In Praise of Complacency, part 2
Peter King does some lateral thinking
We get annoyed with politicians when they fail to live up to their promises. But we cannot manage without them, even though we consider them to be the cause of our problems. Despite their faults we expect them to do what they have always done, to take decisions and to act on our behalf. We do not see it as our role to change things: that is what we elect politicians for. We may feel that they are all the same, but all we seek to do is to replace one set of politicians with another, whilst telling everyone that they are all alike and only in it for themselves.
The only alternative we might consider, which we are apparently doing in ever-larger numbers, is to abstain from voting perhaps thinking vainly that this will teach politicians a lesson. But this merely means that others do the job of picking them without consulting us, and we still bear the consequences and costs of these and subsequent decisions as if we had voted. We might try to claim that it had nothing to do with us, but this makes no difference and we are as affected as if we had actively chosen the new government. Not voting does not help us avoid the decisions made by politicians, even if we might get some small comfort from not feeling directly responsible. We still have to pay our taxes, use public transport, schools and hospitals and so on. Our abstention has not materially weakened the government or made them less legitimate. All we have done is allowed the politicians to get on with pursuing their aims and, because we have opted out, we cannot hope to influence them.
Of course, despite our grumbling, in the UK, the USA and much of Europe, the stakes are actually reasonably low. Politicians are indeed all the same, in that generally they tend to abide by the constitution and traditions of the country: they do not break the law (or are liable if they do). Politicians, generally speaking, ignore us too and allow us just to get on with our lives. We can suggest that stability breeds stability and complacency more of the same. Politicians get away with what we let them and we want to give them a lot of leeway because this enables us to do what we think is more important.
But we do have to accept that there is a consequence of this easy-going complacency. Those who are not active in politics may well end up having to accept some things that they do not like or agree with. When we leave decisions to others we have to accept that they will use their judgement and not ours, and that the conclusions they arrive at will be based on their values and assumptions. If we refuse to participate then we risk decisions being taken that do not concur with our worldview. This means it is possible for politicians to take decisions that do not meet with the approval of large parts of the public that they represent. In the UK, Parliament has outlawed the death penalty since the mid1960s, despite there being a majority in favour of it. Likewise, successive governments in the UK have both widened and deepened the links with the European Union despite this being generally unpopular and there being widespread scepticism towards Europe. More recently, governments across the developed world have used public money to bail out banks that behaved recklessly and irresponsibly. Again, this action is apparently in the face of public opposition. Politicians, who are elected, and need to seek re-election, are evidently capable of ignoring large sections of public opinion with relative impunity and act to counter to what their electorate might want them to do.
What complicates the matter is that the public are quite aware of this distance between their views and those of their elected representatives. This becomes all too apparent with the issue of immigration. There appear to be two completely different sets of views which operate: those of the general public, which is hostile to immigration, and that of conventional political discourse, which only allows for the issue to be discussed in a particular manner, with serious consequences if these conventions are breached. If a politician were to make the sort of comment that one can hear most days in the bus queue or in the post office their career would be finished.
The question therefore is why does the majority, which consistently opposes immigration, do so little about it? My aim in this brief article is not to explore the rights and wrongs of immigration. Rather I wish to consider how it is possible that such a controversial issue can be treated so differently by the public and politicians.
It would be very easy to blame the politicians for ignoring the views of ‘ordinary people’ and for being out of touch. But then politicians need to be elected to do anything and so have to garner the support of the public. So it cannot just be the fault of the politicians. The UK electorate has consistently voted for parties and politicians who do not prevent immigration and who have consistently given away power to the EU on issues such as border controls and access to benefits.
So we have this apparent paradox: the general public are opposed to immigration, yet it has not been curtailed. Indeed the Labour party managed to be re-elected in both 2001 and 2005 even though its policy on immigration was considerably more liberal than its opponents and that of governments in the recent past. The Labour government managed quite successfully to silence any debate on immigration, and certainly after 2001, the Conservative opposition seemed more than happy to help. And they got away with it: those who oppose immigration – the majority – were impotent in the face of the politicians’ refusal to engage. We might argue that this situation has led to the rise of the UK Independence Party, but they too have so far found the hoped-for breakthrough unattainable.
So where does this apparent impotence come from? I would suggest that there are a number of possible explanations for this situation, which are not mutually exclusive. The first answer is that most of us, most of the time, accept the legitimate authority of government. We are law abiding and do what the law tells us to do. Of course, there are exceptions and law breaking is by no means rare. Yet we accept the institutions and traditions of the country in which we live and this includes obeying the laws of the land. In many cases, we might not actually be terribly aware of these institutions and traditions. They operate without our active consent, other than through elections, and do not require our active engagement. The constitution, the government and Parliament all work in a particular manner with no need for our direct input. They have an established authority and this is accepted, albeit implicitly and without any citizen necessarily needing to be aware of it.
A point allied to this is that the political traditions and established practices of a country and the means of political discourse all militate against active participation and dictate the nature of any protest. There are very few means to affect change or to influence things other than the mainstream channels. Systems such as those in the UK and US that encourage a small number of dominant parties limit practical forms of political engagement even further.
Third, the nature of modern government tends to mean that any particular decision appears relatively small and inconsequential. Changes are incremental and no one particular change alters what we perceive as being normal. Those who are badly affected by any decision remain a small minority and so can be readily ignored by the rest of us. In any case, because the ‘general public’ really consists of a multitude of competing minorities, there may be no consensus on the nature of any problem or the means of correcting it.
Fourth, outside of the press (which, in any case, has its own interests), there is no organisation to support these elements of public opinion. The priorities of most people are elsewhere, away from politics and current affairs and are focussed instead on more mundane and everyday issues. Even though many may complain about politicians, and even think ill of them, most people are happy that there is someone taking the decisions. We do not want to take part: we neither have the time, the patience, or the expertise.
But this lack of organisation also means that we tend to see ourselves as just one isolated voice amongst millions. When these voices come together and coalesce around an issue then it does become powerful, as demonstrated by the Tea Party movement in the 2010 US midterms. But there is no natural tendency for this coalescence to occur. There is no organising principle, no centre and no necessary fixative to ensure that apparently isolated individuals come together and find a common voice. In many cases not enough people come together at the right time, or perhaps the issues are never big quite enough and so it does not ever develop sufficiently. On occasions there may be something of a momentum. But this may subside just as quickly. It is quite rare for an issue to develop to such an extent that it has any permanent impact. In part this is because politicians are able to intervene just enough to take the edge of any particular issue and so we again find our private interests more pressing.
In any case, even so-called mass protests, be it fuel protests or the Corbynite take-over of the Labour party, never involve anything approaching a majority of people. Some issues may claim the implicit support of millions but this will still not constitute a real majority. Most of us remain on the sidelines, perhaps watching with some interest, but otherwise carrying on with our lives.
So there are a number of reasons why individuals might feel that politicians do not represent them, but remain impotent to change this situation. It is partly due to institutional and organisational issues, but it is also due to our attention being elsewhere. What this leaves us with is a sense of disquiet or disaffection, but one that seldom if ever rises above a murmur. We may complain about those who take decisions, but we have no inclination to take over the decision making for ourselves. We may feel that politicians and governments do no speak for us, but we do nothing to make them more accountable or tell them to act differently.
PETER KING is Reader in Social Thought at De Montfort University. His most recent books are Keeping Things Close: An Essay on the Conservative Disposition and Here and Now: Some Thoughts on the World and How We Find it, both published by Arktos in 2015
*See more of Bob Barron’s art work at www.bob-barron.com