Where Is The Passion For Or Against Brexit From Our Elected Representatives?

When it comes to voting and speaking their conscience on Brexit, British MPs should do as former American congressman Anthony Weiner said…but perhaps not as he did

When the British parliament gets rowdy, it tends to be the braying backbench donkeys at Prime Minister’s Questions making the noise, usually in response to some tenuously witty put-down from David Cameron.

What you see far less in parliament are individual politicians getting angry or visibly passionate about particular issues (Mhairi Black’s vastly overrated maiden speech notwithstanding). Perhaps this is partly because of our British reserve – though this is a comity which notably does not seem to extend to social media.

The parliamentary debate following the announcement of David Cameron’s pitiful renegotiation deal with the European Union was a case in point, and the following drip-drip of MPs and ministers once considered to be dependable eurosceptics dutifully lining up behind the prime minister was especially depressing.

Even when solid arguments were made for or against Britain’s continued EU membership, much of the debate was conducted in that dry, technocratic and risk-averse style which does so much to turn people away from politics.

Thus the media expended many more column inches writing about whether David Cameron felt “betrayed” by Michael Gove’s decision to support Brexit, and what kind of punishment Boris Johnson might expect for doing the same. In the near complete absence of really passionate and full-throated arguments on either side (except in the thriving Brexit blogosphere), the Westminster media focused on the court drama and palace intrigue rather than the policy.

It needn’t be so. It is possible to show passion and wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve in a political debate, and doing so (provided that it is genuine) can actually foster greater trust between the people and politicians who are actually perceived as standing for something.

Former New York representative Anthony Weiner resigned from Congress in disgrace, but during his time in Washington he built just such a reputation as a firebrand, with floor speeches which frequently went viral and broadened the reach and appeal of politics.

One such speech – in which Rep. Weiner excoriated Republicans for hiding behind procedural rules as cover for voting against providing healthcare to 9/11 first responders – is particularly applicable to the Brexit debate as it is now being conducted in Westminster:

You vote yes if you believe yes. You vote in favour of something if you believe it’s the right thing. If you believe it’s the wrong thing, you vote no.

You would think that this would be stating the obvious, but apparently not, judging by the number of committed europhile MPs who are quick to reel off all the things they hate about the EU rather than make a full-throated defence of Brussels, and the eurosceptic turncoats who have suddenly come up with implausible-sounding pressing reasons why now is not the right time for Brexit.

Am I the only one who would like to see a bit more genuine passion (as opposed to the creepy “passion” of Ed Miliband, or David Cameron pretending to be “bloody lively”) in our politics, rather than the same old consensual blandness?

Of course, for fiery debates like this to take place in the House of Commons, certain stultifying rules would need to be relaxed (though PMQs and the reaction to SNP MPs clapping shows just how arbitrary the enforcement of these rules already is).

But more than that, to have Anthony Weiner style passion in our politics, and the Brexit debate in particular, we would need more of our elected representatives to do the following:

1. Dare to make the honest, non-technocratic or fearmongering case for or against Brexit (with the europhiles ceasing to deny their desire and preference for European political union), and

2. Place their sincerely held beliefs over and above thoughts of career advancement.

But partly because the legislature and the executive are intertwined in the British political system, career-minded MPs are not currently incentivised to build a reputation as passionate and independent-minded firebrand legislators, as to do so would immediately mark them out as “troublemakers” to be passed over for promotion.

There is, at present, no attractive or lucrative career path in Westminster politics that does not lead inexorably away from legislating and toward joining the government, and the warping effect that this has on our lawmaking process cannot be overstated.

Yet another reason for comprehensive constitutional reform in Britain, to separate the executive from the legislature so that both are better able to do their jobs.

 

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Exit Bachmann, Ctd.

Oh, God.

She’s going to make a reality TV show, isn’t she?

 

It may be freezing and rainy in London on this afternoon in late May, but boy am I glad to be well outside the broadcast reach of the TLC network right now.

Good luck, America.

Exit Bachmann

Well, this is a very sad day for American comedians and political junkies across the land. Our thoughts (but certainly not our prayers) must especially go out to Bill Maher at this difficult time. Why?

Because US Congresswoman Michele Bachmann of Minnesota’s 6th district – otherwise known as Minnesota Palin – will not be running for re-election in 2014.

And she made this incredibly cheesy YouTube video to break the devastating news to her constituents:

 

She assures as that her decision has nothing to do with any of the following potential juicy reasons:

1. The fact that she barely held on to her seat in 2012, and the same Democratic Party challenger is gearing up to take her on again in 2014.

2. Her 2012 presidential campaign is being investigated by the Federal Elections Commission for potential serious improprieties.

3. She goes on dirty, McCarthy-ite, partisan witch hunts against loyal public servants.

4. She’s quite clearly insane.

So what, oh what could the real reason be? Did Michele Bachmann jump or was she pushed?

