Politicians should stop showing shame at their own existence
UK Politics: Self-abasing political leaders invite only more disdain from disaffected electorate
British prime minister Theresa May and members of her front bench react as Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn speaks during Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons. Photograph: PA Wire
Lodged between last year’s general election and next year’s scheduled exit from the EU, 2018 might serve as a breather for British politics. Unless Theresa May falls as prime minister, it will be the first year in five that voters have not been asked to decide a big constitutional question or the make-up of the government. The real work will take place in private: the second phase of exit negotiations; the continuing efforts to secure Britain against mortal threats.
As well as rest, the political class might use this interval to wonder where a decade of apologetic retreat has got them. In 2008, Britain lost 6 per cent of its economy, and its politicians lost a rather greater share of their reputation. The subsequent scandal over parliamentary expenses disgraced them even more with its baroque detail of waterborne duck houses.
Fiscal cuts, economic torpor and Brexit have poisoned the atmosphere in which they work. In retrospect, the fact of the referendum was as telling as the result. By demoting elected representatives, it was both the culmination of years of anti-politics and the precedent for more.
Some of this reduction in their prestige was needed. Last year’s stories of sexual harassment in politics would have gone unheard in a deferent age. A more demanding citizenry, less grateful for small mercies than the postwar generation, might lead to better public services over time. The Burkean ideal of the magisterial representative has run its course.
All the same, there is a difference between scepticism of authority and nihilism. A political class that is held in check by press and public cannot abuse its power. A political class under round-the-clock siege, of whom the worst is always thought, cannot function.
The question raised in the 1970s by then prime minister Ted Heath is pertinent once more: who governs? At least the unions that challenged political authority at the time had a coherent (if self-serving) intent. The modern challenge is ideologically disparate or not ideological at all: just inchoate grievance, united only by a view of mainstream politics as a conspiracy against the people.
This has given us the conveniently one-sided view of elite power in which the crash was the fault of the ruling class but the previous 15 years of economic expansion just fell from a tree. It takes a lot for granted – order, low unemployment, the secular drop in crime – except the goodwill of those who rule us.
In 1963, the US scholars Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba published a study that would influence political science for the rest of the century. In The Civic Culture, a comparative analysis of five countries, they concluded that the British, even more than Americans, had the right balance of democratic assertiveness and deference to government.
The first by itself is not enough. A sort of vigilant trust is more like it. Anyone doing the same field research now might find this equilibrium – this propensity to vote, lobby but also to defer – had passed to somewhere such as Germany or Canada, with Britain tipping too far one way.
Politicians should be clear that government is about more than communing with the people
To ask voters to rediscover their mid-20th-century habits is to throw so many petals into the storm. But politicians can change their own response to anti-politics. Abjection only invites more disdain. After instances of genuine wrongdoing, there must be a reckoning – and jobs lost.
Less necessary, however, is the wider self-abasement, the constant listening and learning, the unwinnable contest to be the most in touch, which has displaced technical competence as a credential for high office. Above all, politicians should not try to turn anti-politics in their favour. Even when one pulls it off, as May did for a while, it raises impossible expectations that claim them in the end, while further fouling the atmosphere for the rest.
In place of abjection: candour. Politicians should be clear that government is about more than communing with the people. It requires a degree of separateness from the fray. The reason we have infrastructure, competitive markets and other glories we take for granted is that leaders in the past withstood short-term infamy with a view to the larger good. They knew the advantage of being a little bit out of touch.
Near the end of 2017, 11 Conservative MPs braved certain abuse to vote with the opposition on a Brexit matter. Ministers criticised internet companies, and by extension their sense of untouchability by mere governments. Rebuttals of fake news strengthened, too.
You can disagree with the substance of these actions but still take heart from signs of a political class moving beyond shame at its own existence. Let 2018 bring more. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018