What are politicians for today? In Defence of a Different Politics
Scottish Review, March 9th 2016
For all my adult life, I have defended the potential of politics and politicians to aid a better world.
I have defended politics as the means to bring about change, for people to come together collectively and exercise power, and to aid the art of living together well. I have defended politicians as both a necessary evil – not all being the same and tarred with the same brush – and as people undertaking an activity in which many try their best.
I have stood up for politics and politicians against the taxi driver view of the world, the cynic’s perspective, and negativity – prevalent everywhere. In recent years, the actions of many politicians have not made advocating their case easy: the parliamentary expenses scandal, the banker’s crash followed by the war on the poor and vulnerable, and before that, the Iraq war to name glaring examples.
The clamour of denigration has grown. Publicly expressed beliefs that ‘they are all in it for themselves’, ‘they are all the same’ and ‘they will tell you anything to get elected’ has become the backdrop of most mainstream politics. While cynicism is unhealthy, it has become a byproduct of our dysfunctional semi-democracies which reinforce the shortcomings of politicians. Our collective disengagement from them mirrors their withdrawal from the public in all but the narrowest definition (trying to get our votes), as they become part of a self-contained power elite, along with corporate media, business and opinion formers.
Hatred of certain politicians hurts all politics. Thatcher and Blair have become villains in the UK; Blair, perhaps, more so as he has so few real friends and supporters left. Thatcher always had both admirers and detractors, and people believing that they knew where she was coming from – and going too.
In the US, Bill Clinton reached a new low of distrust, with Republicans regarding him as illegitimate because he won office on 43% of the vote in his first election, and then attempted impeachment when he gave them the chance. George W. Bush was similarly detested by many Democrats, aided by his election in 2000 by the Supreme Court, not voters, and post-Iraq tribulations. Obama was meant to offer a fresh start and hope, but soon became the target of ‘Birthers’, who denied that he was an American citizen.
These above developments in the UK and US have produced a more partisan, divided and bitter politics, one where trust has withered and legitimacy is a heavily fought over concept. Nearly everyone loses in this apart from vociferous, noisy zealots. The hatred thrown at national leaders such as Obama or Blair disorientates the judgment of not just the critics, but also the discourse of wider politics. We are all diminished by it.
The bigger questions which arise from the above are: what is politics for, and what are politicians for? Is it possible to make a cogent case for either which is positive and not unapologetic in today’s environment?
Bernard Crick in his classic book, ‘In Defence of Politics’ wrote: ‘Politics is a way of ruling divided societies without undue violence.’ Politics has to be about something nobler than it currently is. Talk of ‘the good society’ has become the default of pessimistic left-wingers in the UK and US, but this doesn’t work, for there are many visions, including of the democratic right such as Thatcher and Bush, as well as dictatorships who can invoke their own interpretation of ‘the good society’.
There is a crisis of traditional political parties. It isn’t an accident that the US Republicans are in such a mess, or that the Democrats are having such a constrained choice between an emergent dynasty (Clinton) and a democratic socialist outsider (Bernie Sanders).
Political party membership across the West is declining in numbers and activities – with exceptions: the SNP post-indyref, Corbyn’s Labour, even the smaller Green surge of the last year. But we don’t know how permanent these are, or if they are similar to the phenomenon of ‘flash parties’ in support.
Britain’s Conservative Party is literally disappearing as a membership party. No official membership figures have been issued since December 2013. The Scottish Conservatives, once the largest party of the country, are now so small that their recent annual conference was held in a room at Murrayfield. It was admittedly a large room with a couple of hundred people, but a room it nevertheless was.
On existing trends, Conservative officials say in a few years the party will have no British membership. Such a scenario doesn’t end the Tories. Instead, its future becomes a continuation of how it already does politics: financed by hedge funds, offshore accounts and international plutocrats, with all sorts of dirty money taken, no questions asked.
With no real members, the party will, as Michael Crick revealed on ‘Channel 4 News’, be reduced to bussing in paid party officials to by-elections and campaigns, and circumventing electoral law to do so. As Crick showed in two critical by-elections in 2014 and one contest in the 2015 election: Clacton, Rochester and Thanet South (all involving UKIP challenges):, the Tories deliberately ran campaigns which flouted the law and were dominated by professional, paid staff. This is not an isolated picture. Welcome to the future of the Tory Party.
Politicians as Legislators and Interpreters
The thinker Zygmunt Bauman, in his study of intellectuals, defined their activities in terms of ‘legislators’ and ‘interpreters’ – a helpful distinction to use in understanding modern politicians. Legislators believed change came through the formal act of politics, passing laws, making rules, and engaging in rational discussion. Interpreters embraced the soft, informal and discursive, offering advice, analysis and being more contingent. The first is about hard or institutional power, the second about soft, cultural and subjective power.
