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Who would want to be a “Career politician”?

In Uncategorized on February 25, 2010 at 1:29 am

By David Weber

In today’s climate, it seems a question worth asking. In fact, forget that: in the climate of the last decade, or even longer, it seems like a question very much worth asking – not least because the press inundates is with stories of the inexorable rise of the “career politician”.

This is tied, inexplicably, with the fall in the power of the politician in reality. It really began with the economics crises of the 70s and 80s, when the shift of successful economies (yes, even Scandinavian welfare economies, despite their reputation among some as left-wing havens) towards a model of lower taxation and regulation. Global capitalism became increasingly to be seen as sensitive to fiscal policy, of greater importance than a government’s ideal social and economic outcomes.

Whether this is still the case is of course now fiercely debated, although I personally think that global capitalism is as likely to be dead as I am, at the time of writing this article (for the sake of clarity, I am — at least feel — in excellent condition). It is certain that the crash has challenged some of the stricter notions of neo-liberal economists, and fired the blood of closet Keynsians, but the general response of governments to the near-collapse of Banks strengthens the theory that there has been a trend of power away from national governments to international business.

Indeed, despite claims that Brown has run a high-tax economy over the last decade, he was careful to tailor income tax rates at least to the European average (if towards the higher side towards the end of New Labour’s decade and a bit in power) as an active policy. Neoliberalism had by this time become so entrenched in government that raising income tax on the lower paid was seen as a more acceptable adjustment than raising it on the higher-paid in 2007 (thankfully, with disastrous political consequences).

But if politicians have lost de facto power over tax rates, this is nothing compared to the extent to which they have lost power over persuasion, and promoting their own agenda. The rise of 24-hour media (which certainly has been inexorable), and the ever-improving science of electioneering, which I talked about in my previous article, have vastly squeezed the ability of politicians to act on their own conscience, far more than they improved their ability to win elections. In a recent article in the Times, Daniel Finkelstein backed up the view of my previous article that the Tories have a lot further to slide before they lose, whilst showing how devastating the effect of political science on elections really is. In 2005 — the election, incidentally, that the Tories lost — painstaking methods narrowed down an entire electorate to the 2000 voters who were judged as most crucial, who were then love-bombed — sent handwritten letters and a steady stream of propaganda. What room is there for genuine representation in a system where the crucial players are as few as these? More to the point, what room is there for genuine power? No minor politican would want to challenge the rules of the game in such a way, which means that “career politicians” are fighting an impossibly high-stakes game, with only a handful of positions where one could forsee actually setting an agenda — and that’s a generous estimate. And then, of course, upon having climbed to the top of the greasy pole, they would probably find what they suspected all along — that, in the words of Jim Hacker: “I was told I’d have power, and I find that all I have is influence!”*

Diss politicians all you like. Moan about how they waste your money, how they cheat on their (and your) principles and how they’re all the same. But just stop and think, before you deliver the ultimate judgement and condemn them all as money-grabbing, power-crazed cowards: who would actually be in it for money? Who would be in it for power? Only a deluded, uneducated fool**. Only those with no experience of reality. Only a tourist could possibly make the mistake of wanting to be a career politician. For it’d be a high-stress, no-gain career.

*Quote not guaranteed to be accurate
**I anticipate the snark before it comes. No, I don’t believe this applies to Gordon Brown, or any other politician you care to name. Sadly, I think the average understanding of reality is likely to be higher among politicians — at least, from glancing at the Tabloids from time to time.

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  1. Perhaps I should make my point of view felt, since I myself have ambitions to becoming a politician, and thus a career politician.

    To a large extent, I do agree that the power in our democracy has shifted away from the politicians, and more towards the media, international business, and powerful lobby groups. Furthermore, the constant demonisation of politicians, to the status of self-interested, greedy and sleazy egoists will certainly influence people away from the political system.

    Unfortunately, you’ve failed to account for the naive idealism that so many politicians possess. After all, no politician seeks power solely for their own ends; they all have an agenda. It is political ideology that is the prevalent actor in politics, perhaps now more so than ever. I am an idealist, and that is why I go into politics.

    Also, it may be that the 24-hour media has actually increased the power of politicians, as has technology and social networking. Politicians have the power to set the political agenda through just an announcement in ways inconceivable 50 years ago. On the other hand, the media can also force the agenda on the politicians, as seen in various law and order cases. Nonetheless, on balance politicians still have the ability to shape the debate and the political language we use (the recent letters by economists to the FT are a case in point).

    Let’s also not forget the rise of international political organisations that has lagged behind economic globalisation; the European Union is the strongest example, but the ACD and AU are also growing in influence. The power of politicians is not weakening; the nature of politics is changing, from devolved bodies seen in Scotland and Wales, to federal bodies.

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