2014 minus 49: Politics and [incompetent] politicians

Posted: 13 November 2013 in politics
Tags: , ,

It’s well known in the UK – or at least it used to be, I’m not so sure nowadays – that’s there’s no formal job description for Members of Parliament.

Partly of course, that’s because what you do in and out of Parliament while being an MP depends to a great extent on where you are in your political career, and upon what career path you’ve embarked. If you’re a minister, for example, a fair amount of your time is going to be spent on ministerial duties. If, though, you’ve either given up on, or survived through, ministerial ambition and have instead looked to select committee membership/chairmanship to fill part of your time, then those duties will inevitably take up increasingly large proportions of your time.

Or, of course, at the start – or very end – of your time in Parliament, then being a ‘mere’ backbench MP will be your lot. I put ‘mere’ in quotes there to indicate my contempt for people who think that just being a backbench MP means you’ve failed in some way. You’re elected to serve as a member of Parliament, not to be a minister, or a select committee chair, but to be a member of Parliament, representing your constituents in Parliament, ideally helping to hold the Executive to account.

I’m sure that many reading this have their own ideas of what would constitute an MP’s duties, and could write their own job descriptions of a member of Parliament; the more politically astute could even come up with something that would take into account the ministerial and other duties alluded to above.

I’m not sure that ‘being a competent politician’ would be on the list, and after thinking about it over the past few years, I’m puzzled about something.

Do we truly now have the most incompetent politicians in generations?

The more I think about this, the more convinced I become that the answer is yes.

Note the question though – I’m very specifically not asking whether we have incompetent ministers. We’ve always had some ministers who have been incompetent, and I’m certainly not going to start comparing individual ministers, though I do lament the apparent and effective end of the Convention of Individual Ministerial Responsibility, under which a minister would resign if his or her department screwed up. The last agreed resignations under this convention seem to be Lord Carrington (and two of his departmental ministerial colleagues) over the run-up to the Falklands War, though I think there’s a strong case for giving that honour to Estelle Morris who resigned as Education Secretary, saying she wasn’t up to the job, in large part because her Department hadn’t achieved self-set targets.

But I’m 49 years old, and even allowing that I started getting interested in government and politics in my mid-teens, let’s limit it to the time from when I could vote. That’s over thirty years ago now; while I remember Ted Heath [Prime Minister from 1970 until 1974] as PM, the first general election in which I could vote was the one that took place in 1983. I was 18 years old, and although I’d taken part in a mock election at school four years earlier, I don’t think anyone involved was more concerned with the Gross Domestic Product or inflation versus unemployment; the winning candidate, as I recall, prospered on a campaign to abolish school uniforms and the ability to sack teachers for not having a sense of humour.

But back to 1983. I had completed an A-Level in Government and Politics, and was at Manchester Polytechnic; my memories – such as they exist – are that a sizeable proportion of the student body was engaged with the election. Groups sprung up, holding debates and educational discussions on examination of the main parties’ manifestos, the history of protest candidates, the pros and cons of the existing electoral system.

And then I voted. And I strongly recall the anti-climactic feel of my first vote. Until that night, watching the election results on television, feeling for the first time that I had a stake in it… because I’d voted.

But what I remember about that election isn’t the awful press coverage. (And anyone who thinks the personal attacks on politicians now is anything new, the attacks on Foot were astonishing to me then.) Nor the triumphal nature of Margaret Thatcher who seemed to take immense joy in others’ incompetence.

No, it was that despite television debates between the leaders being some thirty years in the future, the politicians at the time did their best to convince the public, the potential voters, that their policies were right for the nation and that the other parties’ policies were, and would be, disasterous. Note that: they didn’t just state it as a matter of fact. They didn’t merely attack the other parties’ policies and state their own. They said why the other parties’ policies were wrong, and they said why their own parties’ policies were better.

At the time, and for at least the next couple of dozen years, I’d argue, that was one of the skillsets necessary for anyone hoping to be elected to parliament; you said why your policies were better. You attacked the other parties’ policies point by point, policy by policy, and you hoped like hell that you were better at it than the bloke (it was almost always a man in those days, something that thankfully has changed for the better) attacking your policies.

And now…

Now we have a situation where a politician says something and he or she expects it to be taken as a statement of fact.

“Labour spent too much and made the financial crisis of 2007-08 worse.” – Really? Really? Then say how, and why. Justify your fucking argument with facts, and with defendable statistics.

“The Lib Dems lied about tuition fees.” – You say so? Then prove intent. Go on, prove they knowingly said something they believed was untrue.

“The Conservatives…” Well, where do you start?

So, I’m not saying that we have the most incompetent ministers or select committee chairs: no, but we do seem to have incompetent politicians. I can’t remember the last time a politician convinced me, by the strength of his or her argument, that they were right when previously I’d thought that they were wrong.

(And while friends of mine will roll their eyes and say ‘well, no, that’s just you being you, Budgie’, I’ll admit that I have had my mind changed by the strength of debate on any number of occasions; the most obvious being the death penalty, where I went from being a ‘yes’ for years to a ‘no’ forever more over the course of one debate.)

If anything, hearing politicians debate now convinces me more than ever that debating is a lost art; maybe I’m dreaming of a golden age; maybe this complaint – that politicians are now incompetent – was made thirty years ago, and thirty years before that, and thirty years before that.

Quite possibly. But that just makes me even sadder, that having come so low previously, we’ve sunk even further.

And in an age when image appears to be everything, it’s only incompetence that explains how, even though a speech on the economy is traditional at The Mansion House, the Conservative Party could have allowed a speech on how further austerity is necessary to be made in these surroundings and with this… message.

  1. Craig McGill says:

    If you don’t mind, do you care to share what changed your mind on the death penalty?

    • Sure… I came to realise, during the discussion, something that should have been obvious from the moment the debate started: no legal system is perfect.

      That being the case, sooner or later, it was certain, it was inevitable, that someone would be put to death who, simply, was not only convicted on insufficient evidence, but who did not commit the crime.

      The state would have executed – would inevitably execute – a truly innocent person.

      Now, I’m very well aware that ‘not guilty’ does not equate to ‘innocent’. The former merely means that the state did not prove its case to the satisfaction of a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.

      No, I’m talking about a person wholly innocent of the crime of which they were accused… yet found guilty and executed.

      That’s unacceptable to me.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s