Will The Snap General Election Damage Trust In Politicians?

Theresa May - Snap General Election 8 June 2017

Does the prime minister’s decision to call a snap general election damage trust in politicians? No, but the actions of those MPs fighting a desperate rearguard attempt to overturn the referendum result and thwart Brexit certainly will

The received wisdom among the punditocracy seems to be that Theresa May has seriously damaged the public trust in her own leadership, and in the character of politicians in general, by reversing her earlier statements and calling a snap general election for 8 June.

The Spectator’s Isabel Hardman seems to be taking particular offence, singling out this decision as being emblematic of why voters distrust politicians and hold them in such low regard.

This might be true on the margins, but I would argue that most people do not devote a huge amount of time to storing up resentments over acts of political skulduggery and gamesmanship which impact the careers of individual MPs far more than the country as a whole.

The real reason for flatlining public trust in politicians is the fact that successive ministers, parties and MPs have continually promised radical change and sweeping improvement while offering nearly identical variants of the same centrist political consensus. People distrust politicians because for years they have claimed to hear public concern and anxiety about numerous issues – immigration levels, EU membership, state involvement in the economy, foreign policy – and then gone and done exactly what they wanted to do in the first place, without taking those concerns into account. People get angry about the real, material policy betrayals, not the cosmetic political ones.

Promising to cut net inward migration to the “tens of thousands” (wise or not) and then missing the mark by a factor of ten is liable to make people distrust politicians because it is a real and tangible failure. Offering a “cast iron guarantee” to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty and then performing a complete U-turn is liable to make people distrust politicians because it actively takes away something that was promised to the electorate. By contrast, electoral shenanigans barely register on the same scale.

And yet the narrative that Theresa May has supposedly mortally wounded voter trust in politicians continues to grow, like a massive snowball picking up debris as it rolls down a hill:

Meanwhile, Isabel Hardman writes:

Today Theresa May broke her own promise about there being no early general election [..] She had been so adamant that even those who thought they knew her best after years of working together in Opposition and government had taken her at her world and were insisting until recently that May believed in keeping her promises and that there would be no snap general election.

[..] Oddly one of her complaints was that Westminster wasn’t ‘coming together’ after the referendum, as though it would be better if everyone agreed on everything she suggested, because consensus is such a good way of refining legislation so that it leaves Westminster in good shape.

This is great snark, but poor analysis. While unthinking, automatic consensus are never good, neither is blind, unreasonable opposition. The task before MPs is to help ensure that the UK achieves the best possible form of Brexit, given the clear instruction given by the British people to engineer Britain’s exit from the European Union. Yet there are many MPs – the entire SNP and LibDem caucuses, for instance – who have zero interest in abiding by the referendum result, and in fact have openly declared their intention to scupper the result and prevent Brexit by any means necessary and via any opportunity which can be grasped.

This is not reasonable. This is not respecting the will of the people as expressed through a majority of voters in a referendum whose legitimacy none of them complained about when they expected to win. In fact, this is deeply unreasonable.

To use a comparison from America, the behaviour of many Remainer MPs can be likened to Republican Senator Mitch McConnell declaring that the GOP’s main objective was to make Barack Obama a one-term president – not to help ensure American success despite their ideological differences, but to blindly and angrily oppose everything just for the sake of it in order to weaken the president. A temper tantrum rather than constructive opposition.

One can also compare the attitude of die-hard Remainers to the US Republican Party strategy when ObamaCare was being debated in Congress. Here was a president with a mandate and a congressional supermajority, but rather than engaging with the legislative process to inject conservative thinking and ideas into the eventual bill, the Republicans again chose blind opposition – including opposing policy ideas (such as the individual mandate) which were once approved by conservative think tanks and enacted by conservative governors. The result was a flawed attempt at American healthcare reform, which fell far short of achieving universal coverage or access and giving almost none of the parties what they really wanted (either single-payer or a deregulated insurance market).