In Bauman’s analysis, the intellectual world has seen a shift from the first to the second – from a Fabian outlook based on laws, facts and reason, to one which is more fuzzy, argumentative and non-linear. This is often presented today as progress, but critically, the former had a championing of hope and the common good, which is mostly absent or in retreat in the contemporary world.
Politicians still see and present themselves as legislators and interpreters, but both are under increasing pressure and attack. Their role as legislators has become constrained by power in national Parliaments moving upwards to national leaders and executive power, to an extent, downwards, to the emergence of new regional and old national identities in new settings.
Power has also flowed away from conventional politics to corporate business and transnational bodies via globalisation. Then there is the increased role of referendums – once seen as ‘unBritish’, but now becoming more commonplace, frequently used at state and local level in the US, and part of the fibre of everyday Switzerland.
This has left them seeing themselves as interpreters, but this too is increasingly challenged. Knowledge and information are blurred by the decline of authority and expertise, with all of these terms in flux and ambiguous. What counts as fact is contested, but part of a wider set of arguments that involve alternative facts and figures, as happened in the Scottish referendum, and already evident in the Euro vote. ‘Just give us the facts’ cry voters, and are then offered a mix of what they see as no facts and an avalanche of rhetoric and confusion.
Some decry the rise of what they call ‘post-truth politics’. Jim Murphy floated this as his interpretation, post-indyref, of a Scotland that decided to turn its back on Labour. This met with ridicule from Nationalists, but it touches a wider shift, of how we talk calmly about contentious issues such as immigration and welfare. However you choose to describe Donald Trump and his candidacy for the Republican nomination, ‘post-truth politics’ captures something of it. And all of this has been aided by the decline of left and right ideologies, and the emergence of populism and identity politics.
The gap between the public and politicians has shifted. Last week I was watching ‘BBC Question Time’. It was the usual mixture of unsettling and frustrating, and a telling portrayal of the state of politics: a boorish UKIP woman, poor Labour and Tory politicians, a columnist and celebrity. A friend observed the following morning that over the years the gap between the audience and panel has been closing by the day to the point sometimes it is non-existent.
When the show began in 1979, the panel still had representatives of the great and good, the patrician class, and the generation who fought or remembered the war. Now they mostly represent career politicians, think tank types or commentators, and entertainers or comedians.
This observation is true of politics per se, but it isn’t the whole picture, for in other respects, a significant chasm has opened up between public and politicians. This can be seen in the emergence of the term ‘political classes’ in recent times, which conveys that politicians are ‘not like us’ and are ‘a breed apart’. Increasingly across the Western world, politicians have become an insider class, and it has become seen as a profession and vocation, rather than something citizens or people from ‘normal’ life do for a period with a sense of duty and pride, and of making a contribution.
This has led to anger about politicians being different from the rest of us, when they are meant to ‘represent’ us. How can they do this, when increasingly they are perceived to come from a cossetted class with advantage and privilege? How is it possible for politicians to grasp the choices and struggles of people if they have no real lived experience of struggling to balance a budget, about only being able to work in zero contract jobs or on benefits and needing to feed and clothe their children?
One argument of the last few decades saw the politics of ideas being replaced by the politics of presence: i.e. the need for politics and parliaments to look like the nations they were governing. This has had positives – in rising numbers of women and ethnic minority representatives – but on its own has become part of the above closing – of a official measurement of representation as ‘diverse’, the sort of thing found in metropolitan BBC charters; one of elites, Oxbridge and the middle class.
This culture of closing one gap and a widening other divide can be felt across politics. It offers at least three distinct futures. The first is of populism and the politics of blaming and shaming the most vulnerable, caricaturing economic and social loss to make people see themselves as victims, and doing so with a language of brutalism. This is the world of amongst others, UKIP, Marie Le Pen and Donald Trump.
The second approach is the system of politicians who try and adapt, learn, and ultimately, appease these forces, while retaining as much of the citizenship rights and humanity of the post-war settlement in its restricted recent model as they can or feel they have to. This has been the outlook of New Labour, the Cameroon Conservatives, and most mainstream European politics.
A different outlook would not only oppose on principle the first, but the inherent weaknesses in the second, and indicate that its constant retreat has fuelled the fire and anger of the first. It would bring forth a new politics of complexity, consideration, deliberation and deeper democracy. It would have a mixture of radicalness, humility and listening, and elements of it can be found across the Western world in the realities of the millennial political precariat, the reactions to Eurowide austerity, and in some of the currents of Scotland’s indyref. The first is about politicians as bloviators and actors; the second as managers and technicians; and the third, focused on a culture of facilitators and enablers.
Whatever happened to the promise of ‘new politics’?
Where does Scotland’s experience of nearly two decades of a devolved Parliament fit into this? Some would argue that Scotland’s politics doesn’t fit, because our politicians are close to the people, seem to be from it, and closer to access. However, that is only a small part of the story.
The Scottish Parliament came about in an age of anti-party politics and cynicism. Scotland wasn’t immune from this; the significant expectations about a Parliament in the early days weren’t a blind faith in politicians, but about the ‘idea’ of the Parliament and righting a democratic wrong.
One could ask what have the Scottish political classes achieved in nearly two decades – particularly with reference to leadership, political shaping and the framing of wider ideas? Where have been our leaders and what have they done? There is Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon who have normalised the SNP as a party of government, and the ‘idea’ of independence. No one for Labour and its eight leaders would feature: Dewar, McLeish, McConnell, Alexander, Gray, Lamont, Murphy and now Kezia Dugdale.
There are individual political entrepreneurs and operators: Tommy Sheridan, Margo MacDonald, Patrick Harvie and a few others. But what emerges is a picture of a political class which, although in some way ‘from the body politic’ of everyday Scotland, haven’t led, inspired or championed change. Instead, with the odd exception they have been administrators of local issues and micro-managers of parts of the system. Political change of any major kind this is not.
We are living through a political, economic and cultural interregnum. The class politics of the old left and right have declined and are no longer convincing. Strangely parts of the right have adapted to this better than the left, witness the widespread nostalgia on the left in the UK for 1945, the appeal of Corbyn, and in part of the left case for Scottish independence, all yearning for turning back the clock to some supposed golden age.
Political identification, identity and labels are changing. There is a decline of trust and deference which has an upside in it, a significant downside in its unpredictability, and a limit, as in the emergence of new elites and maintenance of old ones. There also needs to be a historical context. No age was one of complete obedience and all-powerful authority. As some counter-arguments have put it trust has often been a rare commodity: in 1944 at the end of the Second World War trust in UK politicians stood at a mere 35%, whereas in 2014 it stood at 19%.
In recent decades huge change has defined the world. There was the fall of the Berlin Wall, the economic crash of 2008-9, and the European refugee crisis of 2015-16. These epic historic events have brought three meta ideologies to collapse or the point of discredit: Communism, the neo-liberal revolution, and the European project.
The last two are still standing, but battered, bruised and shorn of much of their aura and shine. The coming tides of this year and the near-future, of this summer’s European and Middle Eastern humanitarian disaster and the coming economic storm which even the former Governor of the Bank of England Mervyn King thinks ‘certain’ will threaten and shake the last vestiges of belief in the European Union and neo-liberalism.
These massive, sometimes seemingly elemental changes often seem beyond the comprehension of modern day politics and politicians, but they are the creation of political decisions and indecisions, and can only be solved by action. Thus, the human cost of 1.2 million people registered for asylum status coming to Europe in 2015, and a similar number or more this year, has seen the European Commission and German Chancellor Angela Merkel try to find an orderly pan-European solution, which others have blocked. This has led to a mirror image of the Berlin Wall coming down, with the erecting of frontier fences and security walls marking a Fortress Europe (in a sort of mini-Trump wall).
This brings us back to the question what is politics and politicians for? After legislators and interpreters, and the rise and fall of the political classes, what can the future of politics look like? There is in the age of unpredictability the need to nurture a very different political and cultural practice, one which begins to think less of politicians and parliaments, and more about power and the three Vs: voice (in the Albert Hirschman sense of collective voice), vessels and values. This isn’t a politics of winning or trusting state power to ‘set the people free’, because it hasn’t delivered this anywhere in the world (even in the Nordics), but DIY culture and change and the potential of self-management and self-determination.
Nearly five decades ago Tony Benn, beginning his questioning of his own establishment credentials, quoted the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu:
As for the best leaders, the people do not notice their existence. The next best, the people honour and praise; the next the people fear; and the next the people hate. But when the best leaders’ work is done, the people say ‘we did it ourselves.’
That is the outline of a future politics and politician that is a 21st century vision: one applicable to the networked, non-hierarchical, collaborative, open source info-society, where the very notion of what is power, voice and economy – along with how we do employment, wealth and finance – are dramatically changing. This is the time to embrace the new and stop clinging to the wreckage of the old party system and the benign, all-wise leaders and political class. Freedom and liberation, along with learning and listening, have to become the clarion calls of tomorrow’s radicals.