Monday, February 25, 2008

Pedantic politics

The latest ‘scandal’ – this time, focusing on the Speaker of the House of Commons will not be the last of its kind with the country in its current mood. Or with the press in their current mood, anyway. One annoying side effect is that - while I think that all sensible politicians recognise that this can't be really doing anyone any good, they also find it hard not to try and get their retaliation in first. Where is even a tentative defence of parliamentary privilege going to come from first, do you think? (And don't hold your breath)

I’ve just spent a bit more than a week in Northern Ireland (punctuated by a weekend in the Republic, visiting friends), and the trip involved more than a bit of driving. With the radio on for talkshows, and talking to people, I was confirmed in my prejudice that I prefer the way that politics is conducted in the south to the shrill, intransigent and pedantic politics of the north. The solemn attention to detail on everything from people who have – as Seamus Heaney put it – “open minds as open as a trap.”

This is, I think, what I was trying to get at in the slightly flustered posts that I wrote a few weeks ago about Protestantism and the way that it impacts upon democracy and politics (with feedback here).

Do we each want to be able to reach our own conclusions and then have an equal voice in legislation (those previous posts were about the parallels in the way that Catholics and Protestants interface with scripture and the political / philosophical legacy thereof), or do we want to elect people who will cut a few corners on our behalf?

I’m in the latter camp in case you’re in any doubt. Nobody likes MPs taking the piss, and individual cases are, obviously, often hard to stomach. But I reckon that I’d fit in with the public mood in the Irish republic if my sampling is anything to go by. The increasing consensus in the south is that – while Bertie Ahern may have played a bit fast and loose at times, and he may have been a bit sloppy in filing his paperwork properly, he has presided over an absolutely fantastic level of economic growth and prosperity – growth that is historically almost unparalleled – and growth that is built upon the foundations laid by Captain Backhander himself, the late Charlie Haughey. It’s a growth and a rising tide that has – for all of its flaws – lifted all boats in the republic.

The conclusion would appear to be a growing public request to the Irish Times and the opposition parties to lay off a bit and not to threaten a winning formula with stupid questions about planning, property and money that – Fr Ted-like – was only resting in certain bank accounts. It's a request that Machiavelli would have endorsed wholeheartedly. And anyone with an interest in good governance who chooses to contradict the great Florentine on matters like this is either a fool or a knave.

In recent weeks, we’ve seen Bertie Ahern’s continuing battle with corruption charges sits alongside Ian Paisley Jnr’s forced resignation on – as yet – unproven charges. And where Dirty Bertie can survive almost any allegation, Junior – and the brand of politics that he has helped to promote – has ensured that the North is a different place altogether.

Sooner or later, politicians will come together to put a stop to these stories by accepting new restrictions upon their conduct. And I’m not sure that it’s all going to work out in the public interest.

I also don't think that there's much of a genuine appetite for this stuff either. It's low hanging fruit for journalists, so there will be more. Because even with my (admittedly fading) level of political contacts, I could still give any journalist at least one junior minister a fright if I wanted to, on the grounds that s/he manages their office finances in ways that could be interpreted uncharitably. There are plenty of people who were in the Labour Party in the 1990s who are more disgruntled than I am now, and I'm sure they are filling up Grub Street's pipeline as I write this) - and that determines the agenda at least as much as genuine public engagement in a particular issue.

I also don’t think anyone really wants political discourse to be dominated by these stories. Sure, each new revelation is entertaining enough. But aside from the fact that it drowns out the real political divisions - the ones we need to argue about - I think that this continued focus will result in a different kind of politics if we’re not careful. One that we will like even less than our current settlement.

More on this shortly here, if you’re interested.

No comments: