The solution to our current crisis is to make politics not less “professional” but moreby Christopher Grey / May 13, 2019 / Leave a comment
One of the most remarkable features of the recent local elections was the rise of the independents, who well over doubled their seats from 439 to 1045. Their appeal to voters seems to chime with an anti-politics mood and a distrust of professional politicians. But is professionalism really the problem, or could it offer a solution?
Distrust in professional politics is milked to good effect by populists on the national stage. Hence Farage successfully presents himself as the outsider antithesis to the “career politician,” despite his many years as an MEP. And Boris Johnson trades on his carefully cultivated “eccentric” persona to imply he is an “authentic” antidote to party hackery.
The lure of the independent outsider is a powerful one. It has been mobilised in different ways by Trump, Macron, Salvini and most recently Zelensky in Ukraine. It is an anti-politics politics, imagined as avoiding both ideology and the shabby compromises of party discipline, and emphasising “just getting on with it.”
But it is only an imagination. Suppose for a moment that we had a House of Commons consisting entirely of independent MPs. To get anything done, they would have to find majorities. So they would have to form alliances. Suddenly, in effect if not in name, there would be parties.
Immediately, in forming those alliances, compromises would have to be made by each individual. As well as agreeing policies they’d have to agree who was going to deliver them, with the inevitable jostling for these positions. In these ways, as well as because they would be paid for doing their jobs, they would instantly become the career politicians they were supposed to supplant.
Nor would they be free of ideology. Politics can never just be about “getting on with it” because decisions about the aims and the means of the “it” are based on something. Call them principles, theories, values, or ideals. Or call them, in shorthand, ideologies.
This isn’t, though, to disparage the main sentiment underlying the appeal of independence. That seems to be the perfectly reasonable expectation that politicians be both competent and trustworthy. But the way to meet that expectation isn’t to de-professionalise politics, it is to make it far more professional.
Two of the defining features of a profession are a licence to practise and a strictly enforced code of ethics. In politics, the first doesn’t exist at all and the second only to a limited extent in things like the Code of Conduct for MPs. So someone can become an MP—and for that matter a government minister—without any demonstrable knowledge whatsoever of the things they will make or enact laws and policy about.
That could be rectified by requiring those standing for election to public office to undertake a basic test to be awarded a “political licence.” That, or something like it, is the principle underlying all professions, many occupations and even, in a different way, the citizenship test for immigrants seeking British nationality.
Equally, the stringency and enforcement of the Codes of Conduct for MPs and for ministers fall well short of what we expect for, say, doctors or lawyers, and the penalties for violation are nugatory in all but the most serious cases. The enforcement of the “revolving door” between ministerial office and the private sector, in particular, appears to be extremely slack.
Even things as basic in most workplaces as performance appraisals are lacking. Ministers may lose their jobs because of gaffes or scandals—but competent discharge of their duties seems much less important. Thus serial bodgers like… well, insert the name of your choice… stay in office despite records of delivery which in most jobs would lead to dismissal.
Now maybe part of democracy is the freedom to elect the incompetent since, after all, we can always vote them out. But it’s unlikely that this is a freedom that anyone wants: a demand for more incompetent politicians is rarely, if ever, heard. As for voting them out, rather like being operated on by an unqualified doctor by the time we find out the damage will have been done.
So if the competence and conduct of politicians is the problem, then independence isn’t the answer. Indeed, in the absence of professional controls, an independent politician, being free even of the discipline of a party, is liable to be even more negligent.
Historically, licensing and regulation of professionals has arisen to deal with trickery, incompetence and untrustworthiness. We need something like this to address the crisis of trust in politicians. Otherwise, we may well soon end up with a truly “independent” political leader, untrammelled by any constraints.