Friday, 1 July 2011

Time to lay off Nick Clegg?

Instinctively, no.

But I ask the question after listening to a simply magnificent philosophy paper by my friend and fellow union activist Cecile. She asked two simple questions:
1. Do the public demand a higher morality from politicians?
2. Should they?

Her response - closely argued - was yes, and no. Yes, 'we' demand a higher standard of personal and professional judgement, and 'no', because the scope, type and consequences of politicians' decision-making is philosophically no different to other spheres. The giant supermarket's sourcing decisions can transform millions of peoples' lives for better and worse. Violence is not reserved to the state other than legally. Other people are equally in the public sphere. Impartiality is not necessarily the same as justice.

I have two points to make on this one, though I do agree with the main thrust of the paper.

1. How do we know what the public wants? I know what Polly Toynbee wants. I know all too clearly what the editors of the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph claim that the public wants. But these publics are selective at best and imaginary at worst. Furthermore, a second's thought reveals that what a person says they want and what they really want can be a long way apart. Every poll says that we want more nurses, teachers and hospitals. Every election reveals that we don't want to pay for them. (Not me by the way. I like tax and the things it brings). We all perform a version of ourselves edited to match social expectations. OF course we say we want a moral political class - but nobody ever read Alan Clark's diaries for his account of everyday life in the MoD.

2. Secondly: my Occam's Razor approach to the question of whether we should expect a higher moral standard from our politicians is that we should because they ask us to. Every appeal from a politician to vote for them, trust them or believe in them is predicated on the promise that they are capable of behaving in a moral fashion.

We all know that this is a massive lie. But that shouldn't mean that we let them off the hook. We should expect them to make the effort, and we should hold them to account when they fail. If they make unattainable promises ('an ethical foreign policy' - for which I yearned without every expecting to happen - springs to mind, or John Major's 'back to basics'), let's use these promises as a big stick with which to beat them.

Like most people, I'm a lazy, backsliding, oafish creature. I don't want to be governed by people like me. I want to be governed by people not swayed by a neat line, not tempted by another hunk of cheese or one more pint, or a flash of a stocking. Of course, rule by saints would be oppressive and cruel (e.g. the Commonwealth), but a gesture in the right direction would be nice.

This, dear reader, is why I've spent the past year haranguing Mr. Paul Uppal, my mediocre MP. He stood for election on the basis that he thought he was the 'best person' for the job. HE raised expectations, not me. He has consistently failed in his public duty and personal qualities, behaving in a dishonest, disingenuous and selfish fashion at every turn. In a sense, I prefer the old-fashioned Tories. Alan Clark et al. never mentioned morality. They never claimed to behave morally. Thatcher never claimed to be acting in the best interests of society. They announced that they were going to impoverish the many for the benefit of their friends, and proceeded to do so. That so many people were fooled into voting for them was our fault and our downfall. There was an honesty in the Old Tories' rapacious selfishness which is far more respectable than the honeyed humbug of our smooth-tongued and no less evil New Tories.

Should we expect morality from our politicians? The difference between them and other sections of society is that they make a point of proclaiming it.

If they promise it, we should expect it.

(And if nobody aspires to a higher morality - however defined - we'll never get one).


aleclanglois said...

I think it was Willi Brandt who said:
"We are reponsible for our actions when we could with some thought have known or guessed the consequences of them.

But politicians,since their actions necessarily effect others are responsible for all their actions even when the consequences of them could not have been foreseen".

The Plashing Vole said...

I really like that Brandt line.

However, the presenter's point was that all sorts of other groups act in ways which effect others (e.g. supermarket buyers screwing down prices on farmers), so we should perhaps all be held to a higher moral standard, rather than making politicians a special case. It's an interesting argument.