Free Life Commentary,
A Personal View from
The Director of the Libertarian Alliance
Issue Number 164
11th September 2007…
…republishes some reflections in the light of an impending General Election in 2010….
on the Failure of Political Leadership
by Sean Gabb
Bearing in mind the date, I could write about the American Bombings of September 2001. But I really have nothing to say about these and the consequent wars that I have not said many times already. Besides, just about everyone else is writing about these things; and I am vain enough to think myself a soloist and not part of a chorus. And so I will write about what I see as the main failure of political leadership in this country since the forced retirement of Margaret Thatcher in November 1990.
I grew up in a country where nearly everyone voted, and where of those who did vote nearly everyone voted for one of the two main parties. Since 1997, there has been a collapse in turnout. In 2001, fewer than two thirds of the electors bothered to vote. There was little improvement in 2005. At the next general election, it is conceivable that less than half the electors will vote. And perhaps half of these will not vote for either of the two main parties. Certainly, in elections other than to Parliament, the voting figures have become a scandal that casts doubt on the democratic legitimacy of whoever wins. Indeed, we are looking now at a general election in which the most relevant question is not who will win, but who will not lose.
For some while into the 2001 Parliament, Labour politicians could excuse low turnouts with the claim that people were too satisfied with the new order of things to worry about voting. Since then, it has been generally accepted that something is wrong. The debate is between those who are wrong and those who are half right.
Those who are wrong are headed by the Liberal Democrats. For them, all can be made good by a combination of proportional representation and regional assemblies. They have been pushing the first of these ever since the old Liberal Party began losing elections under the present system. They appear to believe that the changes they want can solve every problem from public drunkenness to alleged global warming. The truth is that these changes will solve nothing, but only raise up further problems. A more moderate approach is to suggest that changing election days from Thursday to Sunday, combined with enabling voting by text message and via the Internet will raise attendance figures. This might improve the official turnout, but raises further problems of electoral honesty.
Those who are half right realise that people do not vote because there is no one in or near office worth voting for. Politicians are corrupt, incompetent, generally out of touch, and increasingly unattractive. I agree with this. Where I disagree is that the solution is for the politicians to keep asking the people what they want, and to try looking and sounding like ordinary people. This would only increase the present vulgarity of politics, and produce further lurches into a mad authoritarianism that will make people even less happy with the political leadership we have.
Let me summarise what I see as the true reasons for popular disenchantment with politics. We have a ruling class that sees itself not as a committee of trustees for the nation but as a committee of proprietors. This ruling class has increasingly stripped us of our traditional freedoms and of our national independence. With the legal changes of the past two decades, even I have given up on keeping track of what it is still legal to say or do. Anything the authorities do not like is either overtly against the law or subject to indirect punishment through the laws on town planning or consumer protection or health and safety or child welfare. The tax gatherers are rapacious. Other officials enforce regulations that crush individuality and that frequently cannot even be explained.
Political authority no longer emanates from a sovereign Parliament elected by us and accountable to us, but from the unaccountable institutions of the European Union or various other international institutions that are often invisible to ordinary people. We have been subjected to several generations of mass immigration that has changed the face of the country in ways on which we were never consulted. The presence of these newcomers has been made an excuse for claiming that the historic nation into which we were born no longer exists and that new institutions and laws are needed for its management. We have been pushed into wars in the Islamic world that defend no national interest and that have driven parts of the new population to the verge of rebellion. Recently, the wave of immigration has quickened—and let me say that I am thinking here mainly of entry from parts of the world where I have a strong family connection—to the point where working class living standards are in open decline, and where even the middle classes are feeling the pressure on property prices and public services.
All this, and our ruling class responds with a combination of denial and repression. Little wonder that increasingly few people bother voting. Little wonder that increasing number of those who still do vote no longer vote for the main parties.
Now, I had tea a few months ago with a Conservative Member of Parliament. I put parts of this case to him. His reply was that his constituents—and he meets hundreds of these every month—barely ever mention these heads of complaint. He would love them to complain about Europe and political correctness. Instead, they complain about poor standards in the schools and about hospital closures. I was an intellectual, he told me. I might want the world to be as I claimed it was. But he was a politician. He had to deal with a very different real world in which people had fundamentally changed even since 1997.
The conversation moved after this to matters on which we could talk more amicably over the teacups. But he was wrong and I was right. The truth is that few people think very well, and most people do not think at all. They are unhappy with England as it has become. But they are not able to say what are the causes of their unhappiness. On immigration and political correctness they are frightened to say what they probably do think. On the other issues they are unable to speak because they do not know what to say.
There should be nothing strange about this fact. A man can moan about the weather and the burden of advancing years, and never realise that the cause of his tiredness and dizzy spells is the hardening of his arteries. He may not even know about the circulation of the blood. It is the purpose of a doctor to diagnose and suggest treatments for conditions of which his patients understand nothing, but from which they suffer much. It should be the purpose of those who offer themselves for election to do the same with regard to ills of the nation.
