Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Talking Politics

I'm trying to avoid politics at the moment, which is a bit difficult when there's General Election in full swing. It might also seem a strange thing for someone who has a degree in politics and sometimes teaches politics to say. But quite apart from the fact that this particular election campaign has singularly failed to engage me, the level of public discourse on it is dismal. The public seem to have been locked into a mindset of hating politics and politicians and consequently dismissing them as being 'all the same'. Which, of course, misses the point. Ultimately, elections aren't about who promises what in their manifestos. Manifestos mean little, anyway. Governments can't be held to any of the promises made in them, (for good reason, governments are hostages to fortune, unforeseen events will always conspire to confound the plans of any government). No, elections are about choosing a government, it means deciding what political philosophy we want to have guiding our public life for the next five years. What principles we believe should underpin our society. Now, I'll conceded that in recent years it has often seemed that there isn't that much to distinguish the two main parties, that both have, at times, seemed equally unprincipled. But that would be to perpetuate a gross misrepresentation of British politics.

There is still a clear difference in underlying philosophy between Labour and Conservatives. The Conservatives are still the party of privilege, promoting the interests of big business and the powerful. It still puts profit and self interest ahead of social responsibility and the welfare of the underprivileged. Deep down, Labour is still the party of the less well off, champions of the exploited and powerless. Sure, they made some wrong turns in the Blair years, supporting reckless foreign military adventures, pursuing a pointless 'War on Terror' and spending too much time trying to cosy up to big business. But they delivered on other issues, such as the minimum wage and funding the NHS. There are definitely areas where they must do better, such as human rights and education. But I'm confident that the party's core principles will always draw it back on course. OK, party political broadcast over and on to an issue which has really been troubling me of late. In virtually every discussion of politics I hear, whether in the pub or on TV, there seems to be a growing tendency for the public to try and distance themselves from the actions of politicians, blaming the state of society solely upon 'them', the politicians, as if 'we', the electorate have no responsibility for them. The reality is that they are our servants, not the other way around. However, the sad fact is that we get the politicians we deserve. They only gain power because we vote for them, and they often gain those votes by appealing to our basest instincts.

I really am tired of hearing people moaning about the 'obscene' bonuses paid to bankers, the 'outrageous' pay of footballers and the 'ridiculous' expenses claimed by MPs. The only reason we ended up living in a society that allowed these things to happen is because, back in 1979, we listened to Thatcher when she told us that naked self-interest was actually good for the country, that the pursuit of profit without regard for its consequences was desirable and that the acquisition of material possessions was the only meaningful measure of success and happiness. By voting her in and further endorsing her in 1983 and 1987, the country was legitimising those bonuses, those expenses claims and Wayne Rooney's wages. You only have yourselves to blame. You all wanted that piece of prosperity she promised and happily agreed with her that anything which stood in the way of getting it - credit controls, financial regulation, spending on public services - should be bulldozed out of the way. It was your naked greed which put the Labour party in the position of effectively having to embrace the world of finance and deregulation and self interest, in order to gain power in 1997. Trust me, the collapse of the banks, the recession, the whole lot - you are just as much responsible for it as the bankers, financiers and politicians are.

Let's not forget, we do have the power to hold politicians to account, at every level, from local councils to parliament, through the ballot box. It's all very well to moan on about politicians, but when was the last time you attended a council meeting? Or one of your MP's regular constituency 'surgeries'? Indeed, did even bother voting at all in the last election, local or national? Of course, the problem was that throughout the 1980s and 1990s and into this century, we were all too busy pursuing our own private accumulation of wealth, that we didn't bother asking the pertinent questions of our representatives, or try to hold them to account. Just so long as they told us what we wanted to hear, we kept endorsing them. So, next time you are at the polling station, before you cast that vote, think long and hard about exactly what it is you are voting for, what kind of world do you want to live in. It's your responsibility.

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