Citizens must demand higher standards from political elite


OPINION:It will all happen again unless ordinary people change . . . and make our leaders change also, writes KENNETH McKENZIE

IT IS common for observers of Irish life to invoke a line from WB Yeats when they are stuck for an apt summary of a given situation. The economic, monetary and banking crises make references to poems appear insubstantial. Together, it is arguable the challenges we face amount to a second Emergency.

The central question is whether Ireland will emerge as recognisably the same nation-state and possess the same political culture after these crises have passed. Social scientists have two ways of understanding the world; the first is in predictive terms and the second, postdictive. In predictive science, we may forecast what will happen; in postdictive science, we may offer coherent explanations for why certain things happened as they did. Historians work postdictively when they identify contributions to historical outcomes. In all the commentary, analysis and reporting of the crises, there has been less said on how the crises will affect our way of running Irish life, of how our voting behaviour will alter, of how politicians and civil servants will be changed by what they have (not) learned since September 2008.

According to historians and political scientists, the period 1929-36 was responsible for a global 40-year impact on how citizens think and act politically, and the public policy stance of politicians. In each case, citizens and politicians were scarred by experiences which exerted a strong and lasting hold on future generations in how public policies are framed and implemented. Hyperinflation in Weimar Germany brought about a deep commitment by Germany to maintaining a stable deutschmark above all else. The Great Depression in the US motivated Franklin Roosevelt to engineer the New Deal; capitalism in the US was moderated to a form of welfare capitalism, ensuring a basic level of provision for all Americans. British politicians were compelled by mass unemployment to build job creation and the welfare state. A cross-party consensus that high levels of joblessness were to be avoided lasted until Margaret Thatcher was elected in 1979.

It is unlikely that the current economic situation will go on to have a 40-year impact. Enduring impacts, or realignments in politics, are rare events, and the maelstrom we are in now does not amount to a Great Depression in terms of mass impoverishment.

Understanding how attitudes and values are moulded, both among the typical citizen and the political elites, is instructive in trying to understand what may happen next to Irish political culture.

Much writing on the op ed pages of The Irish Times on political reform has been about what should happen; psychologists are more concerned with what are the aspects of human thinking and behaviour that constrain what will happen.

Psychologists have observed that growing up in hard times predisposes someone to becoming more materialist; not in a pejorative sense, but rather that the person will have a strong interest in tax-and-spend issues of government, and will prioritise financial security above all. Growing up in times of plenty predisposes someone to being postmaterialist, interested in things such as quality of life, and political issues, such as individual rights, that are inadequately measured by economic data. This prediction of how people are differently shaped according to the times they live in, is called a socialisation hypothesis.

Taking this way of thinking and applying it to political elites and citizens in Ireland is hard, but still worthwhile. For politicians and civil servants who were “socialised” in an era of clientelist politics, the overhang of the Civil War divide, and years of economic failure followed by a decade of a bubble, it is plausible they are not adequately modifiable in their thinking and behaviour to address what needs to be done. A protracted period of pro-cyclical fiscal policies and an asset bulge are not new political-economic features: even the film Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps refers to the Dutch Tulip Bubble of the 17th century.

How have standard facts and principles from economic history not been internalised by our rulers and advisers? It has been plain for some time that counter-cyclical policies to moderate economic patterns are essential: will this be the new accepted thinking in Government Buildings?

What will the top people in the Department of Finance think about their own skillsets and their own performance when they have to negotiate with the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank, and will the Civil Service put in place a new structure for sourcing economic expertise? Can the current Government self-reflect and see what needs to be changed in their own understanding of and actions related to the economy? Will citizens recognise that they ignored warnings from well-placed figures that this would end badly?

The socialisation of all our politicians leaves them ill-equipped for an economy that is technically sophisticated and transnational, ensuring that they simply did not understand what was happening during the Celtic Tiger, and how it would end. But a fundamental shift in how politics plays out in Ireland will not happen unless citizens become more questioning and vote against those who remain economically ignorant.

George Orwell, in The Lion and the Unicorn, written in 1940 when Britain was engaged in a war they were hopelessly ill-prepared for, observed: “War is the greatest of all agents of change. It speeds up all processes, wipes out minor distinctions, brings realities to the surface. Above all, war brings it home to the individual that he is not altogether an individual.”

It is possible (although not probable) that the reams of analysis of economics, brought to a new audience through television panels and social media, will remould Irish citizens in one aspect at least that they will internalise the hard lesson that we will all now pay for forgetting that unsustainable booms are actually predictable. If they demand that the political elites, and by elites I mean our civil servants and our politicians, “resocialise” themselves to adopting evidence-based economic management, then the crisis will have changed Ireland enduringly. If the people don’t make this demand, then Ireland will not change meaningfully.

Kenneth McKenzie is a social psychologist post- doctoral researcher at University College Dublin