The past few weeks furore over expenses has simultaneously baffled and exited me. I’m not going to air my opinions over the matter here but I am going to use THE POWER OF HISTORY, which is at least as compeling as the power of Greyskull to hopefully delve into some of the confusion that seems to have arisen amongst the electorate.
Watching the manifestation of disgust enshrined in the presence of David Dimbleby on Question Time these last few weeks has been the inspiration for all of this. If anything outlines the current helplessness of the enfranchised it is surely Question Time. Last week for example various MP’s were sat in front of the audience as some of their exorbitant salaries were examined, and a persistent but controlled set of boo’s echoed throughout. When the floor was opened to the mob threats were made along the lines of “the voters will decide in a year” and so forth, but that was pretty much it. As undoubtedly uncomfortable the likes of Margaret Becket might have been within that hour they were free to leave thereafter and return to their golden beds in their golden houses made of tax payer’s gold, probably kicking homeless people en route and laughing at them in derision for not even having one house, let alone two.
Perhaps borne out of this genuine impotence there was one cry echoed throughout-“Where is the justice?” What right do the political classes have to escape impeachment when anyone else would face much graver consequences?
As idealistic and rational a notion this is, history tells us that the political classes have always been essentially untouchable. In Europe much of the turbulent forces that drove the nineteenth century and lead to the excesses of the first half of the twentieth were borne out of the clash between the privileged (usually synonymous with the political classes) and the majority.
In Britain these forces were set in motion somewhat earlier, with the civil wars being inspired primarily by grievance at the power monopolised by the crown. The eventual fall-out of this event, which claimed per capita more of the population than any other war, was the glorious revolution in 1688 (Scotland 1689) which saw Parliament essentially claim the title of top dog in regards to political affairs.
Power corrupts of course, and Westminster after the Anglo-Scots Union of 1707 became a source of entrenched privilege. There were a series of political reforms, beginning in 1832, necessitated by a desire to avoid the bloody revolutions of the Continent occurring throughout the UK; these were however less transparent and egalitarian than they might sound and were essentially an attempt by the Whig and Torty party’s of the time to control certain elements of the population, those who they deemed could be trusted to bolster the current regime’s if they were granted admission into the political class. It took a further 130 years of protest and effort to wrest control from Westminster and to realise the system we currently have.
The case for greater political representation was popularised by a sophisticated canon of philosophical and political writings, beginning in the first instance with the call for contractual kingship before being developed into the theories of Milton and Locke, their oeuvre in turn being radicalised by Tom Paine in his Rights of Man. This set the foundations for modern democratic theory.
In sum what is now the British democratic system has evolved over hundreds of years, claimed hundreds of thousands of lives in the process, and required its own novel gospel to allow it to manifest itself.
Knowledge of this legacy leads me to conclude that as vindicated as I believe the current moral sentiments are, the idea that one can appeal solely to morality in regards to the activities of their politicians serves to display how complicit the whole of society is in the corruption of politics. Let me explain.
As seen above, Britain’s political legacy has been one of great struggle. There is nothing intrinsically “just” about democracy, and the system has not manifested itself as a working out of good. Democracy undoubtedly has some intrinsic moral standards, especially when compared to the extremities of comparative political philosophies, but the British political system has not been borne out of the best form of morality and is not vindicated by this.
Rather democracy in Britain is a modern construct which has been consensually imposed, a persisting dialogue between the public and the political classes. There has undoubtedly been a strong moral impulse behind the creation of this system, but it has been the adherence to this morality through the cause of civic duty which has created it, a moral investment rather than the mere sentiment of what is right and wrong.
This is what History tells us, and the current climate can be summarised by “I told you so” by anyone who knows it well enough.
For the last few decades however the watchword has been progress and we’ve known all the answers. As a result we have been quite possibly unique in finding the teachings of the past obsolete , wilfully ignoring history and it’s bleak realities. Rather the democratic freedoms gained have been utilised as a means of legitimising self investment, as shown through the social emphasis on status, wealth, enjoying ourselves. The consistent imperative that has for so long forged the nation and much of the modern world, the reality of the political struggle, has been put to one side. Politicians and their electorate have primarily taken an interest in themselves, with the conceit that life should be easy and dedicated to and by self at the fore. We have been able to forget the “traumatic truth of human history…a tortured body”.
Yet recent events appear to be revealing with startling clarity how finite and precarious this worldview is. History, massive, relentless history, full of toil, and blood, and uncertainty, and danger, and mortality has revisited some of its more disturbing forces on the safe and naïve post-cold war west which had conveniently forgotten them; Wars in foreign lands; the fear of malign powers inhabiting the world; and closer to home, economic uncertainty.
With the distracting comforts of wealth gone the world is a bleaker place, and so we appeal to our intrinsic morality in the face of such an onslaught, the notion that some things are right, there should be a balance of sorts. Unfortunately the world is decidedly amoral and politics are certainly not driven by what is true. Rather change and justice has only ever been accomplished by self sacrifice and the communal strife and effort that has swallowed the lives of generations. This was a recognised and celebrated motif throughout modern British history.
However, forgotten as it has been recently its abandonment rationally leads us to where we are now. We are individuals who might have denied the strife of old but in doing so we have rejected the collaboration and tested methods which can mitigate the horrors of history somewhat. As a result we instead participate in immediate and self consumed distraction in the hope that bad things will go away because bad things shouldn’t be.
More to follow.