Tuesday, October 10, 2006

More effective away from home

I wasn't initially convinced by Chris Dillow's excellent post about the factors that make for effective politians, but the more I think about it, the more I'm sure he's right.

He notes the success of Scottish politicians and offers a persuasive set of reasons for this.

1. Presbytarianism encourages self-restraint - an aversion to impulsive behaviour
2. The ability of minorities to bond.

I'd suggest another factor in this success - or rather an extension on the second reason. That local politics makes people fractious and unconstructive. While the relative quality of Scotish statespersonship is evident in Westminster, it is almost totally lacking in Holyrood. Indeed, Scottish politics is often talked about as a proving house for Westminster. If you can negotiate your way around the nepotism, the backstabbing and the religious sectarianism, it is thought that you will be able to deal with anything that the gentleman amateurs of Westminster can throw at you.

Politicians often depend for their livelihood upon fairly small factions and, as a result, become their delegates. Almost, you could say, their employees. We will get a higher quality of representation from them if we can put some distance between them and their sponsors.

A few years ago, and over a number of years, I used to attend social functions for politicians from Northern Ireland. Always at the Labour Party Conference, always in England. It being a subject that I have a lot of interest in, I got to know a few of the regulars quite well. They included mainstream Unionists, nationalists, Trade Unionists and Loyalist ex-paramilitaries (and one or two who were not entirely 'ex' as it turned out).

In many cases, politicians who were officially 'not talking' to each other could be found socialising and arguing quite affably. With no local gallery to play to, constructive informal negotiations could take place. The events in question were hosted by The Workers Party, and when the Northern Ireland completes it's transition to a liberal democracy, this role played by 'the stickies' in overcoming sectarianism should be acknowledged.

Not only were they able to chew the fat in a suitable setting, they were also able to get a bit of perspective. A few ex-UDA people I spoke to were prepared to acknowledge that they felt more comfortable in the company of Belfast Catholics than they did with English prods. So the ability to put aside petty grievances and to jointly promote the interests of their localities is something that they were practicing at those social events. In addition, they were able to step back from the overarching sectarianism, and in the context of a Workers Party event, were able to contemplate their shared class interests.

This is, of course, only an extrapolation on Chris's point about 'bonding. The conclusion that I'd draw from that is that a country will be better governed if politicians can be removed as far as possible from interest groups. This is fairly widely acknowledged in the case of pressure groups (commercial or otherwise), but not as widely acknowledged in the case of local interests. We have a responsibility to create a constructive stage on which politicians act. On the whole, I think that - on this issue, I'll end on a pessimistic note in saying that we may be heading in the wrong direction.

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