Thursday, September 15, 2005

 

Why are politicians so unpopular?

A survey carried out by the BBC World Service involving 50,000 people in 68 countries containing 1.3 billion people has produced the depressing statistic that most citizens of the world have little or no confidence in their governments. Three quarters of the former Soviet block feel their governments do not reflect the will of the people, 64% of Europeans and 60% of those in the USA. Worse politicians were seen as the least trusted occupation in the survey with only 13% saying they were trusted. The figure for religious leaders was 33%; for military/police leaders 26%; for journalists 26%; and business leaders 19%.

I was amazed at the high score for military/police leaders; one thinks of Pinochet and other tin pot generals in Africa and South America not to mention the junta in Burma. Maybe their mere association with law and order- even when not merited in practice- explains some of the preference. The low figure for journalists strikes me as unfair-there are many spendid journalists who are dedicated to freedom and truth- but perhaps it's their association with tabloid distortions or the lickspittle ones who serve repressive regimes which explains this. Religious leaders' popularity is understandable as many of them will seem prefereable to the military and disproportionate numbers of respondents from countries where religion is strong might also explain this figure.


But do politicians deserve such poor ratings? I have always argued that they do not. Most people who have close relations with politicians in the UK say there is the usual mixture of the good, the bad and the enigmatic. Clement Attlee was clearly a person of great integrity and conviction; some might say Ted Heath was as well as Callaghan and Douglas -Home. So why do the pols get so much flak? Four reasons I would suggest:

1. In most political systems compromise is inevitable as, in our finite world, politics comprises the clash of desires which cannot all be met. This means that those who are left unsatisfied by compromises feel hostility to those who engineered them. After a series of compromises alienation grows and the popular reputation of politicians declines accordingly.
2. Politicians deal in persuasion and in pursuit of their compromises will seek to tell a number of audiences more or less what they want to hear. Eventually both sides of the argument realise what is going on and disillusionment ensues.
3. Seeking compromises is a dangerous task ultimately as the progressive surrendering of positions can lead to an erosion of the principles upon which political positions are based. So sea green incorruptibles who are totally opposed to certain solutions can be led by salami compromises towards a position where they more or less accept what was once hated. So Ramsay MacDonald found he could bury his differences with the Conservatives he once hated to stay on a Preime Minister in a National Government in the thirties.
4. The final reason is that Lord Acton was right: power really does corrupt. Politicians are unusual people who are often motivated into the activity by idealism but, once power has been achieved, find they like the feel of being in control, of having people treat them like species of royalty, of being the most important people in their country. So power to achieve good becomes merely power for its own sake. Many examples exist of this: Milosevic, Mugabe, Charles Haughey, arguably Harold Wilson. In many countries too its ordinary venality, the love of wealth and comfort for family and friends which fuels the desire to achieve and then cling onto power.

But in democracies our politicians are crucially important social agents, defusing conflicts which could otherwise cause immense bloodshed and seeking solutions which please most of the people most of the time.

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