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The duel: Does politics really matter?

The primary agent of change—or simply a reflection of deeper cultural shifts? A former cabinet minister and a literature expert advance opposing views
January 25, 2021

Yes—Malcolm Rifkind 

Politicians are viewed by many without enthusiasm. Politics is perceived to be the means whereby a handful of people vie to achieve or maintain power, with scant regard for the public interest. But while such practices are common, politics, in its proper meaning, is something far broader, and often decent and honourable. Politics is the prime way in which decisions are taken in our society without recourse to physical violence and, most of the time, subject to the rule of law.

Some politicians are villains, but most who choose a political vocation are not. Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela were politicians par excellence. Their political skill enabled them to change the world. There are countless thousands of parliamentarians and politicians around the globe who devote their time to improving their country and helping their fellow citizens.

Some argue that politics is only relevant at the margins. The world changes, it is said, because of social, cultural, economic and demographic pressures, ebbing and flowing over decades. These forces are what’s important. All of that is correct, but misses the point. Short of violent revolution and the Terror, there must be a mechanism whereby people’s rights and obligations, and wider laws, are changed to reflect society’s shifting pressures. Not only are politics and politicians essential in that process; strong political leaders can determine both the timing of change and whether it happens peacefully and successfully. 

The Cold War and the end of Communism would have happened at some time. But without Gorbachev, the Berlin Wall would not have come down in 1989 and most countries of Eastern Europe would not have been liberated with hardly a shot fired. Without Mandela, apartheid would still have failed but South Africa would not have enjoyed a peaceful transition to a multi-racial future. Both men’s remarkable political abilities enabled them to dominate their colleagues and have their way.

It is, of course, equally true that without Hitler and Stalin millions would not have lost their lives during the 20th century. Whether individual politicians are good or bad is a separate issue. What cannot be denied is that politics really matters!

No—Freya Johnston

You are quite right to begin by adducing a pervasive dislike of politicians, but wrong to end by claiming that politics itself is a separate issue. Policies are devised and implemented by human beings. One reason that polls demonstrate indifference to politics is the public contempt for politicians.

But it is not only corrupt individuals that lead people to disparage politics in the broadest sense of that word—the making and passing of laws; the theory and practice of government; activities or policies concerning the state. In your maiden speech in the House of Commons in 1974, you cited Edmund Burke, who resolutely turned his back on preferment for its own sake and exerted a lasting influence upon public life. Burke was as remarkable for his sense of decency as for his rhetorical and political skills. But even if we had more politicians like him—or like Lincoln, Churchill and Mandela—politics would still be largely inconsequential to most people, most of the time. As Dr Johnson pointed out in a poem of 1764: “How small, of all that human hearts endure, / That part which laws or kings can cause or cure.”

In other words, politics may well matter to individuals—or at least to some of them—but not nearly as much as other things do. You dispute the claim that politicians are relevant only at the margins of life. But our representatives should count themselves lucky if they acquire even that relevance. While selfless members of the parliamentary tribe may seek to improve the world rather than line their own pockets, changes brought about in the public sphere of government and administration usually have little effect on the day-to-day lives of ordinary citizens—at least by comparison with revolutions in the domestic sphere. People will always be more exercised by their own wellbeing, and that of their families than by what happens on the national or global stage. 

As Johnson, imploring his friends to stop bewailing the prospect of a French invasion, put it: “Among all your lamentations, who eats the less—who sleeps the worse, for one general’s ill-success, or another’s capitulation? Oh, pray let us hear no more of it!”


Politics and unsavoury political games can be found in every profession. What makes MPs and ministers different is that their sins are carried out in public and not in the privacy of a university common room or company board room. You will be familiar with CP Snow’s famous novel The Masters, where university dons, squabbling over their college’s new master, show such vicious political skills as to make our MPs look amateur and harmless in comparison.

But the issue we are addressing is whether politics really matters. You are, of course, right that normal people are more interested in their own wellbeing than by what happens on the national stage. That would be true even if our prime ministers and MPs were angels and paragons of virtue. I, despite being a former parliamentarian, am much more enthused by my children’s and grandchildren’s lives than I am by bloodletting in Downing Street.  

