Our shallow political elites have given up on democracy altogether

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Published Time: 11.05.2024 - 15:40:30 Modified Time: 11.05.2024 - 15:40:30

Guiding principles and meaningful debate have been carelessly neglected

Guiding principles and meaningful debate have been carelessly neglected. All that’s left is a dangerously hollow consensus

Does anybody know what a political argument is anymore? Or a political principle? Or even a political idea?

There was a time, within living memory, when ideas and arguments were the proper business of democratic life. There were philosophical debates about the power of the state versus the freedom of the individual, and on how much government should intervene in the creation and distribution of wealth. It was always thought to be necessary for serious contenders to make it clear where they stood in this great discourse. There was even a profound, and dangerous, dispute between international powers about whether the “temporary dictatorship” of the proletariat might be necessary to deliver social justice.

What began with the revolutionary republican movements of the 18th century – the notion that governing must be based on a set of moral principles – had become, by the middle of the 20th, the only acceptable motive for political activity. Parties and their leaders had to be about something larger than personal ambition or inherited power. World wars – both hot and cold – were now fought on ideological grounds and justified on the basis of moral precepts.

We are supposed to believe that this rule still holds: no one running for office (or even seizing power without an election) can be credible without offering a doctrine of beliefs and idealistic objectives. Parties and their members should expect to be judged on how consistent and rigorous their basic convictions are. That is why “managerialism” – the idea that the only requirement of governing parties is to tinker with the running of an existing system – is such a damaging accusation. Politics is supposed to be about more than this.

You may have difficulty reconciling this picture of political life with what you see around you at the moment. While talk of moral principle has never been bandied about with more aggressive gusto, there is a bizarre absence of any apparent understanding of the logic of argument: of the consequences, for example, of supporting an idea which is diametrically opposed to the other issues for which you stand.

Absurdly contradictory positions (“Queers for Palestine”) are endorsed by all-purpose rebels for whom civil disruption is a self- indulgent hobby. In the name of compassion, terrorists financed by tyrannical regimes are supported by the free citizens of countries who know nothing at all of the fear and loathing in which less fortunate parts of the world may live. What exactly are the pro-Palestinian activists in the West defending? Nationalism? Iranian authoritarianism? Presumably not since they see themselves as liberal progressives. 

Most importantly, do they ever ask themselves these questions? Do they understand what it means to examine the consequences of a political action? Would they, in other words, be prepared to engage in argument or be capable of defending their position if they did? If not, then this is just demagoguery: they have left rational politics, as we have known it, far behind.

Even more insidious, how can parties supposedly dedicated to one cause effectively become fronts for entirely different ones which should, on any rational grounds, be anathema to them? How did the Green Party accept into its ranks a candidate in the local elections who identifies himself as a supporter of Hamas? Leave aside whatever the Greens’ view on the Gaza conflict might be, Hamas is sponsored by Iran, a state whose economy depends on the sale of oil. And how can a Tory MP, Natalie Elphicke, who was until ten minutes ago regarded as too right-wing by many of her own Conservative colleagues, be described by Sir Keir Starmer, as a “natural fit” for his Labour Party?

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