This time of year brings two small joys – the evenings are getting lighter and the fields around our house are filled with lambs. But lying in bed a couple of nights ago, the sound of howling wind hammering rain against our windows wasn’t enough to cover the anguished bleats of the fluffy little things. Imagine being only a couple of days old and being stuck on that exposed hillside with no shelter from a storm that felt like it hadn’t let up for three days.
Which is my point – I can’t. I can imagine what it would be like for me to be stuck in a field without shelter in the dark in a storm. But having lived in a rural area for much of my life I know perfectly well that every sheep that ever lived (in Scotland at least) was born amid storms and raised in the driving rain. A sheep doesn’t experience cold in the same way we do. They’re designed to repel rain. I don’t know how a sheep is feeling. I hear them bleat and I guess. Perhaps in the morning I’ll take the cheekier, nosier ones some carrots to ‘make up for’ their dreadful night. Will they understand the gesture? Do they prefer carrots or apples? It’s a lot to infer from a bleat.
As with me and the sheep, so with Malcolm Rifkind and the citizens of Great Britain. Sure he hears us bleating, but he seems to have no idea how we feel, how we experience the world. He does not seem capable of interpreting what the noises we make (to him distant and indistinct) are supposed to be communicating. So he guesses. And his guess is that we are concerned about his low income and applaud his efforts to better himself. Us outside in the storm, him warm indoors, entertaining the rich at our expense.
Jack Straw, meanwhile, has emerged from this all much more as sheep than shepherd. While Rifkind met the revelations of offering himself for hire to private lobbyists with outrage and indignation, apparently unable to see what the fuss was about, Jack Straw at least appeared immediately to grasp the seriousness of his position. Which seems to me an almost perfect encapsulation of his entire political career – to be fully aware that what he was up to was basically crooked but to proceed anyway on the basis of expediency and the belief that he was probably going to get away with it.
I fear that these are the two poles around which Westminster politics now revolves – utter cynicism and complete detachment. I spent a year working in Westminster in the 1990s and I quickly came to despise the place. Everything about it felt strangely unconnected to everything I knew. The language – they were always talking about ‘shooting each others’ fox’ and ‘having the whip hand’. I sat through many meetings wondering if I was every going to understand Westminster and its endless country gentleman, slave-owner metaphors. I one proposed a media stunt based around sending voters a ‘bill’ for what the lack of devolution had cost them. I pitched it to the Scottish Labour front bench team. Someone said that it wouldn’t work because people would think we meant a parliamentary Bill. I looked round the table to see who was going to jump to my defence and point out that probably no-one receives a bill through the door and thinks ‘ah, must have got through its third reading’. But all the politicians seemed to accept that the punters probably would be thinking about them as they opened their post in the morning.
It was a narcissistic world then – and that was before Blair and Mandelson let rip with their doctrine of intense comfort at people becoming stinking rich. In the Blair years Parliament weakened its internal watchdog (the most effective of whom was removed for being the most effective) and weakened or removed the rules about former Ministers with specialist knowledge being able to trade on that knowledge from the moment they left Parliament. This is a club that was caught out in the most blatant of expense rigging, clearly ripping off the public for personal gain. They showed contrition for what must have been weeks. Before they swept it under the carpet. (And its a decidedly lumpy carpet, harbouring beneath it the inquiry into the cause of the financial crisis of 2008, the inquiry into the Iraq war, a string of unsavoury accusations of paedophile rings and much more.)
We have a system in which parliament can find itself not guilty of almost anything. Sure, if it comes to it, the occasional politician may have to walk the plank for getting caught. Individual politicians are not immortal, but it seems that the system is. Again and again the same scandals recur. The public gnashes its teeth. The media shouts for a while. But the media stops before any real damage is done to the system and the public gradually forgets. And we return once more to government by corporations with a parliament that seems focused on stuffing its pockets. Rifkind and Straw are selling out the people of Britain not because they think they’ll get away with it but because they always have in the past. The Daily Mail might be annoyed this week, but next week they’ll be back to filling pages with columnists complaining that not enough corporate CEOs will become elected politicians because the pay is too low. Of course we want politicians with ‘other interests’, the wealthy (which is to say the media) will agree. ‘Other interests’ make politicians more like them, less like us. And the less politicians feel like us, the better it is for the corporations.
