In Defence of Politicians

When a politician uses their judgement, they should not be attacked as if they somehow betrayed their electorate.

The point of politicians

It’s all their fault. Politicians have been unable to deliver Brexit. They have been unable to campaign well enough to win elections (witness our own, current, hung Parliament). They’ve been unable to connect with the people they’re supposed to serve. Worst of all, they don’t even understand the people they are meant to represent.

I hear this, or some variation of it, a lot at the moment. Basically, all of the current woes of this country are laid at the feet of our politicians, and most of the time, it’s easy to agree with. They make the big decisions (or don’t, which can be just as impactful). When there is limited talent in the political pool we feel it, as I might argue we are feeling it now.

The problem with this analysis is that politicians don’t exist in a vacuum. We elect them. We vote, or don’t, and we engage with these people. We are complicit in everything they do, because, at a certain level, they are only in their positions because of the decisions we have made. This might explain why they provoke such a reaction, or are seeming to. We praise – or more likely criticise – them, and we send them messages, sometimes insults, some going as far as death threats. On the other side of the scale, we show extreme apathy, thinking that they’re all the same, that they’re all in it for themselves.

I won’t argue this isn’t deserved in some respects. The expenses scandal did a lot to damage the reputation of MPs, but I remember these feelings being present well before that episode. The truth is, we expect a lot of our politicians, and perhaps, just perhaps, we expect too much. These are human beings who make mistakes. But any mistake, whether a verbal slip, unintended consequence, is magnified dramatically, because it’s in full public view. Not to mention the fact that these mistakes can affect thousands of people if it’s, say, a dreadful policy.  There’s also, to me at least, a distinct sense that these are politicians and therefore they should be better.

I suspect it’s just not possible to achieve the standards that we set for our representatives. These people aren’t trained to be politicians. Most of them are lawyers from quite privileged backgrounds, some are genuinely ordinary people; they’re all subjected to intense scrutiny, vitriol and contempt. In all seriousness, who would want to put themselves through that? There are easier ways to get rich if that is the motivation, and there are far less unpleasant ways to earn a living.

Most, I suspect, want to make a positive difference. But we always forget that or disbelieve it for the majority of them. Especially when they are of different political persuasions or do things we don’t agree with. I think we need to be a touch more understanding: these are people doing a job that we put them there to do. That makes them accountable for their actions, sure, but they’re accountable through the ballot box. And let that be the main arbiter: campaign against them, point out their mistakes but for goodness sake, do it with a degree of respect you would give any other human being. And look at yourself, if you voted to put them in that position in the first place.

Representatives, not delegates

One last thing about politicians. There is this idea that they should do exactly what they’re told – whether this is in upholding a party manifesto, acting in accordance with a referendum etc. There is, I think, a fundamental misunderstanding with what our politicians actually are; they are representatives, not delegates. It is not their job to do exactly what their constituents tell them, but to do what they judge to be in their constituents’ best interests. Edmund Burke, the Whig politician and philosopher, argued that if your MP does exactly what you want, surrendering their judgement to yours as a constituent, they have essentially betrayed you. We elect representatives specifically because we, as ordinary non-experts, can’t always know what is in our best interests. In this interconnected world full of unintended consequences, we would have to study constantly to stay informed and know what would be best for us. It’s why an MP is a full-time role.

So, when a politician uses their judgement, they should NOT be attacked as if they somehow betrayed their electorate. They may have made a bad decision, as all humans do. They may have looked at a problem, and reached almost the exact opposite conclusion to you. That does not mean they are evil. It does not mean they are inferior. It definitely does not mean they have betrayed you. They have fulfilled their job description in the way they judge best for their constituents. They’re not traitors for disagreeing with the people that put them in the role. And if you really do feel like that, then vote, rather than use social media to attack.

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Adam Taylor

Adam works in the higher education sector and commentates on policy and current affairs.

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