Remainer MPs have a chance now to engage with the Brexit process, to apply pressure to help achieve the best kind of Brexit – in this blog’s view, an interim Norway-style option which preserves maximal single market access and avoids having to draw up alternative trade, regulation and customs arrangements against the clock. But this already unlikely goal cannot be achieved so long as so many Remainer MPs openly salivate at the idea of blocking Brexit altogether and brazenly boast about their intention to blindly oppose everything that this “Evil Tory” government tries to do.

Theresa May was right to state that Westminster needs to “come together” – not in blind obedience to a Tory manifesto but in acknowledgement of a legitimate referendum outcome which must now be enacted. Under this umbrella of basic respect for democracy there exists a vast spectrum for disagreement and opposition of particular policies and ideas, as is right for a liberal democracy. But unless we observe common rules and accept certain undeniable facts then we cannot work together productively.

Presently, too many pro-EU Remainer politicians are choosing the path of blind opposition as opposed to constructive engagement. They refuse to live in the real-world universe where they lost the EU referendum and the Brexiteers won. Living in denial is certainly their right – but in doing so they have given Theresa May exactly the cover that she needed to call this early general election.

Hardman concludes:

Actually, politicians are decent people, and all people can end up breaking promises. But the problem is that the voters have the same childlike sense of justice that doesn’t easily forget those broken promises (remember what happened to the Lib Dems in 2015 after their broken tuition fee pledge?)

Anyone who has worked with children who have been neglected in their early years knows that keeping promises is even more important, as each broken promise hurts terribly and reminds the child of the pain they felt when they were younger. Voters as a whole aren’t vulnerable in the same way, but they consistently show the same frustration with politicians when asked for their attitudes towards them in polls. And whatever they may say about their commitment to public service, but Theresa May and David Cameron have in recent years made it even harder for politicians as a group to gain the public’s trust.

This is a little condescending to voters, but there is some truth in it. I wouldn’t necessarily describe voter anger at broken material promises by politicians as being “childlike”. Rather, I think it represents that innate sense of fair play which is common to children and decent adults alike.

Promises should certainly be kept, but let us not pretend for another moment that all political promises are created equal. David Cameron standing down as an MP after first promising to stay on, and Theresa May holding a snap general election after promising not to do so – these acts simply do not offend the public trust as much as other, far more significant policy betrayals committed by all parties of government in recent decades.

Perhaps it is easy to lose perspective as an establishment journalist used to following every detail of the Westminster Game of Thrones, but out in the country actual tangible outcomes matter far more than the kind of palace intrigue which fascinates The Spectator.

But as even some Remainers (at least those outside of Parliament and the political elite) now realise, attempting to thwart the outcome of the EU referendum – either through procedural shenanigans or attempting to roll the dice with a second referendum, ignoring the fact that Article 50 has already been triggered – deeply offends that sense of fair play, and does so far more egregiously than Theresa May’s broken promise about not holding a general election until 2020.

 

David Cameron confronted by angry voter

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William Hague’s Bizarre Critique Of Donald Trump

Donald Trump Hosts Nevada Caucus Night Watch Party In Las Vegas

William Hague is just the latest media personality to use Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy as an opportunity for virtue-signalling, rhetorical target practice

William Hague is getting rusty.

The former Conservative Party leader has already shredded his reputation among real conservatives through his shameful support of David Cameron and the Remain campaign. And now, added to that, his latest column on the US presidential election is written with all of the insight of someone who has been paying no attention to the American political scene for years, and is basing their hastily-written column on all of the most tired generalisations from a British television news report.

Whatever happened to the sparklingly witty and intellectually nimble political personality who could keep the House of Commons spellbound (or laughing uncontrollably) with his skills as a raconteur? Perhaps that side of William Hague is curled up in the foetal position, rocking backwards and forwards in shame and incredulity at what the europhile side is up to.

Hague begins with this remarkable statement about the main factors which should disqualify Donald Trump from becoming president of the United States:

Two characteristics make Trump fundamentally unfit to be president: his attitude to women and the way he treats rivals. The first of these, including crude and offensive remarks about female interviewers and candidates, shows deeply patronising instincts.

This isn’t just foul manners. It really matters because the way to liberate the greatest quantity of untapped talent in the 21st century is to achieve the full social, political and economic empowerment of women. Having a leader of the world’s most powerful country who shows no recognition of that cannot be a good idea.

