In praise of British politics

Published by The Independent (5th May, 2015)

Politics can be a unattractive business. It is often described as showbusiness for ugly  people, such is the desire of those involved to hog the spotlight. Now academics at Nottingham University have discovered that not only are politicians seen as among the most duplicitous and morally dubious people in the land, but their physical appeal seems to diminish if members of the opposite sex are told their trade.

One more hammer blow for a beleaguered profession. And as weary activists come to the end of this long, dreary and deadlocked election campaign, you have to wonder why so many people are driven to become politicians. Ambition, passion and determination to change their country plays a role. Yet as thousands of tired candidates tramp down streets knocking on doors of often-uninterested voters, they know many fellow citizens look at them with deep cynicism bordering on contempt.

Given that we are on the brink of the ballot after a campaign filled with the usual smears, stunts and sleazy abuse of the truth, perhaps we should pause to consider the nature of our democracy. For we hear much about the failure of Westminster, the need for a new politics and the desire for change, especially from insurgent forces fighting this campaign and their famous fellow travelers. But the reality is rather more complex.

There is, of course, much to criticise. The main parties are defensive and insecure, key public services are creaking, scandals covered up, multinationals abuse our tax system, divisions seem to be growing, even the union that has bound our nation for three centuries appears under threat. Yet I was struck by former Tory cabinet minister David Willetts, sadly standing down at this election, who leaves Westminster as more of an optimist than when he arrived as a researcher almost four decades ago. ‘I do think Britain is a reasonably well governed place,’ he said. ‘By and large, the British political system has tried to deliver.’

Willetts admitted politicians were not permitted to be so positive. Yet for all the flaws in our country and fissures in our politics, he is right – not least when compared with many other nations. Step back from the froth and fury of the electoral fight. Then consider why people risk their lives to come here, why our values are globally admired and why our flag has usurped the Stars and Stripes as the coolest such icon. I remember last year being struck to see in Simferopol that beside the Crimean parliament seized by Russian special forces was a shop with mannequins in the window wearing Union Jack underwear.

True, there are MPs you would not employ to do the washing-up at a whelk stall and others in safe seats who coast through dismal careers. But many more are decent people doing their best in difficult circumstances, trapped by a tired party system and buffeted by forces beyond their control. Their pay and perks pale beside those of Italian, French and even Nigerian counterparts. Even the expenses scandal that so shattered public faith in our system seems slight with its duck house and downloaded pornography compared with the scale of sleaze seen in Spain or Greece.

By the standards of most Western nations, let alone those in the developing world, our politicians are pretty clean and there is less dipping into the pork barrel. They have started paying more attention to their constituencies and, gratifyingly, many of the 227 new MPs elected in 2010 showed a welcome independence of mind. Even Ukip, our right-wing nationalist party exploiting the anti-politics mood so evident across Europe, is less nasty than many of its continental rivals for all its bigotry and misanthropy.

Some key issues are the legacies of success such as immigration, our ageing society, rising health costs and concerns over pensions. Yet instead of constantly complaining we should be celebrating living longer, healthier and more productive lives. During my lifetime average incomes have more than doubled in real terms while the number of children dying before their fifth birthday has fallen five-sixths. Crime rates have slumped, deaths from heart attacks have halved in a decade, road accident fatalities are at their lowest level since records began in 1926, even drinking levels are coming down.

These are remarkable statistics, although the causes are complex. But our politicians must be doing something right, even if they are just doing nothing wrong, since rival nations have seen blips that break these modern trends. The United States, for instance, is the only advanced economy with rising rates of maternal mortality, women three times more likely to die giving birth than in Britain. On top of this we can see how concerted political action has boosted key parts of the economy such as our world-beating universities, our transformed motor industry and a film production sector so successful it scares Hollywood.

It is easy to grumble and grouse about our politicians. Certainly, they give a disenchanted electorate plenty of reasons to despair at their silly games, their tribalism, their refusal to answer questions, their inability to talk in public as they do in private. This dire campaign has provided plenty of fresh ammunition for the anti-Westminster mob with its grim display of politics at its most pessimistic – and more may be provided after an inconclusive result. Yet as we go to vote it is worth remembering our democracy is precious and, for all its faults, Britain is a surprisingly well-governed place – however ugly politicians can appear.

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