This is not to say that individuals are incompetent to run their own lives, or should be regarded as such. Most people, in fact, manage to shuffle through life without making themselves and those around them particularly unhappy. Even otherwise, it would be still worse to give direction of private life to a class of guardians convinced of their ability to make us happier than we can make ourselves. It may be sad that so many people smoke or drink or eat themselves into early graves, or watch mind-rotting television programmes, or listen to morally corrupting music, or contract unhappy marriages, or do less than they might for their children. But the consequences of taking control of their lives are always worse. Some individuals do rather badly. But no one else would do better. And, again, most people do rather well.
It is different when it comes to politics. People may not give much informed thought to the nutritional value of the fish fingers they buy. But they give far less to the matter of the laws and institutions of their country. Everyone wants to live in a country where his chances of making himself and those around him happy are maximised. That does not qualify him to know how the country should be governed.
Again, this is not to say that ordinary people should be allowed no say in government. Given the minimal intelligence that most European populations seem to possess and some national feeling, representative government is generally better than despotism. But there is more to restoring our democracy than trying to guess what a majority might want on any particular issue and giving effect to it in Acts of Parliament. I suspect that a plebiscitary democracy in this country would—assuming the right media frenzy—give us ethnic cleansing and on the spot castration of accused paedophiles and the renaming of London as St Dianaville. None of this would make for a set of laws and institutions likely to enable the public good. It would probably lead, in the long intervals between each frenzy, to the sort of disgust for politicians that a foolish heir traditionally feels for the whores and panders who grant his every wish.
A political leader, as opposed to a demagogue, has a duty to listen, but also to educate. This means on occasion resisting the will of the majority. It means the sort of patient explanation of truth that I last saw in the early 1980s, when several dozen Conservatives, in or out of office, went about the country telling often hostile audiences why the calls for reflation had to be resisted. Now, it means explaining—among much else—why government spending must be cut, and why we need to go back to a system of criminal justice in which real criminals are generally punished with great severity, but in which they seem to have every chance of getting off.
We do not have this. Instead, we have politicians who claim simply to be listening. In fact, those who talk loudest about listening to the people only want to listen to the echo of their own babbling. I do not believe that the English people have fundamentally changed since 1997—or since 1979. Perhaps millions joined in the collective mania that attended the death of the Princess of Wales. More millions, however, did not lay flowers outside Kensington Palace, and did not grieve for a stranger more than they grieved for their own dead. Most people look at what their country has become and are revolted by the sight. The English nation exists now much as it always has. The problem is that the best people to whom the nation has entrusted its thinking and political leadership have neither imagination nor courage. And the worst are obvious traitors and petty tyrants.
I think the Queen made a serious mistake ten years ago when she was persuaded not to face down the demands for that tasteless funeral in Westminster Abbey. She should have made a firm appeal from the people drunk to the people sober. There would have been some personal risk in this—though I fail to see how it would have made any permanent increase to the body of republican sentiment. But it might have done much to frustrate the culture of shallow and unEnglish sentimentality that has prevailed ever since.
Just as importantly, the Conservatives missed an opportunity that will not be repeated for intelligent thought of how to counter the Blair Revolution. I did write about this at the time—see Free Life Commentary 13 from February 1998. They were out of office. They would be out for some while. That gave time to think about the mistakes of the Thatcher and Major years and to purge themselves of the corporatist and authoritarian that had accompanied and undermined the relative liberalisations that, even now, make us the preferred destination for almost every foreigner who wants a better life. Opposing the totalitarianism of public life that Labour set out to complete would have made them unpopular at the time. But I cannot see how a tenacious and intelligent defence of liberty and tradition would have put them in a worse state at the end of ten years than the jumble of short term gimmickry on which they did embark.
Of course, this assumes that the Conservative leadership was not by nature corporatist and authoritarian. For the most part it was. The Conservative failure of the past decade stems in large part from their inability to disagree with more than the incidentals of what Labour has done. But not every Conservative politician has been a Quisling Rightist. The one with whom I had tea is no villain.
However, the Conservatives really have missed their opportunity to set out a proper case. With David Cameron, they do seem to have embarked on a rebranding from which there is no going back. It may be that, whatever follies he commits, Labour will lose the next election—and this means he must become Prime Minister. But this will not give him the mandate—and I do not believe he will have the inclination—to do anything very conservative. If, on the other hand, the Conservatives manage to lose, I do not believe that any further rebranding will be accepted. A broadsheet newspaper can turn itself into a sensationalist tabloid. This may gain it more readers than it loses. But if the gamble fails, it cannot simply turn itself back into a broadsheet. The old readers will not easily forget the intervening horrors. It could be the same with the Conservatives.
And so, we have politicians, but no leaders. The main parties, indeed, seem structurally designed to prevent the emergence of leadership. Sooner or later, a leader may emerge. He will come, of necessity, from outside the mainstream. More likely perhaps, he will be a demagogue. Whether and when and who are not questions I feel competent to discuss. But I end this run of political commentaries without any of the offers of comfort that may often be found in my earlier efforts.