Comment: Trust me, I'm a Politician!
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May 24,2004--Many of us take democracy for granted and it is fitting to begin this article on modern politics with the words of Pericles (495-429 B.C.), the most accomplished statesman of Ancient Greece:
political system does not compete with institutions which are elsewhere
in force. We do not copy our neighbours, but try to be an example. Our
administration favours the many instead of the few: this is why it is
called a democracy. The laws afford equal justice to all alike in their
private disputes, but we do not ignore the claims of excellence. When a
citizen distinguishes himself, then he will be called to serve the
state, in preference to others, not as a matter of privilege, but as a
reward of merit; and poverty is no bar.
freedom we enjoy extends also to ordinary life; we are not suspicious of
one another, and we do not nag our neighbour if he chooses to go his own
way. ... But this freedom does not make us lawless. We are taught to
respect the magistrates and the laws, and never to forget that we must
protect the injured. And we are also taught to observe those unwritten
laws whose sanction lies only in the universal feeling of what is
Our city is
thrown open to the world; we never expel a foreigner.... We are free to
live exactly as we please, and yet, we are always ready to face any
danger.... We love beauty without indulging in fancies, and although we
try to improve our intellect. this does not weaken our will.... To admit
one's poverty is no disgrace with us; but we consider it disgraceful not
to make an effort to avoid it. An Athenian citizen does not neglect
public affairs when attending to his private business.... We
consider a man who takes no interest in the state not as harmless, but
as useless; and although only a
few may originate a policy, we are all able to judge it.
We do not look upon discussion as a stumbling block in the way of
political action, but as an indispensable preliminary to acting
From Pericles' famous funeral oration as reported by Thucydides in The Peloponnesian War.
Next month the European Parliament elections will produce a contrasting response from the electorates of the member countries of the European Union. Turnout will range from as low as 18% in the UK to over 70% in countries such as Italy. The lofty words of Pericles ring hollow for many Britons and in a recent survey that was commissioned by the UK office of the European Parliament, one in five questioned, believe that European legislation requires that all bananas sold in Britain must be straight. It recalls the famous 1984 Yes Minister episode of the BBC Television comedy series where the hapless minister Jim Hacker gets national attention by campaigning against Europe's alleged plan to change the name of the British sausage and he ends up as Prime Minister. While it's depressing to observe ignorance and apathy in a significant segment of the population, in a leading European country, it's more troubling when base prejudice is peddled by individuals who are generally regarded as 'educated.' Last month in a letter to the Financial Times, Peter Jay, ex-Economics Editor of the BBC and onetime UK Ambassador in Washington, disparaged European defence cooperation as 'marching for a European Reich.' One can only wonder how this individual who was once profiled as 'Britain's cleverest young man,' viewed Europe's response a decade ago, to the raging war in the Balkans as leaders such as Major, Kohl and Mitterand floundered while hoping that America would solve the issue for them?Low voter turnout has been a characteristic of American elections for decades and in recent times apathy and lack of interest in public affairs has become common in Europe. The lack of major areas of difference between political parties; declining civic participation as argued by the American academic Robert Putnam in his book Bowling Alone; media cynicism and the perception that politicians are just peacocks out for themselves are often cited as the primary causal factors of the widespread disillusionment with politics. In Ireland, the revelations at public tribunals that a number of past prominent politicians are thieves has not been a surprise to Irish voters as quite a number of us have been willing to accept public corruption as just part of political life.
One common trait of virtually all the candidates for the European elections is that their primary motivation in seeking election is self interest- just like almost anyone else who seeks a career in the money economy. Other issues such as the desire to assist various groups and communities also applies in varying degrees. In Ireland's multi-seat constituencies, competition is greatest between the candidates of the same party. One certainty in the remaining weeks of the campaigns in all countries is that candidates will not be honest about their primary motivations. There is no democracy where a candidate can be candid about their motivations even though apart from partisan supporters, most electors recognise the reality. It is similar to the fiction where groups seeking pay increases dress up their purposes in the cloak of motives on behalf of the public. Doctors and medical consultants seeking higher pay talk about patients while teachers' motivations are always children's education.
