Politicians could just tell the truth

Politicians could just tell the truth

04 May 2010

cscanlon Dr Chris Scanlon
Email: c.scanlon@latrobe.edu.au

First published at The Punch on 4 May, 2010.

Gordon Brown made not one, but two public gaffes in his exchange with Gillian Duffy. The first was to be caught describing the pensioner as a bigot in the first place. A politician as experienced as Gordon Brown should know better than to forget that he was wired.

Brown’s second gaffe was to spend 40 minutes apologising to the pensioner after his words were played back to him during a radio interview. No doubt his media minders regarded this as a necessary piece of damage control, a last-ditch effort to contain an already disastrous situation. That might have been the intent, but the apology just left him looking meal-mouthed, amateurish and weak.

The better option — and the thing that a true politician would have done — would have been to own up to his words and defend his beliefs. 

Brown should have told the radio host ‘Well, some people might disagree with me, but I don’t resile from my assessment at all. Mrs Duffy is no doubt a warm and caring person, but I regard the sentiments she expressed to me about people who come here from eastern Europe as rooted in an undercurrent of bigotry that pervades social life in this country. And I’ll have that argument with anyone — whether they vote for me or not’.

Sure he might not win the election, but if Gordon Brown sincerely believes that Mrs Duffy’s views about Europeans coming to Britain are bigoted, then he ought to say so. In fact, Brown should have gone further. He should have explained why he thinks such sentiments are bigoted and why, in his view, they’re not doing the country any good.

Brown, after all, is in the business of politics, a large part of which is disagreeing with people whose views you think are wrong or wrongheaded. Politics in this sense, is about a clash of values — values that can’t necessarily be reduced to some neat consensus where we all take part in one big cosy group hug.

Brown’s apparent inability to say what he thinks points to a larger problem with electoral politics, namely that large parts of it have been de-politicised. The UK Labour Party has been central to the de-politicisation of politics.

Over its 13 years in power, New Labour has made an art of evacuating politics from the political. It did so by turning what are properly political issues —  clashes about fundamental values of right and wrong — into technical issues whose solution seemed to lay in commissioning reports and focus groups and then deferring to experts to deflect criticisms or challenges.

Even the decision to go to war in Iraq was justified on the basis of a dossier compiled by experts, rather than arguments about right and wrong or national defence. The dossier turned out to be a disaster for Labour, but the fact that the decision to go war was reduced to a technical question rather than fundamental moral principle or arguments about national priorities, is indicative of how UK Labour outsources difficult questions by deferring to experts.

This problem isn’t confined to UK Labour and Gordon Brown. Modern political parties and political leaders have been doing trying to de-politicise politics for years. If you listen to Kevin Rudd justify the tax increase on smoking, he won’t say that he thinks it’s the right thing to do because smoking is a national and individual disaster. Instead, he’ll say that the expert evidence around the world suggests that this is an effective way to reduce smoking rates.

That might be the case, and of course experts should be consulted on such issues, but by making experts’ claims the first and last word in the debate, Rudd looks like a man who can’t decide whether to sneeze or not, unless he’s first assembled a panel of experts to tell him whether now is the most opportune moment to do so.

No doubt a large part of the rise of politics by administration is the professionalisation of politics and the fact that political parties and leaders have become disconnected from the communities which they claim to represent. This is particularly so in the case of the labour parties in the UK and Australia, since the working class communities from which they sprung have largely been laid to waste — often by the economic rationalist policies pursued by those self-same labour parties.

The Gillian Duffy episode is just a small example of what happens when politicians become disconnected from the communities they seek to represent and try to reduce politics to administration. The answer to this problem lies in putting politics back into the political, saying what you mean and arguing for it rather than defending only those ideas that come sealed with the prior approval of a focus group.

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