The failure of a politics of empathy in Britain is petrifying.
I have talked to people in political parties who really do believe that a single mother on benefits who has those benefits sanctioned ‘must’ have another option. The possibility that the only option she has is for her and her child to starve is not considered, not felt. It is assumed that there ‘must’ be a relative that can help (possible a parent that sexually abused her, possibly the brother who has also just been sanctioned) or that there ‘must’ be work. I project my feeling of cold onto a sheep; Tory politicians seem to project their extensive and wealthy support networks onto the poor. They do not understand the lives of the people they govern.
I have believed for some time that the single biggest problem with UK politics is that the lives of politicians have become so far removed from those who elected them that there is little or no chance of the politicians running country in the interests of the many. Being an MP immediately puts you in about the top four per cent of the population by income. It supplies you a pension and other perks that give you a level of security few of their compatriots have. Politicians fear neither the present nor the future. That, in itself, makes them nothing like most of the population of Britain. Having achieved a sort-of bullet-proof social security for themselves they seem little interested in exploring how they might achieve social security for everyone else.
Usually when I write something of this sort I would at this point stress that most of the politicians I have come across get into politics for the right reasons and do, generally, believe that they are doing the right thing. I would caution against simply writing off all Westminster politics as dirty and grubby and corrupt. But I think I have reached a point where that caveat no longer feels like a comfortable response. If Westminster believes that every Muslim in Britain has a responsibility to police the behaviour of ‘their community’ then it is time to expect the same of politicians. Every Westminster politician that votes for a pay rise when the rest of the country is struggling is part of the problem. Every politician who defended the expenses system is part of the problem. Every politician who had their Christmas card sponsored by a corporation with commercial interests that could be influenced by that politician is part of the problem. Frankly, after Britain’s dark decade (the one that started with the Iraq war scandal in 2003 and ended with the emerging paedophile scandal in 2013 and encompassed the expenses, phone hacking and financial scandals among many other failures, none of which have been put right), a politician who thinks Westminster is ‘OK’ seems to me to be part of the problem.
This is a problem that was understood as far back as Plato. In his Republic, the lawmakers were kept in basic comfort – but not too much comfort. They were forced to live ascetic lifestyles which gave them no opportunity to put their own venal interests above those of the people they were to represent and govern. The current view is that this would put off the ‘dynamic entrepreneurs’ who might otherwise step forward and take a public role for the good of us all. Hallelujah say I – how often must these ‘dynamic entrepreneurs’ turn out to be money-grabbing chancers before we realise that personal gain is the enemy of good governance. To serve your country you should be paid a fair wage. And if that is not enough then you are not serving your country, you are serving yourself.
Holyrood is not perfect; the house-flipping and mortgage support scams from the early years were unedifying. But it is substantially better than Westminster, a parliament which seems almost under permanent siege by commercial interests. I have concerns about governance and accountability in local authorities in Scotland but less so Holyrood. This is above all a failure of one institution, not the institution of politics or democracy. This is Westminster’s shame and Westminster must act.
In China they have a Department of Dereliction of Duty. Had Rifkind and Straw done nothing other than reveal that they have nothing to do all day, I would have liked to see them paid a visit by someone from the Department. Of course, there is little confidence in the Department in China. So a campaign is growing for a ‘Sunshine Law’ to cast light into the murky shadows of a dodgy system. I have come to believe that we need a ‘Sunshine Politics’ in Britain, a new era in which what politicians think they are ‘for’ changes radically and what Parliamentarians believe is their ‘dues’ is substantially rethought.
Because in the end my anthropomorphic misunderstanding of the lives of sheep may be foolish, but it at least comes from my humanity (and my love of new-born lambs). I fear that Westminster’s misunderstanding of what the people expect from it comes from something that looks a lot more like contempt.
I shall now file this article properly. I’m absolutely sure there will be a perfect opportunity to use it again sometime soon.