European politics suffering crisis of public confidence
Our political system is widely perceived as enriching politicians, not as a means of advancing the common good
A protester holds a sign during a demonstration demanding the resignation of Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy at the People’s Party regional headquarters in Valencia. Photograph: Reuters/Heino Kalis
The spectre of corruption haunts not only leading European politicians; it haunts the whole European body politic.
Now it’s the turn of Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy to turn on the spit as a former close confidante drip-feeds the media with incendiary documents, apparently implicating almost the entire Spanish conservative leadership in personal graft.
Allegations about individual corruption are dramatic and hog the news. But systemic corruption is much more threatening. In Spain, there is mounting evidence that government policy, especially on banking and construction, was long dictated by the illegal funding of Rajoy’s Partido Popular (PP) – by bankers and developers. Sounds familiar.
Naturally, the Socialist Party (PSOE) opposition is outraged, demanding resignations and so on. To listen to its leader, Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, is to remember that amnesia is a great asset in contemporary politics.
Can this be the same Rubalcaba who, two decades ago, robustly defended Felipe González’s PSOE governments against a deluge of intertwined dirty war and corruption allegations, many of them proved in court? Whose colleagues used to crow that corruption was just the oil that greases the wheels of economic development and modernisation?
Well yes, it is. But Rubalcaba’s flip-flop between protecting the fleshpots of power and seizing the high moral ground has become the norm in Spanish politics. The real ethical standards of the big parties, of right and left, seem identical, and identically low. Only the rhetoric varies, depending on whether a party is in government or opposition.
When I first began to write about Spanish politics, back in the 1970s, I remember being puzzled to hear the phrase la clase política – the “political class” – frequently used in discussions.
I felt inclined to reject its implications. My college Marxism, such as it was, had taught me that social classes were economic groups with conflicting interests. Politicians might represent different class interests, but they were hardly a class in themselves.
Today, I begin to wonder. So, it seems, do many Spaniards and many Europeans. Our political system is now widely perceived as a machine for enriching politicians, not as a vehicle for agreeing and serving the common good.
This is not a good situation in Spain, a country that only emerged from dictatorship in the 1970s, especially with its soaring youth unemployment and eviction rates. It’s not a good situation anywhere.
Italy is just one other obvious example, and a deeply depressing one. In the heady era of Tangentopoli, when the rotten hearts of Christian Democrat and Socialist Party politics were exposed, there was a brief moment when renewal seemed possible. And then came Silvio Berlusconi.
It goes without saying that we are intimately familiar with these issues on our home ground. Remember Charlie Haughey and Ray Burke.
True, Fine Gael still trails behind FF in these matters. But there is enough evidence from local council planning scandals to suggest that this is not so much due to a difference in ethics as a difference in opportunity. FG has spent much fewer years in national office than FF.