Normally I wholeheartedly agree with the likes of Glenn Greenwald, who argue that this type of Politico-esque process and personality-obsessed gossiping should not be part of our political discourse, and that it distracts from real journalism, and serious discussions of policy when we need them most. Quite right. But this particular dose of schadenfreude is too good to pass up.

Farewell, Michele Bachmann.

At least she was looking directly at the camera this time around.

Why Politicians Are Hated, Ctd.

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I wrote yesterday about the scourge of the newly-minted career politician, and the damage that this particular breed of “public servant” is doing to the perception of politics in the United States and the United Kingdom.

I received a rather surprising amount of feedback on this piece, both in support and in dissent, so I thought it worth my while to clarify and expand upon my position.

My point was not that all young politicians or wannabe politicians are bad people, or that they are bad for our politics on an individual basis. There are many examples of young MPs or congressmen who do fine work on behalf of their constituencies or districts, and who go above and beyond the call of duty to champion important issues and causes. For evidence we need look only at the work of Labour MP Stella Creasy in her campaign to crack down on illegal loan shark activities in Britain, or Patrick Murphy, US congressman from Florida, who was so incensed by some of the extremist rhetoric coming from the mouth of his then-incumbent representative, Tea Party favourite Allen West, that he switched party affiliation from Republican to Democrat to run against him.

The point is not that being young and untested in the world makes one automatically unfit for public service. The point is that because the overwhelmingly predominant route into political office now favours people such as this – especially those who find themselves in the fast track to even higher office and power – we end up with a type of uniformity of temperament and experience in our legislatures and executives that can be quite damaging.

Many people remarked, after the death of Margaret Thatcher, that the age of the conviction politician is now over. And this is largely true. Those who remain tend to be the old dinosaurs from the past, and even they are dying out or retiring. Ted Kennedy, the “liberal lion” senator from Massachusetts, is dead. Glenda Jackson, my local constituency MP for Hampstead & Kilburn in London, is retiring at the end of this parliament.

There is, at least in the United States, a countervailing force against the move away from conviction politics in the form of the Tea Party. I happen to find their particular convictions rather false and opportunistic (ObamaCare is socialism but MediCare is great, government spending is terrible, but we only just realised this in the Age of Obama…), but there is nonetheless that sense of ideological purpose underlying what those politicians say and the way in which they vote. A better example might be the more principled small government libertarianism of former Texas congressman Ron Paul, and his son, Kentucky senator Rand Paul.

And in the United Kingdom, the UK Independence Party sent shockwaves through the British political establishment after their recent successes in the local council elections in England, largely because they campaigned as the Conservative Party But With Principles, rather than on a continually-triangulating, consensus-seeking David Cameron Tory platform.

I also received feedback from other readers telling me that “hated” is a rather strong word, and that people tend to be indifferent to politics rather than truly hating it. This is a fair point, to a degree – many people are so zoned out and entranced by the world of reality TV and other inane distractions that they just don’t know or care about politics, and are unable to connect the dots and understand how political decisions impact their lives.

But having stood on the main street in my town, campaigning with my hometown MP in the run-up to the 2010 general election, I can also say with absolute certainty that there is a deep contempt, and yes, hatred, that goes well beyond mere indifference to what goes on in Westminster or Washington. As I spoke to members of the public on the street and handed out campaign literature, there were many people who expressed their revulsion against politicians of all parties, and were happy to back up their arguments with a litany of (sometimes rather irrefutable) reasons why.

When I first started work I sat next to a stridently anti-political man at my office, and had terrible trouble convincing him that some politicians were really motivated by the desire to do good, and in fact were not engaged in the devil’s own work. When our argument spread to the wider office, I found myself firmly in the minority.

The fact remains that in both the United Kingdom and the United States, we have gravitated toward a system where the path of least resistance toward high political office favours the young career politician who has no real prior experience in the world, and little intention of ever doing anything else (aside, perhaps from a lucrative lobbying position should they be unlucky enough to lose their seat).

These people are not necessarily worse than the various other breeds of politician in the Westminster/Washington zoo. But too much of any one species tends to upset the ecosystem, and that is exactly where we find ourselves today – with too many carp in the fish pond.

Why Politicians Are Hated

On Tuesday, voters in South Carolina’s first congressional district will go to the polls to choose whether they want to elect Elizabeth Colbert Busch, a Democrat, or Mark Sanford, a Republican.

Mark Sanford was formerly the governor of that same state, a career politician, who was forced to leave office in June 2009 after explosive details of an extra-marital affair gave him too many of the wrong kind of newspaper headlines. However, after a short time in the political wilderness, he felt the need to return to the world of political power, and won the Republican nomination to run in the election.

The voters of the first congressional district did not look kindly on Sanford’s early attempt at redemption, and he is almost certainly likely to lose what was otherwise an eminently winnable seat for the Republicans on polling day.

