In politics individuals are expendable. Political institutions are not. It seems almost compulsory for any book which tackles the subject of voter disengagement to write that while turnout is ever declining, faith in democracy as a principle remains stable. People remain loyal to politics because they know that without it, no matter how bad some individual politicians may behave we would all suffer.
This is despite the assault that politics has had to struggle against from the academic world, the popular press, and from depictions in theatre and television. From academia there is the charge that we should treat people in public life the same way as we would someone in their private life. Politicians are just as selfish as any of us, and there is no-one out there who wouldn’t admit to that, perhaps even a minor crime here or there. According to them because they are so prone to the same self-interested behaviour we should dismantle politics entirely. They are backed up by the entertainment industry who in their laziness takes the easy option of depicting all elected officials as the same. Ian Hislop seems to believe that declaring that all politicians are corrupt with a self-satisfied smirk is a punch line in itself.
Safe humour for those who want the comfort of detaching themselves from the responsibility of politics. Dangerous
because this detachment allows politics to be hijacked by those who are indeed only looking out for their own gain, knowingly or otherwise.
This is where the profession of journalism comes in. Because of a lack of continuous engagement from the public in judging the probity of politicians it is them who instead wield the power over who stays and goes. Poll the people of Eastleigh whether they really cared that Chris Huhne asked Vicky Pryce to take his speeding points for him and
it barely registers on their radar, which was shown when the Lib Dems kept their seat. People are willing to forgive politicians for things they are willing to succumb to themselves. He was also regarded to have done an excellent job in pursuing environmental concerns in his brief.
On the other hand if you were willing to ask about Jeremy Hunt’s dealings with the Murdoch Empire you would find they would be a lot less forgiving. Despite his alleged corruption he was not only spared, but moved into a greater position of power now he is Health secretary. The difference is Huhne was hounded by the tabloid press, and Hunt was not. One has his career and personal life destroyed, and the other has cemented his position in public life. It is because we are all too willing to tarnish all politicians with the same brush that knaves are allowed to survive. Ironically is the tabloid press, one of the least trusted institutions, who deems who we should and shouldn’t trust.
The question we have to ask isn’t whether we should hold politicians to the same or even higher moral standards of the rest of us, but whether we’re willing to expend the energy to hold them to account ourselves. To reward those who we consider to be acting honestly in the public good, sometimes even forgive those who have faltered, and to punish the unforgiveable. Sometimes we can go too far in forgiveness. The women involved in the recent Lord Rennard allegations were certainly able to forgive for a time. What was unusual about the case was how long the allegations took to arise after the fact. They were willing to let something go for the party which they considered in the longer term would light in their interests. The reappointment of Rennard showed that they were wrong, and to their credit they have taken the party to task for the crimes against them. The Telegraph had known about these allegations before the 2010 election, but couldn’t use them because the women were not willing to make public statements against the party. This case demands that we collectively decide what we are willing tolerate in politics.
Politicians may well be prone to the same selfish behaviour as the rest of us in our private lives, but that doesn’t mean we can give up on politics. They may well have inconsistent desires, but this simply means as citizens we must be vigilant in holding them to account, sometimes by being brutal in disposing of them. After all, individuals are expendable. Secondly we must craft political institutions which make it difficult to succumb to temporary weakness of the will. They will last a long time after we are all dead.