatever you call it, smells just as rotten as anything that ever polluted a body politic. A combination of three malign forces have succeeded in consigning one third of the Irish population, commensurate by and large with that section of the population which takes seriously its commitment to the moral principles of the Christian Faith, to the margins of political life – for now. Something must be done to cut the Gordian knot in the tummy of the Irish body politic.

The woes of the British political system depicted in Isabel Hardman’s book do not make strange reading for the Irish looking at their own parliament, essentially a child of that Westminster mother. They are all too familiar – just an Irish version of the same rot.

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