Funny little country that we are, it seems ever so unnatural to make heard — with anything more than a barely audible tut and an exaggerated look to the heavens — our discontent about something or, God forbid, somebody else. Even our gesticulation is pretty amateurish when compared to the zeal with which our cousins on the continent display their disgruntlement. For so long have we used our implicit politeness as the punch line to our self-deprecation that it ought to have worn off. By and large, however, that is not so, as this act of endearment seems to be of far more value than our asking for what we want, which is too embarrassing a chore.
Nevertheless, social conventions are there to be broken and we Brits are more than happy to smash ours to pieces when it comes to highlighting exactly what we think of the political elite. In short, we love to criticise them. In fact, so do most people from most countries about most of their politicians. Here, though, I shall concentrate on the British question alone.
From their stance on EU membership to the way they tackle bacon sandwiches, attacking politicians is a sport played universally and relentlessly on these shores. The problem is that this sort of activity is of no value to our political system and is only serving to drive a greater wedge between politicians and those who elect them.
Perhaps the real issue is that we don’t really know what we want from our leaders. Intelligence, of course; strength, naturally; honesty, most of the time; but humanity, only if it doesn't include the imperfection that goes with the territory. We want them to be calm under continual examination and in possession of all genres of knowledge — they must be familiar with the price of a pasty and also well acquainted with the policies of foreign leadership. We want them to be meticulous, experienced and compassionate all at once but are unforgiving when they fail to do right by each and every one of us. What we want from them is unachievable and we almost certainly know it.
Of course, it seems somehow feeble to underline that politicians are just human but also unfair not to appreciate their naturally erroneous disposition. Why, then, can we not find that sort of equilibrium when voicing our thoughts about them ordinarily? The truth is that politicians do not represent the voters and the gap is widening year after year, as evidenced here.
It has very much become a matter of “them” and “us”; the Establishment and the people — a rhetoric that gathers more momentum the further left you travel. Association with the Oxbridge-educated “career politicians” and “posh boys” of Westminster has become quite impossible for the vast majority of the population. However, this deep resentment and widespread cynicism is entirely ineffective and relatively inconsequential in terms of its capacity to change the system. Russell Brand’s fifteen minutes in the political limelight was surely proof of that — or so we hoped.
There is a two-way street of growing mistrust between politicians and the electorate, with the former strangled by a fear of making any mistakes in the eyes of the latter. On that subject, it would be disingenuous not to note the important changes that technology has made to the way politics is discussed, reported and done. There is no escape from Big Brother’s beady eye and politicians, as privileged as they are, receive no exemption from its gaze. Twitter has become a place for measured, rather dull conversation in the political sphere, as a misspelt word can end a career instantaneously. Party whips are truly earning their keep in this tense, modern atmosphere that could explode with the next scandal (sex, expenses or otherwise) at any moment. Indeed, we’re all just waiting for the first politician to be caught using the taxpayer’s money to pay off his or her shopping spree at Ann Summers.
The predictability of debates between the mainstream political parties is equally damaging and tedious, with nothing ever agreed upon (aside from the expected diplomatic statements made on occasion by the foreign secretary in response to a disaster overseas). “The Labour Party echoes the government’s position” is the right line to take, of course, with regard to David Cameron’s support for the victims of the attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris. But why must they turn every other issue, bar none, into a debate more akin to a splitting of hairs than an intelligent allocation of time for parliamentary discussion? Confidence and conviction to do more than tow the party line is what we must give to our politicians if they are to give what we want back to us — which, needless to say, includes confidence in them.
All of the bitterness travelling back and forth between politicians and voters is actually destined to please the likes of Russell Brand, who seems to think that low participation is the way to bring about change. Unfortunately, his ill-considered theory will be tested in May and in years to come if we continue in this vein of disengagement from politics and the political elite. Angry indifference, even more worryingly, could have the effect of breeding extreme views that should not be given room to breathe in a healthy political system. So how do we resuscitate our presently ailing one?
In Political Parties: Old Concepts and New Challenges, Juan J. Linz (2002) discusses at length the means by which we can alter the culture of constant criticism that plagues our political system. His argument accentuates how “relatively homogenous the political elite has become with regard to the characteristics normally studied”, and states the importance of understanding “to what extent a typical, if not hostile, climate of opinion about parties and politicians affects the self-selection process of political elites”.
Essentially, we must realise that constant criticism of the type of people in politics only works to stifle them and the parties to which they belong. Linz’s suggestion is that we begin to concentrate more on parties, what they represent and what they have to offer, rather than on the politicians and the unfavourable perceptions that we create in their images — and ours. Close examination of those we have given legitimate power is an important part of democracy but it must not result in the prevalence of personality over policy. Only with a good balance can we elevate politicians willing and able to provide plain, meaningful ideas in which voters can have faith.
The British stiff upper lip and well-trained tongue has served us well for so long as a sort of national symbol, but it is right that its jurisdiction does not stretch to politics as well. Perhaps, however, we should use the pride and effort with which we protect that communal characteristic to shape our politics and the interactions between the political elite and voters.
Our responsibility now is to make strides to engage with politics and with those we have placed in positions of power. Most importantly, we must not allow extremism to be confused with honesty and openness. Working to end our long-standing disdain of politicians would give them the freedom to be clearer and more available, less fearful of error and more open and honest. That would undoubtedly represent the first step in protecting us from the harmful thoughts that are breaching politics in this country, which is a pretty vital place to start.