Hugh MacDonald: We need better politicians but we could do with better voters too

IT may be challenging to promote Richard Milhous Nixon as an example of moral leadership. But here goes.

Back in the dog days of the sixties, he was assailed by the travails of losing a desperate war in Vietnam, sowing the seeds of his own destruction by employing dirty tricks and swinging a twitchy finger over the nuclear button while arm-wrestling with Russia.

But he was also involved in trying to improve his country’s civil rights, a polite term for lack of civil rights. Nixon, famed for his political pragmatism and noted for his racist language, was faced with the difficulties of desegregating schools.

It was, in political terms, akin to stepping into a pool of sharks after being sprayed with fresh blood. However, Nixon told his aides: “Let’s do this. It will cost us politically. But it is the right thing to do.”

The record of Nixon in political chicanery, personal smearing, inherent deceit, and unrestrained paranoia is, perhaps, unmatched. Yet he did the right thing. It was once an accepted practice in politics, if only in extremis.

It still holds true, occasionally, today. Angela Merkel knew her decision to allow refugees to enter Germany in 2015, mostly from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, would profit her political opponents. More than one million refugees applied for entry. “We’ll manage this,” said Merkel. She did what she believed was the right thing.

Similarly, there has been much criticism of Nicola Sturgeon’s stance during the Covid crisis. She has been accused of grandstanding, of excessive caution, of delaying economic recovery. Whatever one’s view, it must be agreed there are few votes in telling people that they have to stay in the house. Sturgeon did what she thought was the right thing.

Similarly, Jacinda Ardern, the New Zealand prime minister, acted swiftly with measures that were considered draconian in the early days of the Covid crisis. Much feted, and re-elected since, it is forgotten that she faced criticism for a range of policies. Severe lockdowns were thought to be highly unpopular. Yet she did what she believed was the right thing.

These three women are not political ingenues. They are multiple election winners. They know how politics works. Yet they all took unpopular decisions that most commentators felt would damage their electoral chances.

This ability and willingness to act in the face of voter hostility is, increasingly, a rarity among politicians. It poses a growing danger to the integrity and purposes of democracy.

There is now an industry that informs politicians of what is popular and what the people do not want. There were polls, too, in the days of Nixon, of course. But the sophistication and speed at which the public view can be precisely calculated is one of the wonders of our time.

The crux, though, is how this information is used to implement policy. It sheds light on the great misunderstandings about democracy.

“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter,” said Winston Churchill, in one of his observations on a system that regularly gave him a bloody nose.

“Democracy is a device that ensures we are governed no better than we deserve,” said George Bernard Shaw, in a barb aimed at the incompetence of some of the elected class.

Both, though, speak to a truth. There is the perception that politicians are elected to carry out some glorified but nebulous notion of the will of the people. Sometimes this principle is stark and inarguable. Vote Brexit, get Brexit. Vote for SNP, get a government wedded to the principle of self-determination.

But it is more capricious on issues that carry nuance. This category consists of the mass of politics. There is ample evidence that most politicians now do not lead. They follow the polls.

Policy is trimmed and shifted to accommodate received opinion. It prompts a political vertigo. Once politicians read newspapers and accepted their opinion pieces reflected a mood. They would be considered but regularly dismissed. Sometimes, just sometimes, they would signal a change of tack.

Now the feelings and intentions of voters are delivered rapidly. There is no long game. Policy sways in the capricious wind of popular opinion.

One does not have to search deeply for examples. Is Boris “Pile the Bodies High” Johnson concerned about the human cost in Afghanistan or has he been told that the voters do not like the idea of abandoning to their fate those who have helped Britain’s cause?

Did Joe Biden believe that scuttling from Afghanistan would be free of the death of innocent victims? Or did he accept the human toll of embracing isolationism in an attempt to woo erstwhile Trump voters to his cause?

Whatever the answers, it is clear that leadership, untainted by personal or political self-serving, is at a premium.

The easy answer is to blame the politicians. And I do. But the problem lies deeper. Yes, we need better leaders but we need better, more informed, more open-minded voters. Personal views can now largely be categorised as yes or no, good or bad, right or wrong. This is not conducive to producing governments of profound integrity or flexibility.

But how to change? It has to be done personally. I have to accept that the people I voted for will not always reflect my beliefs. And vote for them again, if I believe their record is largely edifying.

It needs politicians to say: “I am not here to do what you want, though I may do so. I am here to do what is right.” The prospects of this are dim. After all there are no votes in it.

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The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992