His insulting response to rivals is another disastrous weakness in a potential global leader. The belittling of political opponents – “Lying Ted”, “Little Marco” and so on – shows no grasp of the fact that any president must work with them in Congress the minute he or she is elected. Even worse, Trump’s bullying attitude to other countries – telling Mexico it will have to pay for a wall along its border – would be utterly counterproductive and diminish the power of the USA by destroying its moral authority and crucial ability to persuade others to act.

Of all the things that Hague could have picked as Donald Trump’s disqualifying features, he chooses to virtue-signal and cite Trump’s view of women – as though Trump’s public attitude to women is any worse than, say, JFK’s attitude and behaviour were in private. Of all the things about Trump that Hague can think of, his frequent obnoxiousness is deemed the most serious.

Nothing to do with Trump having no functional knowledge of trade or foreign policy. That’s fine, according to Hague – President Trump can pick all of that stuff up on the fly. But God forbid that the next occupant of the Oval Office says off-colour, crass things about people (despite claiming to have “the best words”).

Hague even goes on to specifically mention some of Trump’s more outlandish statements on foreign and defence policy, so it is not as though he is unaware of them:

When Trump says that South Korea and Japan should have their own nuclear weapons, rather than rely on America, and that the US should stop funding Nato, what he is advocating is the collapse of the entire security architecture of the western world. But the people voting for him and such policies are telling us that they are fed up with paying for the defence of other countries who do very little to look after themselves.

[..] Trump’s other main policy with an impact on all of us is trade protectionism: he wants to impose swingeing tariffs on imports from China and Mexico, and withdraw from new trade agreements. This would be another disastrous act. It would result in widespread retaliation against American products, higher prices for consumers, and lower growth for the world. For Britain, the ninth largest exporter in the world, such policies would be very bad news indeed.

But apparently itching to provoke a trade war and undermining the security structure which has protected the West since the Cold War – with no clear plan for its replacement – is less of a disqualifying factor than Trump’s ongoing feud with Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly.

Hague’s broader point – that by supporting Donald Trump, his voters are sending an important message about longstanding, unresolved problems with the American economy – is a fair observation, though it is one which has been made by many other commentators (including this blog) for some time now and so hardly counts as original.

The awkward truth, of course, is that one of the primary drivers of the rise of populists like Donald Trump is the way that mainstream politicians have comported themselves, behaved in power and failed to govern on the platforms on which they ran for office. It is unsurprising that William Hague makes no mention of his, because he is a prime example of the kind of politician who pushes voters toward populists.

William Hague built a career and a reputation out of eurosceptic posturing. Yes, those who paid attention a little more closely could discern that Hague’s euroscepticism was not of the same nature or intensity of that of, say, Iain Duncan Smith. But Hague was nonetheless happy to hoover up eurosceptic support by making the right noises against Brussels and in favour of British sovereignty – right up until his stunning betrayal of the Brexit movement.

Similarly, the establishment Republicans now shunned and held in derision by Trump supporters also have a record of campaigning and posing one way, but acting in quite another. GOP voters have been let down in turn by cynical politicians cosying up to evangelical Christians and promising them the world, but then failing to prevent the enormous recent social changes in America. They have also been let down by the GOP’s brand of faux fiscal conservatism, which preaches the necessity of belt-tightening and cuts but often succeeds only in cutting taxes for higher-earners and exploding budget deficits.

Meanwhile, the Rick Santorum-esque wing of the Republican Party have either pretended that every American is a job-creating millionaire in waiting or talked about solidarity with the American worker while watching the American middle class getting squeezed and then decimated by the forces of globalisation without enacting a single proposal to help them make the adjustment to the new economy.

William Hague is right when he says “my experience of 30 years of elections is that when you think voters might have gone mad, they are actually trying to tell you something”. Unfortunately, what Trump voters are saying is that they are heartily sick of being lied to and peddled shiny promises of a New America which never come true.

