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Restoring trust – how?

IPSOS Mori’s poll on trust in politics at the end of May should surprise no-one. 3/4 said that Britain’s system of government needed improvement — the most negative view since Mori started asking the question in 1995. At 20%, less than half the number of people believe that the Westminster parliament is doing its job, as compared with the last time they asked the question in 2001. 76% of people do not trust MPs to tell the truth. 62% believe that MPs put their own interests ahead of party, constituents and country — again, the worst that Mori has ever recorded. 2/3 think that MPs use power for their own personal gain. Even so, 80% believe that the system of expenses was to blame, not just the politicians.

52% of people were prepared to vote for a candidate not caught up in the scandal, even if that meant voting against the party they want to win the election.

It’s not hard to see how we got to where we are. But the question is: how do we get away?

Given that only 1 in 4 people have said they trusted MPs in general to tell the truth, and this figure has stayed fairly constant since pollsters began asking the question, we could perhaps say that it is inevitable that voters don’t trust politicians. But this is clearly not universal. 51% of Americans think Obama’s leadership is excellent or good, and 47% think his ethics are excellent or good.

Are the British naturally more cynical than Americans? Most of the world — we are given to understand — still believes British democracy to be above par on its ethics and honesty. Or do they simply believe this because they just don’t pay as much attention to it as we do?

Certainly, right now, everyone who wants to distrust politicians (that is, 3/4 of us) can find lots of evidence for it. But, as Mori points out, even before the scandal, approximately the same number of people still distrusted politicians. It is therefore clear that it is something other than our observation of what politicians do that sows our distrust.

It was said of King John that nobody trusts a man who trusts nobody.

This struck me deeply when I heard it on Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time during the run up to the Euro elections. No-one trusts a man who himself trusts no-one. The more I consider it, the more I am compelled to believe that it is the culture of sowing distrust, innuendo, constant attacks on the character of opponents, and, worse, constant mocking, that makes all politicians (including those who don’t indulge in this, because all are tarred by association) appear to be untrusting, and therefore untrustworthy.

And yet, and yet. If we were to say that politicians were not allowed to be in conflict with each other, and to point out each other’s failings, then we would have no debate, and no means of holding government to account. The duty of opposition is to oppose, and it is one of the things which holds us back from tyranny.

So, are we therefore left with a choice: either our politicians by their behaviour will forever command our distrust, or, by their silence, will appear to earn our trust while, in truth, betraying it? This is a truly Shakespearian conundrum.

The answer, surely, is that there is a middle way. We are now engaged in a national process of hand wringing about standards in public life in relation to expenses. But it would not be beyond our power as a nation to start imposing standards on the the discourse of MPs. It was two elections ago that the Advertising Standards Authority threw its hands up and ceased to police political advertising. You can now, in a very real sense, say anything you want on a political poster, and get away with it. But the imposition of a standard of debate both in and outside the chamber of the House of Commons is something which could be done, and, for that reason, should and must be done.

At the moment, the only thing which limits a politician’s ability to make any accusation they want is the risk of being found out later on.

We are expecting the new Speaker of the House of Commons to reform members’ expenses. But we should also expect and require the Speaker to reform the standard of debate.

We, the electorate, should also seek to vote, in the new parliament, for new MPs who will not stop at nothing to obtain and maintain power. In this, in the past, we have signally failed, and we should therefore, collectively, accept a large part of the responsibility for the politicians we have elected. Because, ultimately, the electorate does not necessarily get the government it wants, but it always, collectively, gets the government it deserves.

A house divided

Prescott — Miliband claims ‘divide Labour’ (BBC)
Gordon Brown’s Labour Party is a shadow of Tony Blair’s. Blair ran his party with a combination of charisma, implied promises, and the fear of missing out. Brown doesn’t so much run Labour as survive it. He is the eternal Mr Bean of British politics: no matter how hard he tries, things just keep happening to him.
People are beginning to remember Tony Blair with fondness — something no-one would have expected two years ago.

But, strangely, the bumbling honesty of Gordon Brown (despite his alleged ‘dark heart’, whatever that is supposed to be), is the exact antidote to the Blair spin machine that everyone wanted while we were all being Campbelled and Mandlesoned.

Once again, the public knows what it wants — until it gets it. At that point, it wants what it had before.

But there’s a serious point here. No matter what the home-spun virtues of Brown’s ‘what you see is what you get’ government — generally what you see is a comedy of chaos — a house divided can in no sense stand. Blears, Smith and Flint (the window-dressing trio) have caused him no end of harm. Milliband(s) have not really helped. Mandelson’s leaked email from earlier in the year has hardly improved things.

So, which would you rather have? Or perhaps neither. It’s interesting to see how Cameron is modelling himself on Blair and presenting himself as Blair’s true spiritual successor. But do we really want to go back to the Blair years? Even Blair-lite?

Margaret Thatcher changed British politics for ever. Not through her (in my opinion) authoritarian economic policy, nor (though its impact on society was profoundly damaging) her exaltation of greed, but through the dismantlement of the power of the civil service. The rise of special advisers — political servants of the party in power, paid for by the taxpayer — has brought a different shape to politics, and a particular cycle of power.

Before Thatcher, a prime minister could lose office, go back into opposition, win again, and remain an MP afterwards. Since Thatcher, this has become unthinkable. The cycle of government is now as follows: landslide victory, confident beginning, in-term change of direction, in order to ensure a second or even third victory, but, as an inevitable consequence of increasingly opportunistic policy change, a collapse of the authority of the prime minister, ending in the reign of a new, weak figure, who can neither lead his own party nor inspire the nation. Thatcher to Major is exactly replicated in Blair to Brown.

I am not suggesting that we should try to go back to the days of Harold Wilson and Edward Heath. Times have moved on. But we must do something to avoid the destructive cycle of Thatcher-Major and Blair-Brown. Major’s term and Brown’s coincided with economic recession. The confidence of Thatcher and Blair had as much to do with the rising world economy during their time in office as with anything they did themselves. They were confident times, and the nation found it easy to believe that things could get better.

Our boom and bust economy is not an inevitable consequence of the world economic cycles. But it is an inevitable consequence of governments who exploit all the power of the state — power beyond anything available to a mere prime-minister in the pre-Thatcher days — to hold on to power to the very last moment possible.

In the Major years we believed that his problems were down to his perilously narrow majority, which made him vulnerable to every back bench rebellion. But threatened men can live long. Brown still has an enormous majority, and yet can barely command his own cabinet reshuffle.

Labour is tired-out, completely exhausted by its efforts to maintain power at all costs. But Cameron, for all his promises of reforming politics, really has no ambition beyond emulating his heroes Thatcher and Blair — acquiring power as firmly as possible, and then husbanding a diminishing majority over two, perhaps three terms.

As Britain, we do not need to play this game, and we cannot afford to. With each cycle, engagement in politics among the electorate drops dramatically, and interest in extremist, sometimes anti-democratic, parties grows.

I could play the Liberal-Democrat card and say that the problem is our electoral system. There is some truth in that. But the much greater problem is the ambition of our politicians.

And, in the mean time, the house that Tony built, and his successors divided like Alexander’s generals, cannot stand, if it remains thus divided.

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