One central problem with politics is that behaviour that would be considered dishonest in other areas of life, is considered part of the normal to-and-fro of politics. A politician can take a public position on an issue while privately holding a contrary view. Being honest can be bad politics and in a contest such as the US presidential election where every word of a candidate is closely dissected by the hired guns of the opposing party and the media, the electors who wish for an opposing candidate to be defeated do not welcome too much frankness in their preferred candidate. In the 1980's when Garret FitzGerald was Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) it wasn't uncommon to hear people say that he was too honest. His principal political opponent at that time was Charles Haughey who has the dishonour of being the most corrupt politician in the history of the Irish State. As previously pointed out, FitzGerald was undoubtedly honest but while he knew better than most that Haughey was a thief, he had taken no measures to tackle the causes of corruption on assuming office( see Dáil Éireann debate on the election of Haughey as Taoiseach in 1979). The issue of effectiveness arises for an electorate and it can be argued that Haughey's legacy is more impressive than FitzGerald's. The question then is to balance this against the impact over time on the respect for laws and the standards of morality in society. My own American comparison for Haughey is with Huey Long rather than another demagogue, Irish American Senator Joseph McCarthy.
The Progressive Democrats (PD's), the junior party in the current Irish Government has been very critical of Sinn Féin, the political unit of the armed Irish Republican Movement. Sinn Féin claims to be independent of any armed group. Its own members do not believe that never mind the rest of the electorate. So the PD's can rightly make a charge of cynicism against Sinn Féin but it is not a stranger to cynicism itself. At the launch of the party's local election manifesto the leader Ms. Mary Harney said that her candidates 'are giving the lie to the idea that the country is cynical about politics and that public service is devalued.' She went on to say: 'Top of our agenda is to put community facilities in place at the same time as new house developments. That includes transport, schools, parks, shops and libraries....In this manifesto, we are also committed to ending private windfall profits arising from re-zoning decisions.' This is blather from a politician who has been in government almost 7 years and what put the tin hat on it was the impromptu remark that she may have the Competition Authority investigate hoarders of development land. Ms. Harney has not only not brought forward proposals to the Government on changing the corrupt system where land can increase 20-fold in value when re-zoned, but she has also delayed action on deregulation in the services sector of the economy for years by shunting the issues to the Competition Authority. So while in the ranking of cynicism Sinn Féin may get the first prize, the PD's are also contributors to public disillusionment with politics.
All is not gloom and in the Financial Times, columnist Philip Stephens lauds the triumph of democracy in India: 'In western democracies we have long taken for granted the disenfranchisement of those at the bottom of the economic and social piles. The underclasses of the US and Europe have opted out of politics. Ambitious politicians speak to the middle ground. But in India's election, it was the middle classes, complacent in their new-found prosperity, who stayed at home...The two-thirds of Indians who live in villages made their way to the polling stations not for the promise of the latest hand-held PC but in the desperate hope of better access to the basic tools of existence such as water and electricity.' Where a real choice is on offer voters turn out. In 2002, the turn out in the Swedish general election was 79% while a year earlier, turnout in the UK general election fell to 59%-the lowest since 1918.
Politicians over promising and portraying themselves as selfless Mother Tresas only feeds public cynicism. During good economic times, politicians in government are never shy in claiming credit but find a rock to crawl under when the news is bad. It would be too much to expect any change in this pattern. There should be an effort made to improve two-way communication with the public in particular at local level using a town hall meeting concept. While public scepticism is important, there should also be recognition that it's easier for a journalist to tap on a computer than for a politician to make a difficult political decision. As US President Lyndon Johnson once said: 'It's a lot easier to throw grenades than to catch them!' Finally, the Irish public is not always the innocent victim of politicians. It is sometimes convenient to buy into the short term cost-free solution and have its cake and eat it! People want free public services on their doorstep, low taxes and the waste of their industries and households conveniently shipped overseas to places such as India. Incinerators cause health risk scares but waste from Irish industry also cause hazards in other countries.
- Michael Hennigan
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