Hague can focus on Trump’s abrasive and sometimes obnoxious personality all he wants, but it will not assauge his guilty conscience nor change the fact that his decision to support the Remain campaign in Britain’s EU referendum means that he himself has become just another flip-flopping politician of the type which feeds, not dampens, populist insurgencies like that of Donald Trump.

 

William Hague - Parliament

Top Image: The Spectator

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When Expecting Politicians To Have Principles Is Considered Unreasonable

trump-announce

Damn those stubborn idealists

Sometimes satirical American news site The Onion strikes a little too close to home.

The latest case in point is an excellent News in Brief story from last week, entitled “Precious Little Voter Needs To Feel Inspired By Candidate“:

CLEVELAND—Noting how important it is for him to find a campaign that stirs genuine optimism and enthusiasm in its supporters, sources confirmed Tuesday that precious little voter Adam Higgins needs to feel inspired by a candidate. “To be perfectly honest, I just can’t bring myself to vote for someone I’m not excited about,” said the delicate little flower, who simply has to experience an authentic and personal connection to a candidate and believe in his wittle-bitty heart that the candidate’s message will legitimately move the country forward in meaningful and significant ways. “Policies and experience are certainly important, but a candidate has to have a vision I truly believe in. I’m only going to cast a ballot for someone who actually provides real hope for the future of this country [because I need to feel all snuggly-wuggly and special].” Sources further confirmed the fragile, dainty buttercup feels he absolutely must vote for someone who is trustworthy and competent.

The Onion’s fictional Adam Higgins sums up this blog’s attitude nicely in a single paragraph. Let Semi-Partisan Politics be a refuge for dainty buttercups everywhere!

But maybe it is time to give up on our dainty buttercup ways and embrace the cold hard reality of politics, where even fundamental positions on issues as consequential as the future of our democracy are nothing more than bargaining chips to be picked up, traded and discarded as politicians seek to advance their careers.

Maybe if people like me – those who think that political ideas and governing ideology actually matter, and that there is nothing mature or laudable about “pragmatically” lurching from crisis to crisis, dealing with each one on an isolated, ad hoc basis in pursuit of favourable newspaper headlines – simply shut up and got out of the way, the whole system would suddenly start functioning much better.

Actually, no, it wouldn’t. It is for the political class to change their ways, not the citizens who many politicians have so conspicuously failed to serve. Give me Jeremy Corbyn over Ed Miliband any day, even though his politics are anathema to this blog. And give me Margaret Thatcher over almost anybody in the Ted Heath tribute act of a government we currently have in Britain.

The most unnerving Onion headlines and stories are generally those which in the the course of recent years have become impossible to distinguish from real life, or those which invert reality so that the offensive and unnatural is considered normal.

This is one of those stories.

 

And no, this blog does not support Donald Trump.

 

Political centrism

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For In The Final Analysis

John F. Kennedy, May 29, 1917 – November 22, 1963

“So, let us not be blind to our differences, but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”

For those of us who have grown up never having heard a great contemporary political speech, here is the remarkable speech given by President John F Kennedy at American University on June 10, 1963.

Kennedy was assassinated on this day in 1963, fifty-two years ago.

Powerful words, but does Kennedy’s analysis still hold true in the Age of Jihad – when we are preoccupied with ISIS and Al Qaeda rather than the Soviet Union, and when our enemies eagerly embrace death and have no thought at all for their children, let alone their own earthly future?

Imagine David Cameron giving a speech like this about the threat posed by Islamist terrorism, or Britain’s future relationship with the European Union. Imagine David Cameron, George Osborne, Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn, Chuka Umunna, Yvette Cooper, Tristram Hunt, Andy Burnham, Tim Farron or Nicola Sturgeon giving this speech. Try picturing it without laughing out loud.

The challenges today are different to those faced by Kennedy and our political leaders half a century ago. But rarely have our political leaders seemed so helpless, so inadequate to the tasks at hand. At best, our current prime minister might be described as a reasonably competent Comptroller of Public Services. And it is far from certain that he even aspires to be anything more.

They say that we get the politicians and leaders we deserve. If so, the time has come for us all to engage in some serious introspection.

JFK - John F Kennedy - American University Commencement Address

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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.