Thursday, 4 March 2010

Unfit To Govern?

On this day in 1681 Charles II, king of England, granted a charter to William Penn to found a colony in America. Penn named this colony partly for his family, and partly in recognition of the wooded beauty of this new land he sought to colonise. Thus was born the colony, and later state, of Pennsylvania.

He aimed to attract as many of his fellow religionists, the Quakers, to his new colony as possible, but it was his stated intent that this colony should be a haven for all fleeing religious persecution, and that all should be free to practice their religion, without fear or favour from it's government. The constitution and model of government he set up embodied many of his own values, and those of the Quakers, and had a profound influence on the later American revolutionaries (along with the writings of another great American Quaker, Thomas Paine), and played a significant part in their thinking when they wrote their own constitution a century later.

The Quaker role in the colony's government was short-lived, however, as they quickly recognised that the exercise of power tended to corrupt, and made it hard to live a virtuous life. They also regretted that their time was no longer spent in the pursuit of a life lived to their own high ethical standards, and that they spent their time instead in the squabbles and politicking of their legislature, divorced from the simplicity and everyday life that inspired their beliefs. The political realities, especially of sharing power with non-Quakers, made it seem impossible for them to function in accordance with their beliefs. And so they left, and returned to a life away from politics and government.

I have often wondered if they were right to make that withdrawal. Whether they were right to put aside the good influence that they undoubtedly had, and the good works they were able to undertake, in order to maintain their personal values unsullied. Were their values more important than the common good? How would the colony have developed under their continued influence? Is it possible to maintain virtue and ethics while exercising power?

The simple answer is that no-one knows, but that does not free us from the temptation of speculation, and I would certainly like to think that they would have resisted many of the pitfalls of our own politicians, despite the ever greater temptations and burdens placed upon them. The examples of unvirtuous behaviour in office, of corruption great and small, of the surrender of values and ethics to the political system, are so commonplace that the more cynical amongst us may well be justified in thinking that no-one can resist the blandishments of power. And the policies pursued may have served the people a little better if imbued with a little more of the Quaker virtues of integrity, equality, community, simplicity and peace.

It is certainly educational to watch the progress of our young politicians as they climb the ladder, and see the gradual transformation as they rise ever upwards. I have known a few of the current politicians at Westminster and Holyrood at various stages of their careers, from student days right through to parliamentary duty and even to ministerial office. Many have never been exactly virtuous or ethical; indeed they may be characterised as political creatures with all the political arts well in evidence. Others give hints that they may still have sight of some of the principles and ethics which first motivated them, and can still surprise us with their willingness to act accordingly.

I wonder whether, like the Pennsylvania Quakers feared, it is impossible to stay in contact with one's core values and the life experiences that motivated them when physically removed from the community, and ordinary life, as politicians necessarily are when conducting their legislative duties. Is it possible to maintain that mental awareness, whilst physically absent? Surely it should be, though it probably takes real effort, awareness and conviction to do so. Do our politicians have what it takes? Did they ever? Have any politicians ever?

I was shocked recently by reports originating in a TV reality show on Channel 4 (Tower Block of Commons), which placed a number of our Westminster politicians in tower block housing estates, to witness at firsthand the lives of some of the poorest and most deprived communities in our country. They were obviously shell-shocked at the extent of that deprivation and at the reality of the people's existence. Their naivety was outrageous, considering these were elected representatives, supposed to be representing their constituency in parliament. They are supposed to represent ALL their constituents, so how come they were so seemingly unaware of the housing, poverty, ill-health and lack of opportunity of a significant part of that electorate they represent? How did they become so isolated and divorced from that reality? And how can they possibly make policy, and act in the interests of their constituency, when they are so ignorant of it?

People have long suspected that their politicians had little idea of how many, if not the majority, live their lives. How could they have, in view of some of the pronouncements they make and some of the policies they espouse? How could they, when they live in the Westminster bubble, with so little contact with ordinary life? They never meet most of the underclasses and the deprived; they don't tend to go and see their MP, if they even know who they are, and they usually only get visited by politicians on stage-managed and ruthlessly choreographed photo-opportunities.

When we take this in conjunction with the ongoing scandals over politicians expenses at Westminster, and the inept way that has been handled, then it is clear that radical changes are required to make our parliaments truly representative, and to restore public confidence in politicians as people, and in their ability to act effectively in the interests of all our people.

As we approach a general election (probably only a few weeks away now), then it is difficult to see how the political parties will achieve this. They seem ill-equipped to do so, and it is even questionable if they yet properly understand the nature and depth of the problem, and the strength of feeling in the country about it. There is little evidence that change will happen, and that has consequences that few can wish. An electorate that does not believe in the system, and in politicians, is unlikely to vote, or to engage with the system at all. It is hard to achieve anything socially if politicians can not engage with the public. That alienation has severe implications for the stability of the system and our society, and can only lead to greater breakdown and dysfunction, and to extremes being given an ear.

I hope that those Pennsylvania Quakers may one day be proved wrong, but the odds seem stacked firmly against it at present, and there is little evidence of any rational basis for that hope.


  1. It is funny you should write about this. I have been thinking about the Pennsylvania Friends and the dilemma they faced in politics. In a discussion with my students regarding pacifism and peace-work in international relations, we have discussed the reality that few politicians seem to be able to afford to be uncompromisingly ethical people and maintain enough power to stay in office.

  2. Why do so many of the comments above show up as little numbers in boxes?

    All those right wing pols in the US who call themselves Christians make me sick.

    I suspect it's a lot easier to stay spiritually pure in a sheltered environment, whether it's a monastery or a tight-knit community. But isn't that selfish? Don't we have an obligation to make the world better for all as best as we can? And if our ideals are so weak that we lose sight of them when we're confronted by temptation, when we're amongst those whose values are different, what good are they?

  3. @ Mary

    Judging by the frequency of the garbled comments, and the consistency of the content, they would appear to be some form of spam that has penetrated the Blogger security, though I may be defaming some genuine postings with some kind of browser incompatibility issue!

    I do agree that we have an obligation to try and make the world better in any way we can, however limited our opportunity may be. To paraphrase anothers thoughts, "to each according to their means and abilities"