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

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.

Class interests
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.

But maybe the Labour Party is the happy exception here? Its record on local planning scandals is certainly far healthier than those of the bigger parties. And it has given us figures of outstanding ethical vision and imagination, such as Michael D Higgins and Mary Robinson, though they have never been offered party leadership.

However, Eamon Gilmore could give lessons in amnesia to Rubalcaba. He told Marian Finucane he could not remember the precise names of parties he supported in the 1970s, perhaps because their ideologies and activities seem a tad embarrassing today. This lapse did not hurt him electorally, but it reflects the slithery approach to straight questions that discredits our political discourse.

And now he seems to have forgotten that he ever proclaimed the memorable slogan: “It’s Labour’s way or Frankfurt’s way”, just two years ago. Instead, he became a poster boy for the troika’s way, once the people, taking his rhetoric at face value, had propelled him to Government.

A century ago, Labour leader Jim Larkin famously told the dispossessed that “the great are only great because we are on our knees”. Gilmore and his colleagues appear to have entirely forgotten that Larkin then enjoined them to “arise”.

I think it is fair to say that most people believe that today’s Labour Party is much more interested in hanging on to the overpaid perks of office than in challenging the interests of “the great”. In other words, they have become fully paid-up members of the political class.

Honesty the worst policy?
That perception may do them some harm come election time. Or maybe it will not. Perhaps none of this matters very much. In a political culture where Michael Lowry is a folk hero, and Micheál Martin can speak as if he had never broken bread at Bertie Ahern’s cabinet table, maybe honesty is the worst policy. Maybe only hurlers on the ditch complain about the way the game is being played.

But perhaps it does matter, a great deal, especially when the moral failure of our political system is matched by its material failure on a heart-breaking scale.

Many fear that the broadly social democratic system stitched together after the second World War is sleepwalking towards some sort of collapse.

The grotesque failures of the utopian leftist movements of the last century, and of their dystopian counterparts on the right, leave little room for optimism about what might replace it.

Is it too late to hope that some of our politicians might still appreciate the urgency of genuinely renovating it?

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