Wednesday, 27 May 2009
"Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." Famous words from the inauguration speech of John F. Kennedy, but it would be hard to persuade the public that they constitute the guiding principle of their rulers, or even of themselves. Apparently derived via a sentiment from Rousseau, "As soon as any man says of the affairs of state, What does it matter to me?, the state may be given up as lost", from the Platonic idea that all citizens should be involved in the political life of their state, it may be questionable how practical it has ever been. Certainly the current scandal over MP's expenses makes it seem as if the guiding principle of our politicians is to grab all they can and make their country pay for it all.
Calls for constitutional reform are emerging from the uproar, and are being taken up by politicians, especially by David Cameron. Although some hanker for proportional representation, the preferred tinkering is to make Parliament function more like the American model, with stronger and more independent committees and petitions to recall MP's who have become unpopular. This overlooks the fact that the problems lie more with the people than with the mechanism, yet it conforms to the common delusion that utopia can be achieved by a bit more social engineering of the populace and 'reform' of institutions and mechanisms. This of course is all the more strange because American politicians are not noted for honesty, economy and ascetic living. Instead, it's well known that they are permanently running for re-election and desperately striving to collect money for their hugely expensive campaigns, which dwarf the costs of British elections.
It's not clear that those famous committees, attractive though they may be to grandstanding politicians, are really effective in scrutinising the activities of government and limiting public expenditure. The cut-down, whipped and government dominated British select committee version have been better noted for pompous bullying of witnesses such as Dr. David Kelley than for incisive investigation and scrutiny of government policy.
Indeed the recent bailout of Wall Street by the American taxpayer, cast a cold light on American politicians. Those that appeared before the world made a poor impression, looking ignorant and shifty. They received a tremendous amount of mail and phone calls from voters, almost entirely opposed to the expenditure, and after a brief hesitation they obeyed the instructions of the money-men and ignored their voters. Interestingly, their political judgment was sound, as apparently most of those who were up for re-election retained their seats! Follow the money.
This is the political system whose lack of control over government expenditure, produced the famous quip, "a billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking real money", popularly attributed to Senator Everett Dirksen. Things have moved on, and billions now have become trillions. The Pentagon is responsible for about half the defense related expenditure on the whole planet, but they are very bad at keeping track of it. Their auditors reported that trillions of dollars have disappeared and simply can't be accounted for. That's amazing and disturbing, but the bad news was buried along with thousands of people on that archetypal 'good day to bury bad news' in 2001. Considering the record and connections of the Pentagon Comptroller at the time, and the realities of power in Washington, there's a very broad hint as to what happened to the money, and why such little fuss has been made about it. Then there's the billions of dollars stolen and wasted in Iraq, with little oversight. The representatives of the people don't do a very good job at preventing such outrageous peculation and waste.
Not only are American politicians failing to control and follow up government expenditure, but they may be making things worse. George Crile's book My Enemy's Enemy recounts the strange story that was the basis for the film Charlie Wilson's War, of how a minor congressman changed American foreign policy towards Afghanistan and it's occupation by the Soviet Union. He was able, with the aid of other shady politicians to vastly increase expenditure on weapons for the Afghan guerrillas, with very little attention.
It may be doubted that holding the government to account for policies and expenditure really forms a large part of politicians' interests and activities. They are not selected for any such competence, and little encouragement is given for them to develop it. Some of the more conscientious MP's complain that any outside knowledge they may have acquired is ignored in appointing them to committees. Ministers are bereft of knowledge that might be expected of those at the head of large organisations, and by the time they learn much, they are likely to have been removed or moved on to somewhere else. There remains a belief in some quarters that political representatives should have experience of life outside politics. That would have been fair enough in days when legislation was less, and it could be discussed at greater leisure, so it's general purport and practical implementation could be given more discriminating attention. Indeed that may have been more common when affairs of the nation were settled before a Witan or Senate, whose members were chosen at least in part because of their distinction and seniority in other areas of life. Now, however, we increasingly have professional politicians, for whom politics is the only life they have ever known, and in many cases they would be unfit to participate in anything else. We need not imagine that professional politicians do a better job of promoting good legislation and sober, competent, responsible government. Clearly they don't. They do conform to the current expectation that everyone should have a well defined full time job in this bureaucratised, mechanised and routinised society. Parliament becomes a factory for legislation - that's it's purpose, so it's expected to produce lots of output, regardless of necessity or quality. There's little concern that the legislators often don't bother to read the legislation they pass, let alone study it's details and understand it's implications. They take care to exempt themselves from any onerous provisions. The professional politicians are not proficient at devising good laws, but they are proficient at self promotion, media presentation and vacuous public statements. Not the most worthwhile skills, but essential in politics and it's ancillary activities. They are not representatives of their voters, they are a Political Class, who are turning their seats in Parliament into family fiefdoms, renewed versions of rotten boroughs, and sources of income for as many family members as possible. They're not worried about loss of sovereignty, nor about becoming rubber stamps for legislation favouring special interests, and even drafted by them. Their world of politics is plush, prosperous, gossipy and full of busy-work, so they feel they are working hard and doing a wonderful job which deserves even more money and perquisites, insulated from the people who provide this comfort, except via the media of political communication - downwards - which they dominate.
