What did the Romans ever do for us?
If bad politicians exist, it’s entirely our own fault. After all, they do the things they do because of us – a bad electorate who votes them in in full knowledge of their many faults and will not run for public office ourselves. If we ever did decide to throw ourselves into the legislative process as they do, we might find out that even our sanctimonious selves exhibit the same tribal traits as showcased on a Wednesday in the House of Commons – shouting “bloody splitters” at our allies across the amphitheatre. People often say politics is crass and politicians crap. I would argue that as long as we continue to say things like this we discourage good people from the job, and all that is crass and crap about politics might be something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Luckily, I don’t think the calibre of politician is in decline. I certainly don’t think politicians do more harm than good. Let’s take Tony Blair and New Labour as an example. He is often wrongly maligned for his foreign policy, which, omitting Iraq, remains edifying; but leaving aside his title as the saviour of Sierra Leone et al. what did he achieve on a socio–economic front other than the lining of his own pockets and [insert additional smear here]? I dislike lists, but, fearing the dreaded skim reader, I feel that only a list can serve to bring this home…
- The National Minimum Wage, (1997). We wouldn’t be without it.
- Working Tax Credit, (2003). The precursor to Universal Credit.
- The Central Bank’s independence, (1997). Blair, Brown, or Balls? Doesn’t matter.
- Sure Start Centers, (1998). Thank you.
- Good Friday Agreement, (1998). Sláinte.
- Record levels of investment in schools, (1997-2004). Per pupil spending increased by one third in real terms.
- Devolution. Say hello to Scotland and Wales.
- Civil Partnerships Act, (2004). Yay.
- Pensioners lifted out of poverty, (1997-2006). One million in total. A third from the 3million in 1996.
- The Winter Fuel Allowance, (1997). Hot stuff.
- Lower waiting times for NHS operations. Quite.
- Hunting Act, (2004). Neigh.
The last two are more obviously controversial than the rest. However, and while for social democrats these achievements are indeed achievements, a case can be made against each and every one of these policies on principle (leaving aside technical objections concerning the taxes they require and the borrowing they drive up). But, and this is the point, even if principled criticism of these policies did turn out to be right (however unlikely and ludicrous, we must at least leave room for the possibility that historians will look back on, for example, the National Minimum Wage, and see it as something which caused more harm than good) – this would not change the fact that Blair enacted these domestic policies with the best of intentions. He, his government, most of his party, in some cases the overwhelming majority of MPs, all of them thought they were doing what was right at the time.
Humans, I think, have always felt the need to help other people. So why now do we talk about altruism as if the idea had only just occurred to us, as if up until now nobody had thought it, as if we were not the beneficiaries of hundreds of years of politics. Outstandingly, we’ve not only forgotten that it’s a healthy thing to disagree on the quickest route to utopia, but we’ve also forgotten the very bricks and mortar of utilitarianism – that of accountable organisation. Nowadays it’s quite popular to crowdfund for charitable causes on Humans Of New York. Is this really the best we can do – help individuals who are lucky enough to get snapped by Brandon Stanton? Viral charitable photography such as his is a positive liberation only so far as it complements state relief and official charities. It becomes archaic if, in our aversion to bureaucracy, we use HONY to replace official means of giving. Empathy becomes barbaric and corrupted without the democratisation element: although we think we are doing tremendous good when we give through viral means, we are reminded of the pitfalls when people discover via the comment section that they’ve donated to a dodgy site. Similarly, the argument that we should do away with the foreign aid budget because it takes away from the taxpayer what they could otherwise give to charity as they see fit, is an irresponsible one. This once again disregards politics – the most tested and peaceful method of maximising the good.
I think our aversion to MPs is a historically understandable but a nonetheless paradoxical by-product of the left: MPs embody the state, and we toxify the state. We toxify the state less for what it does then because it is, and we seem to place goodness in and define morality as, inherently apolitical. Yet without the state the need to do good is improperly channeled, manifesting instead in some soft musical spirituality. Compare the popular songs of yesterdays, those which critically engaged in politics, to the public appetite now. Youtube the change-the-world song ‘All we do’ by Oh Wonder. It’s about charity, identity, personal acceptance, and living in spiritual harmony. As an old man in the music video says: “Once everybody starts looking at one another as a brother, a sister, a human being, beauty will spread like wildfire.” While seemingly innocuous, in practice this is a dangerously impossible statement which focuses exclusively on the individual and disregards what we must achieve as a collective.
It’s flapdoodle to me that this needs to be said – but it is almost as if heavyweight society has capitulated to featherweight anarchism. It’s become second nature to us to hold up artists as do-gooders and hold down politicians on hot-coals (this image is not intended to invoke ‘scrutiny’ – politicians need to be scrutinized, but they need to be scrutinised for being bad politicians rather than for being politicians in the first place). We hold up artists, the most selfish people in the world, as moral exemplars, while disparaging those who, for the most part, go into politics to do some good in the world and change people’s lives. Yes, then comes compromise; yes, and family; yes, and media management; yes, and bad days; yes, and ethical dilemmas; yes… but to suggest that the firey altruism dies in the eyes of the majority of our MPs is to have not looked into their eyes as youngsters. It is to misunderstand the profession. I’m sorry to say that society owes them much more than it does you or me, just as it owes such a debt to firemen, policemen, soldiers, civil servants, or anyone in a public profession. They do good and they do bad, and in this they are truly representative: they represent the best and worst of society. At their best though, they outperform the average-joe. Ex MP Andy Burnham annually donated 15% of his £155,000 salary to help eradicate rough sleeping in Greater Manchester. To think he did so solely, or even partially, for re-election, is unneeded cynicism. You’re welcome to your cynicism, but while you were sat on your lonesome being cynical, he was busy making a difference beyond the difference he already made in his day job. Beware cynicism, it’s a sure sign of an uneasy conscience.
How to, though?
It is often said of our western democracies that their worst fault is the way they overpromise to their electorates. Take the presidential elections in South Korea this year. All standing candidates promised to protect the fragile recovery of South Korea’s economy and bring down high youth unemployment. We should take it as given that each candidate genuinely wanted to alieviate youth unemployment. What would the ulterior motive be? Yet in promising to bring down unemployment these South Korean politicians promised something that successive previous candidates had promised and failed to deliver on. But maybe this time they did have the plan to do it – who can say with certainty that this time the winner wouldn’t deliver? Ah, but they should be realistic, tell it to us like it is, no pettifogging the issue please, tell us that while the plan might work, it might not, and even if it did work it would be hard, and consider also events… dear boy… events. Honesty is commendable, but when has it ever won an election? Honesty doesn’t win elections because we want what inane people celebrate as ‘the politics of hope’. We want to be told that things will get better. Not the truth, that things might get better. We suckle on certainties, we purge provisos. This is the crux of the matter. Given that, as has been argued thus far, most politicians genuinely believe their policies help people, what should we think of them if they weren’t to play up their policy ideas, when knowing not to do so was essentially to entertain an election defeat, an election defeat which would benefit nobody according to their view on policy. We are prisoners of our own expectations.
Even if overpromising isn’t the biggest flaw in our democracy (it isn’t) we must in any case claim ownership of this bad boil. How can we in good conscience hurl tomatoes when they don’t deliver on promises, if we simultaneously demand that they package hope itself into manifestos? We need to wise up to what politicians are capable of. In order to do this we must first begrudgingly admit to all the things they’ve already done for us. It’s as Reg says: “All right… all right… but apart from sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health… what have the Romans ever done for us?”