“Politics is the way society takes decisions without recourse to violence”

But people know that what happens on the national stage can profoundly affect their private lives; their health, their education and their income. Without the political struggle and the vision of politicians in parliament, the NHS would not have been created over 70 years ago. Were it not for political action in parliament, millions of council tenants would not have had the opportunity to buy their homes, which they did, enthusiastically, in the 1980s.

In November over 150m Americans, many for the first time, took the trouble to vote and changed the political leadership of their country. If those 150m Americans, both Democrats and Republicans, agreed on anything, they believed that politics really matters. Why don’t you?


You say that people are well aware that politics can affect their private lives. But many cherish the fact that their private lives are untouched by it. Are they wrong or misguided to do so? In 1811, Jane Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra on hearing that a large number of British soldiers had died in a battle overseas: “How horrible it is to have so many people killed!—And what a blessing that one cares for none of them!” Some people have criticised the apparent brutality of this letter. But Austen was, I think, quite right: it is a blessing to remain untouched by such disaster. Her remark also implies that it may be nothing more than affectation or hypocrisy to claim that politics matters.

Was it really due to political vision that the NHS came into being? Parliament was not the prime mover in this, or in most other instances of widespread change. Rather, it responded to increasing social and cultural pressures—including the publication of Doctor AJ Cronin’s bestselling 1937 novel The Citadel, with its ferociously well-observed assault on the greedy quacks of Harley Street—to provide for the poorest and weakest members of society.

The case of the US election is exceptional for many reasons, including the fact that Trump cannot really be said to be a politician. In office he offended against time-honoured ways of proceeding and showed little respect for statecraft. His latest, most reckless provocations to mob violence are by definition beyond the realm of governmental politics. It remains to be seen how his successor, a true political animal, engages the public interest.


We agree that plenty of people cherish their private lives and are pleased when they are untouched by politics. I am one of them! But that is light years away from assuming that people share your view that politics doesn’t matter.

You quote in support Austen’s letter to her sister showing apparent indifference to British soldiers who had died in battle. By a delightful coincidence I am reading Austen’s Northanger Abbey at present. In Chapter X she records how, in the Bath Pump Room, “Mr Allen… joined some gentlemen to talk over the politics of the day and compare the accounts of their newspapers.” It appears that Austen, after all, recognised that an interest in politics was a proper activity for responsible citizens!

Your argument that the NHS could, and would, have been created without parliamentary initiative is entirely unconvincing. Aneurin Bevan and his colleagues were responding to social and cultural pressure for a health service free for all. But the issue was very controversial and not just because of Conservative opposition. Many doctors detested the idea of becoming “employees of the state.” Public opinion could not create a NHS by spontaneous combustion. Only parliament, through its political processes, could deliver.

The same was true with the abolition of slavery. William Wilberforce could not have succeeded in parliament without the support of the churches and the anti-slavery movement in the country. But only political action and growing support in parliament could deliver victory. Yet another example was the 1832 Reform Act which began the process of mass enfranchisement.

Let me end on a cheerful note. I am delighted (and relieved) that you say Trump has never been a politician. This, you say, is because he rejected “time-honoured ways of proceeding” and “showed little respect for statecraft.” Your conclusion that true politicians do not have these defects, I endorse with enthusiasm. Our dialogue has been very constructive!


I’m delighted to find that you, too, are an Austen fan; you are evidently, like Mr Allen himself, a “sensible, intelligent man.” However, judging by the author’s comments four chapters later in Northanger Abbey, his political conversation would not have lasted long. Henry Tilney, the hero, finds that “from politics, it was an easy step to silence.” Austen is well known, indeed celebrated, for her avoidance of the subject in fiction.

“It may be nothing more than affectation or hypocrisy to claim that politics really matters”

I never claimed that the NHS was created without parliamentary action or by spontaneous combustion—a funny way to start a healthcare service! You say it was only parliament that could “deliver” such an outcome, which I don’t dispute. What I proposed was that politics was not itself the instigator of change. Indeed, as you say yourself, there were plenty of politicians (as well as doctors) who opposed the foundation of the NHS. The result, if left to politics alone, might well have been no change at all. What made the difference, as with the abolition movement, was the strength of popular feeling.

We can both rejoice at the departure of Donald Trump, and I have no doubt that true politicians, unlike him, understand the business of government. That doesn’t alter my sense that such business neither engages the majority of people nor encourages them to feel that it matters. But such indifference isn’t necessarily something to be lamented. It might even be a strength.