This Political Class does not have the best interests of their people at heart. They parrot mantras about helping the poor, improving education or health or whatever is the flavour of the moment, but it's the opposite that is achieved. That's not altogether surprising. Parasites don't improve the health of their hosts. They are not even representative of the natural upper class of the local people. Several years ago I saw a brief mention that the majority of the advertisers A class people in Britain - the people who own and run things and whose decisions shape the future of the country, are no longer British, but Indian and American. Our Political Class does not represent the British people, but a collection of aliens. Even those who may be British by blood, are mentally alien, adherents of socialism working actively to destroy their country and turn it into just another Third World hellhole which the Political Class will administer of behalf of the very rich and powerful.
There's no perfect political system and politics has always been somewhat rough and selfish. Bismarck famously remarked that it was better not to enquire too closely what went into the making of laws and sausages. It does not have to be degraded. Equally, one can recognise that being close to power has always been an excellent way to acquire wealth. William the Conqueror's Norman knights did pretty well out of Hastings. Clive and Warren Hastings did pretty well out of India, in the accepted manner of the time and place. The victory of Blenheim led to public appreciation on a Ducal scale for Marlborough. Government contracts have often been the source of considerable wealth, sometimes at the expense of the forces and the public. Gordon's pals seem to be doing nicely out of public-private finance initiatives. Expenses padding MP's can't claim to have provided any significant public services, and the public mood is hostile to their infuriating but relatively minor self enrichments.
Currently MP's are providing the unintended public service of being a focus for public anger and frustration. People can now vent some of their discontent over their powerlessness and lack of recognition by the political establishment. This shows a potential for re-invigorating Parliament, and gives agile politicians the opportunity to claim that the roar of the crowd is in support of their particular plans. It's a bit like the story from one of the 19th century French uprisings, where someone stops a disconsolate figure trailing after a mob and asks why he is following them. "I am their leader, therefore I must follow them" came the reply.
To an extent Parliament gives the public a reflection of it's own face, and the piggy visage now on view is not attractive. It's a bad fall in the public image from a Great Power and Empire, to a mean-spirited, grubby talking-shop of minimal importance.
Politicians serve the purpose of concealing the real sources of power. The public did not ask for the massive social changes of recent decades, such as mass coloured immigration, uncontrolled borders, abolition of the death penalty, denigration of Christianity and any form of civilisation and of local institutions and standards and promotion of homosexuality. All the evil nonsense spouted by depraved lefties, and infiltrated into the Political Class came via the media and 'educational' institutions fronting for very powerful interests hostile to traditional British culture. Those who voted for them were probably not even aware of their brainwashing, but felt a clear common lefty liberal interest as a Politically Correct Political Class, against the most basic interests of the people they ruled and supposedly represented.
It does not seem likely that the current popular anger at politicians will result in changes sufficiently radical to eliminate the deeper causes of the problem, resume sovereignty from Brussels and extirpate the socialist scum and their beneficiaries, generate a strong national consciousness and leadership loyal to the best interests of the local people. More likely there will be a change of personnel within the Political Class, from Brown to a somewhat better Cameron, before the public relapses into it's usual supine concentration on personalities and trivia, content with some cosmetic changes to the political system.