Two things stand out here – first, the stupidity of the state Republican Party that they would nominate such a flawed candidate. But second, and most important, is what Mark Sanford represents. He is the epitomy of a career politician, whose whole life was about gaining political power, and who is totally unable to contemplate a career doing anything else. Oh, he may waffle about “devoting himself to public service” and suchlike, but it is self-serving nonsense. His career was, and is, about power, the pursuit of political power, and nothing else.

And it is precisely this phenomenon of the ubiquitous career politician which explains why people are so thoroughly disenchanted with politics and politicians today. Here in Britain, and evidently in the United States too.

Ask a typical voter (or non-voter, as these often make up more than half of our potential electorate) what is their idea of a typical politician, and you won’t hear a rapturous description about some incredibly well-credentialed person, someone who has a proven track record of success in their life, someone who has been a part of their community, who understands and knows and talks with people from all walks of life, and who was called to politics to try to accomplish something for the good of their fellow people and their nation, and who intends to do their part and then go back to living their life.

No.

The typical voter, once they swallow the bile that rose into their throat upon hearing your question, is more likely to paint a picture of an oily, self-entitled oik who got into politics for the power and trappings associated with it, who is intent more on climbing the greasy pole of power rather than serving their constituents, and who intends to cling to their position for as many elections and terms as they can possibly get away with, health and lack of scandal permitting.

In other words, there is no concept of the citizen-politician any more. Perhaps in Britain there never was, at least not in the modern age, but throughout American history one can see many examples. Look no further than the father of the nation, George Washington, who not only rejected entreaties for him to become a king-like figure to be addressed as “Your Majesty”, but finished serving his presidential term before retiring to his home and his farm.

You don’t get that with today’s class of professional politicians. Sadly, the well-trodden route taken by today’s slick young political wannabees is almost unvarying from candidate to candidate.

In Britain it looks like this:

1. Ingratiate yourself with your chosen political party’s university society, and start climbing the ranks. On day one of your first term. Get on committees. Make friends with the influential people.

2. Outside of your political society and party political affiliations, be as dull as possible. For heaven’s sake, don’t entertain any foolish notions of doing anything controversial, or exciting, or distinguishing, or any of the things that students should do. You can have no black marks on your resume when the time comes.

3. Graduate and move into a boring job. The law will do nicely, as you won’t be short of opportunities to make powerful new connections.

4. Join the local party association wherever you live, and get involved. Very involved. Attend all the meetings, all of the garden parties, all of the school fairs and church bake sales (if you do church – no longer required or admired). Try to become a school governor if you can, or get onto the board of a local charity. You are now Involved In The Community.

5. Schmooze. Schmooze, schmooze, schmooze. Climb the ladder. Think about trying to become a parliamentary researcher or assistant for an existing MP if you have the connections, or join a  “think tank”. Write lots of articles for anyone who will publish them. It doesn’t matter if they are any good or not.

6. Get selected as the party’s candidate. It doesn’t matter if it’s an unwinnable seat the first time, you are still building your profile. Campaign hard, and ultimately win at all costs.

7. Congratulations, you’ve been elected to parliament. Now you can choose whether to climb the ladder within your parliamentary party and try to get a cabinet position, or just relax and be a constituency MP. But why would you want to do that? Your whole life has been a continuous glide toward the Palace of Westminster, and you sure aren’t about to take your foot off the accelerator now.

And so we have a whole generation of MPs from all parties – people like Chukka Umunna – who are basically airbrushed, well-groomed and telegenic candidates who never really lived in the real world before entering politics and who have no idea what they would do with their lives if they ever had to leave it. Umunna likes to style himself as “the British Barack Obama”. He is not. Like or dislike Obama, he does possess significant leadership and rhetorical skills, and did his fair share of work in the community before his rapid ascent through the political ranks.

An important point here – we should not look to deify private sector experience above all else as Mitt Romney tried to do in the 2012 US elections. Running a government is not the same as running a private enterprise, and different skills and experiences are needed. Success in the private sector does not automatically lead to success in the public sector, and vice versa. So it is not my contention that we should be looking exclusively at corporate C-suites or the ranks of entrepreneurs for our future political leaders. There are people who have served the community deeply in many ways, who are capable of becoming excellent legislators and political leaders.

But neither should we be looking for the next bland, cookie-cutter candidate who has gone through the 7-step “become an MP by the age of 35” programme. If a candidate’s life up until that point has been all about gaining political power, what chance is there that they will ever want to relinquish it and do anything else after their first term? Their second? Their third? Their fourth? Until retirement beckons?

Thus, without term limits we end up with the same boring old faces hanging around forever, and with them a dearth of new ideas.

In South Carolina, voters are about to reject Mark Sanford’s attempt at early political redemption because they do not recognise that he has a divine right to be a politician forever and ever, until he dies, simply because that is what he wants to do with his life.

In a democracy, we get the politicians and leaders that we deserve. Let’s stop deserving bad ones.