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Why are politicians so self-loathing?

10 March 2016

2:49 PM

10 March 2016

2:49 PM

One of the poorest lines in Dan Jarvis’s speech this morning was not the pre-briefed line about being ‘tough on inequality, tough on the causes of inequality’, which has already endured sufficient mockery. It was this seemingly innocuous proposal:

‘Let’s be honest – MPs who represent areas along the HS2 route or in the Heathrow flight path have a tough call about whether to vote for these schemes. So let’s take out the politics. Let’s look at new powers that allow the government to refer major infrastructure decisions to the National Infrastructure Commission for an independent decision on whether projects should go ahead.’

Jarvis isn’t the first politician to say this sort of thing, and he won’t be the last to say it this month, let alone ever. But it is a silly thing for a politician to say. Suggesting that something needs the politics taking out of it is to imply that politics in itself is inherently a bad thing, and that politicians can never really be trusted. Now, most members of the public might agree with that, with just 21 per cent telling Ipsos MORI in January that they trusted politicians to tell the truth. But this doesn’t mean that politicians should agree with the public that they are not trustworthy, or indeed reinforce that impression by suggesting that taking the politics out of something is akin to drawing out the poison.

Politics is full of people, so of course it’s full of potentially untrustworthy types. But at its heart it is about making decisions, and about people who are elected and paid to be better informed and take decisions on behalf of their electorate. Even unfashionable political parties and their hated whipping operations have a noble purpose, which is a group of people who share the same principles working together to ensure those principles don’t just float about on campaign leaflets and banners but actually make their way into public policy.

And why shouldn’t MPs whose constituencies are affected by major infrastructure projects have to agonise about whether or not to support them? Some decisions aren’t easy, but that doesn’t mean politicians should be allowed to avoid taking them.

Perhaps Jarvis and others mean ‘let’s remove the petty partisanship’ when they talk about taking the politics out of decisions. It is trendy to rail against adversarial politics because it’s much nicer for everyone to hold hands and pretend they agree rather than challenging one another and forcing those making decisions to sharpen their arguments. But even that is not the same as pettiness. If you dislike petty politicians, then talk about removing the pettiness from politics, not the politics from politics. It might even be the case that if politicians trusted themselves more to take big decisions rather than panicking and farming as much as possible out to an independent commission that also conveniently delays the really awkward decisions that people might get angry about, then they might not have as much time to be petty with one another.

But so long as politicians join in with the pretence that politics is something that poisons the policymaking process, they cannot really complain when voters continue to agree with them that they can’t be trusted.

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