The real problem of politics


There are two articles worth reading together in today’s Times: Rachel Sylvester says that politicians have no choice but to accept in full the recommendations on their allowances due to be made this week by Sir Christopher Kelly. Her column concludes:

The real problem about expenses is that they have made it harder for politicians to show leadership about the things that matter far more. The verdict of the court of public opinion is too harsh on many MPs. But unless they accept it and move on they will never be able to convince the voters to listen to them on anything else’.

Turn back a few pages and there is Ann Treneman’s typically engaging Commons sketch, which has long been the paper’s only dedicated coverage of Parliamentary proceedings. It is Treneman’s job to encourage us to laugh at our politicians but it seems that any attempt she might make at belittling yesterday’s debate about the EU summit would pale by comparison with MPs’ determination to belittle themselves.

While all this is going on, the fundamental problem with our democracy is, if anything, getting worse. This problem is the gap between the world as it is and the world as the public thinks it is, or wants it to be - which, in turn, leads to an ever greater list of issues on which there is simply no honest position that politicians can adopt which does not risk public outrage.

Despite arriving late, Home Secretary Alan Johnson gave an interesting speech here yesterday (featured on Page 1 of the Times). As Michael Clarke, Director of RUSI, said in his thoughtful response, the Home Office, perhaps more than any other department, has to try to adapt to a fast changing and shrinking world. In so doing the department faces issue after issue, most created by aspects of globalisation, on which the public is profoundly ambivalent. Here are three examples:

• We want to know who is in the UK, to better enforce immigration rules and to ensure that people only receive the services and benefits to which they are entitled, but there is both scepticism and antipathy towards the national database which underpins ID cards.

• We want to reduce asylum applications and to return those who came here illegally or have not won the right to stay. Yet if we had befriended a Zimbabwean or Iraqi who had settled here with their family we would no doubt think it was appalling that they might be forcibly repatriated. In response to a question along these lines Alan Johnson told the Great Room that when some time ago the Home Office said that it would not return any fleeing Zimbabweans the number of applications from those who claimed to be from that country rose by 80%.

• We want our civil liberties protected but we would be outraged if a terrorist incident occurred which we felt could, by whatever means, have been avoided

It is not that these issues are irresolvable. Nor that the Government has always got its strategy right. Indeed, yesterday I left Michael Clarke and philosopher AC Grayling in John Adam Street agreeing that the Government had made the mistake of making the protection of lives more important that the protection of our way of life (which includes our rights and liberties).

My point is simply that these issues are difficult and that if we (or the press) are looking for simple and reassuring answers we are looking in vain.

This was one of the themes of my annual lecture last week. Here is an extract:

It is hard enough for politics to reconcile different interests and preferences in society but, now, a combination of the complexity of modern life and consumerist expectations mean that politicians face the challenge of reconciling conflicting interests and preferences in the same people. Generally, it is a challenge they duck. We have an economy and a public sector mired in debt. We have ambitious carbon reduction targets but no realistic account of how we are going to meet them. We are the fifth richest nation in the world but suffer high levels of child poverty. All this may be cited as evidence of how politicians have failed to face down the superficial and contradictory demands of voters.   

If we wanted people to see democracy as inherently about dilemmas, and trade offs, balancing interests within people, within society and across time, what might we do?

If you want to know what I think is the answer you’ll have to read or watch the whole speech…..

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