Statesmanship and low politics

Obviously, in the twenty-first century it would be better to say “statespersonship”. But that’s a bit unwieldy. And it’s not yet a thing. So I hope you’ll let me off.

I’ve been reflecting on this issue a lot over the last few days. It was triggered by last week’s unedifying slanging match between George Osborne and Ed Balls.

We need sober reflection and firm action following the exposure of the poisonous heart of the global economy. What we got was a truly hideous example of the worst sort of playground behaviour.

Osborne seems unable to leave the politicking alone. He is no longer in opposition, with the primary aim of goading and undermining the incumbent administration. He holds one of the great offices of state and should act accordingly. He shouldn’t be carrying on like the reigning Under-Elevens Name-Calling Champion who fears being deposed unless he puts in a particularly robust performance.

I make no particular excuses for Ed Balls, but it is utterly disingenuous for Osborne to point the finger at him for presiding over the period of light touch regulation of the City that led to the LIBOR scandal. During the whole of the relevant period the Conservatives were making a song and dance about the unnecessarily arduous regulatory burden placed on their City chums. They were arguing for even lighter touch regulation. The City may be a cesspit, as Vince Cable so vividly described it last week, but for anyone to imply that it is a cesspit of Labour’s making – and that it would not have happened had the Tories been in power over the last decade – is arrant nonsense.

It’s all low politics and no statesmanship.

It is equally infuriating that political debate seems to be locked in to the idea that it is wrong to move on. On Newsnight last week Ed Miliband was interviewed by Kirsty Wark. He pretty much conceded that Labour got it wrong. They were not sufficiently robust in regulating the City and this contributed to the problems recently exposed. Things should have been done differently. Yet, Wark seemed barely able to comprehend what he was saying. She just kept going over and over the point that Labour had presided over a light touch regulation regime and therefore they were culpable. But he’d conceded the point. There was no sense that it was acceptable to say that a lesson had been learnt, that it was time to move on and to start afresh with a different approach.

After every unsavoury episode it is standard operating procedure for politicians to claim that lessons have been learnt. Most people no doubt see this as code for not proposing to change anything very significant. Yet in a situation where there seems to be a genuine appetite for learning lessons and doing things differently such claims are not accepted at face value. At the very least doing so would call the politician’s bluff. Instead the debate is dragged back to the past. Of course sometimes it is vital to remember. But sometimes it is important to move on.

As the focus has moved on to Lords Reform we again see the low politics and the calculation of short-term advantage assert itself. Few seem willing to judge Clegg’s proposals on their substance. Rather they want to list all the U-turns and indignities perpetrated by the Lib Dems over the past couple of years as a reason for not supporting reform now. Labour has committed itself to Lords Reform for the last three elections, but some on the red side of the House would see it as more important to undermine the Coalition by fostering division than to move forward with proposals very similar to those set out under previous Labour governments. Could move on, won’t move on.

Seeking to get the Lords Reform programme motion dropped to allow for open-ended debate, as the Labour leadership has claimed, may seem reasonable. But it is clear that it has emboldened the Tory rebels and allowed them to turn the screws on Cameron harder. It is now reported that if he can’t broker an agreement with his rebel backbenchers at the first attempt then he may not bring Lords Reform proposals back to the House. And that may well cause the Coalition to fall apart (though I doubt it). Woo hoo! It also means that Lords Reform will most likely be off the agenda again for a long time. We’ve waited a 100 years for serious reform, it won’t hurt to wait another couple of decades.

Maybe your response is: that’s politics for you. And you would undoubtedly be right. That’s politics as it is currently practiced in the UK Parliament. But I don’t accept that it has to be all low politics and no statesmanship.

The Clegg-Cameron Rose Garden love-in at the start of the Coalition was faintly nauseating. But it was heralded as a new, more adult approach to politics. Let’s put party differences aside and the national interest first. What a fantastically positive development. Yet, how briefly that moment of maturity lasted. Now we’re back to the childish name calling and petty politicking.

It seems to me one of the strongest arguments against Lords reform is not that it will create another elected chamber, which in principle is a good thing, but that it will create another elected chamber which replicates the sort of dysfunctional political culture witnessed in the Commons. It is the tragedy of contemporary political institutions that they are populated with politicians schooled in low politics and little else. Reform of the way the Commons conducts itself would have a greater impact on the quality of UK governance than reform of the House of Lords.

I had a vague idea that the playing fields of Eton and the colleges of Oxbridge were supposed to produce people with rather broader vision, leadership ability and a capacity for statesmanship. Maybe they do. It’s just that the people with those characteristics choose not to become professional politicians. And that’s a loss for all of us.


Image: Ewan McIntosh via flickr under Creative Commons.

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