17 February 2007

Do we want politicians of principle?

The discussion on what it is we are fighting for seems to be going on extremely well on the forum. There will, I expect, be a part 2 from me and, if our readers are particularly unlucky, part 3 as well.

Predictably, as soon as I posted the screed or rant I remembered many other points I wanted to raise but either forgot or found no room for. Some of them are being raised by our readers and some remain in my head until I post them on the blog.

One point, not necessarily the most important but one that is continuously brought up, is that of the personality of politicians. There is, clearly, a problem with the ones we have but does anybody really know how to solve it through personality changes?

It is, of course, very frustrating to see the political world of Westminster become packed by nothing but professional politicians. The House of Commons has virtually reached that stage, the various think-tanks are packed with young people who do not want to go out into the big bad world and the only chink of light is the House of Lords where people sit either because they have achieved something (often in politics, alas) or while they keep down other jobs and interests. For that they get abused but, as it happens, they are closer to the population of the country as a whole.

As it happens, most politicians have always been professional politicians but until they started receiving their ever higher salaries, this fact had to be disguised by private income or employment as a journalist, lawyer or, very rarely, businessman.

One must admit that the perennial cry of “we want more successful businessmen at the high levels of politics” is unmitigated tosh. Running a business is not the same as being a politician and there is no particular evidence that businessmen, however good they are at making money or, more likely, rising within the corporate structure, understand anything about politics of economics.

Think of the businessmen we have seen dabbling in politics recently: Archie Norman, Lord Sainsbury, Lord Levy. Not a very edifying spectacle for various reasons.

What of the notion that Ministers should have had experience in the field they are lording it over? The suggestion was, I believe that the Secretary for Health should have started as a nurse and gone on to doing all sorts of medical matters. Fine, though why a nurse should know anything about the health service as a whole is not clear.

But what happens when the said Secretary is shifted to transport or education? What use will the medical experience be then?

The point of our system is that it is politicians who become ministers not experts. The expertise is supposed to lie with the permanent civil service who do not change with elections and with outside advisers ministers might consult or employ. Advisers advise and ministers decide.

There are many advantages to this system and a number of disadvantages, the latter having become a good deal more important. The most obvious disadvantage is that it gives enormous powers to the civil service and as we now have governance by management not by politics, that power is almost impossible to control. Civil servants have an agenda of their own and, if in position to do so, will implement it.

Another disadvantage of government consisting of parliamentarians, that is politicians, is the poverty of the gene pool. There is no particular reason, constitutionally speaking why the Prime Minister should not allocate one of the great offices of state or important positions to someone in the House of Lords but it would be decried as being “undemocratic”, democracy being equated with elections in too many people’s minds.

Worst of all, this system does not provide us with true separation of powers or with checks and balances. Parliamentary supremacy, in effect the supremacy of the party that has won the elections to the House of Commons is little more than elected dictatorship, particularly within the flexible constitution that this country has had over the centuries.

There are other systems. The American President is elected separately from Congress and appoints his cabinet according to his own wishes (soon it may be according to her own wishes). Other countries have other ways of electing or appointing leaders. There is a good deal to be said for a Prime Minister being elected separately from the House of Commons and being able to appoint ministers outside it. But until we have such a system we are going to have Secretaries for Health who probably have never worked in a hospital or a doctor’s surgery.

As it happens when we did have a Secretary for Education who had been a teacher, the result was an unmitigated disaster in the form of Gillian Shephard. Someone who is thick with the teachers’ unions is the last person we want to run our education system. (Now that I think of it, any politician is the last person we want to run our education system.)

Then again, do we want a professional diplomat to be our Foreign Secretary?

Which brings me to my last point (for the time being) and that is the question of integrity in politicians. What do we actually want from them? To be like us or to be above us in any intellectual and moral sense?

As various stories of the DPP and the Attorney General having affairs with younger lawyers hit the papers there is a good deal of tut-tutting, often from people whose own private lives would not bear too much scrutiny. Even more tut-tutting comes from people who have somehow decided that nothing like this could have happened in the past.

The only thing that would not have happened in the past was the newspaper exposés. There was just as much infidelity and sexual misdemeanour in the past. The clothes were nicer.

In any case, does it matter that a politician or the Director of Public Prosecution has an affair? Is it not more important that these people get appointed for the dubious reasons that they are chummy with the Prime Minister’s wife or have set up chambers with her?

At this point I had better explain why I do not think the Lord Goldsmith story, about to hit the newsstands is of any importance while Ruth Kelly sending her child to private school is.

Really, it is very simple. Ruth Kelly is part of a government that actively prevents the vast majority of the population from having any choice whatsoever. To its eternal shame the Party Formerly Known As Conservative seems to share these opinions.

In those circumstances the politicians’ own behaviour does matter. Sending their own children into the private sector indicates that they do believe in individual choice – for themselves and those rich enough to afford one. The rest of us can go to hell in a handcart educationally speaking.

All right, let us limit integrity to just politics and not personal behaviour, which is still very hard to define. If we start testing people before they go into politics we really are not going to get anyone except sad dysfunctional weirdos.

In any case, integrity about what? Political parties are necessarily coalitions of several shades of opinion, often widely apart, that coincide on some basic general idea. In the process of fighting elections, possibly winning them and forming a government or fighting that government from the opposition benches, a good many compromises have to be made.

What would happen if they were not made? Nothing much. We would have a parliament that resembled nothing so much as a particularly badly behaved primary school. (Oh wait, that is exactly what we do have in the Commons quite frequently.) It would not be a political system and there are times when we need one.

Clearly, when we say political integrity we mean on a few important issues. Unfortunately, we cannot stop there. Even on those issues, integrity might not be very popular and yet we are told, often by the same people, that politicians should listen to the electors and follow their instruction. What if a particular politician is firmly convinced that the people who elected him or her are completely wrong on some important issue? Where does integrity lie then?

Let me go back to Edmund Burke, he, whose portrait graces this posting. In 1774 he was elected to be Member for Bristol, a position he loved and relished. In April 1778 he found that his strongly held principles that trade should be opened up to Ireland on the same terms as it was in England displeased his electors, the good burghers of Bristol.

During his correspondence with one of his most prominent supporters, Samuel Span, of the Society of Merchant Adventurers, he tried to persuade him that free trade would benefit Bristol as well, because it would benefit the whole of the Kingdom.

In one of the letters he outlined how he saw the role of an elected representative and it is not one that will appeal to many people even now:
Certainly, gentlemen, it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him, their opinions high respect, their business unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasure, his satisfactions, to theirs – and above all, ever and in all cases to prefer their interest to his own.

But his unbiased opinion, his mature judgement, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure – no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.
Burke, incidentally, was a professional politician, earning his money by serving various political nobles and writing pamphlets.

I imagine many people, reading those stirring words will say that few if any of our modern politicians have unbiased opinions, mature judgement or enlightened conscience. In fact, they seem to have acquired the worst of all worlds – not having any integrity of their own but not listening carefully to the electors either.

For all of that, the problem of what constitutes politics of integrity remains. Burke, eventually found that he could not expect to win in Bristol and withdrew from the election of 1780. Luckily for him and the country, he was returned within a few months for the borough of Malton which was more or less in the Marquess of Rockingham’s gift.

It was, perhaps, the American Founding Fathers who understood the conundrum most clearly. You need people of good intent and honest politics but you cannot rely on them alone. They, too, need to be constrained within structures.