Monday, 31 March 2014

Politics, politicians, and political service…

A bad politician disappoints his constituents; a good politician disappoints himself.

I’m sure this has been said before – and in many different (and possibly cleverer) ways – but, after an (ongoing) discussion with my wise friend, Duke Senior, about what we should expect from those that we – a decreasing minority, it seems – elect (supposedly) to serve us, it seemed a pithy way of encapsulating everything I feel about the ‘service’ I have received – compared to the service I have idealized, expected, wanted, needed – from various professional politicians over the course of my mid-length life.

Had I not a condition that makes everyday existence a challenge, I would seriously have considered (local) politics as an option in my enforced retirement: as I have more than enough causes to propel me (from disability, to housing design and distribution, and the meaning of modern democracy). I would, though, have been more in the mould of Tony Benn or Jack Ashley than Tony Blair and Jack Straw – i.e. motivated by sincere and heartfelt principles; and of a conviction that would serve others, rather than any attempted scurry up the ladder of power and infamy. (Cue Kenneth Williams.) In summary: either completely unelectable; or, once elected, in a completely powerless minority of one.

I want my questions answered by an alert and experienced politician, prepared to be grilled and quoted - not my hand held by an old smoothie.
– William Safire

What I’m trying to get at – always naïvely hoping that others will try and live up to the expectations I have of them: because I would expect nothing less of myself (i.e. the curse of the idealistic perfectionist) – is that those curiosities (or nonpareils) who are voted in because they really do want to deliver what their constituents want and need, will always feel that – whatever public and private good they actually deliver – they are not doing enough; and what they are doing is not to a high-enough standard. Whereas, with those who are in it for fame, glory, money, power – and with the passing of Tony Benn (possibly the last great conviction MP), I fear this is now both the majority and the accepted fashion; and that we are suffering a pandemic of only thinking of (and paying lip-service to) the hoi polloi when an election approaches (and where there isn’t an insurmountable majority); leading to the making empty, populist promises: often with a vicious undercurrent of hidden agendas (that fail ever to be fulfilled…) – it is the electorate which feels that insufficiency.

It is no wonder, therefore, that, currently, so many people feel so disenfranchised – especially when such is the level of engagement shown by the elected with the electorate.

Are you a politician asking what your country can do for you or a zealous one asking what you can do for your country? If you are the first, then you are a parasite; if the second, then you are an oasis in the desert.
– Khalil Gibran

In The Guardian, on 20 March 2014, Esther Addley described how Hilary Benn paid loving tribute, in parliament, to his late father:

[He] had loved parliament, but not idealised it, said Benn, taking his inspiration from the words of a Salvation Army hymn his own father had sung to him as a child: “Dare to be a Daniel, dare to stand alone, dare to have a purpose firm, dare to make it known.”

“If we are not here to do that,” asked Benn, “what are we here for?”

In the past, when I was having to fight for my disability benefits, I was fortunate that the two MPs in question didn’t just take an interest in my plight; but took action – either directly, or through delegation to well-trained and expert staff. Although, initially, I was surprised at both the amount of involvement and the amount of contact, I know that this is what I should have expected – and not just in an idealized world, but in the pragmatic, real one… – as it is in their job descriptions. I know, from talking to others, though, that I was extremely “fortunate”. Many people – and in need of much more help, more support, than I – have been fobbed off, or simply ignored.

If politicians – at all levels: from parish councillors to prime ministers – want (and they should…) to be held accountable, then they should not either need – or mind – being reminded of this, from time to time. They also should not act as if any contract they have with their voters ends the moment they gain power.

In order to become the master, the politician poses as the servant.
– Charles de Gaulle

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