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In defence of politics

In defence of politics

🕔22.Nov 2012
Curated from Politics: Politics blog | guardian.co.uk, written by Chris Mullin, Michael White

Refusing to vote is generally no statement of principle, as a tale of two citizens has reminded me. Let’s call them Chris and Crisp’

I had the pleasure on Tuesday evening of listening to a former MP of impeccable independence, campaigning courage and widely noted integrity sticking it to a sizeable group of our fellow citizens who don’t get reproached half-often enough. We’re talking here about cynical, lazy and apathetic voters who don’t seem to know how well off most of them are, or why.

At one point, this splendid fellow said that long experience had caused him to notice that the kind of people who don’t vote were also the kind of people “who don’t put their bins out, who drop litter and don’t look after their dogs in the park, [and] who pay no attention to the education of their children”. When he meets such non-voters, he tells them “to snap out of it”.

I realise such sentiments will outrage self-styled libertarians of the right, who see themselves as model citizens who are never a burden on others. But the last time I met a room full of libertarians (it was at the Institute for Economic Affairs, the free-market thinktank) they turned out to be a bunch of spiteful whingers obsessed with abusing petty officialdom, especially customs officers, for some reason. They certainly burdened me.

Who dares to point out what you and I, but not enough other folk out there, know to be blindingly obvious? Why, Chris Mullin, former Labour MP for Sunderland South (1987-2010), fearless campaigning journalist, successful novelist and diary writer, and reformed Bennite. Why, he was even a junior minister under Tony Blair for a while. Needless to say, his expenses claims were found to be among the lowest.

Yet here was Mullin – 65 next month – delivering a lecture (entitled In Defence of Politics) to a great and good audience at St Thomas’ hospital, just across Westminster bridge from his former haunts. In it, he skewered familiar targets: bankers, greedy MPs and the relentless and hysterical 24/7 media. He also urged young people to take up the greatest challenge of our time: we urgently needed to modify our dangerously excessive lifestyle – one 1.5 billion Chinese people were seeking to copy – by adopting a more sustainable, probably poorer, model before mankind wiped out its own presence on our fragile planet.

Big-picture stuff, and hard to deny – except that we do. But what caught my imagination was a politician, admittedly one now freed from the need to win votes, saying that he often deliberately alienated voters who said stupid things such as “I never vote” – “as if it was a profound statement of principle|” – or demanded (as one offshore oil worker did) that the MP backed his demand to remain exempt from UK income tax.

Tax, said Mullin several times, is the price we all have to pay for living in a democracy where the government of the day can be thrown out and we – most of us – have decent health and education, a welfare system, a safe supply of food, water and heating, and the rule of law. “Democracy is not cheap,” he said, but it is vital if we are to sustain progress.

Those who imagine that the great scientific and social gains of the past 200 years or so would automatically have been widely shared without constant pressure from below – and resistance by large sections of the Tory party, he added, in a rare partisan lapse – are being very obtuse. Just look at other countries that don’t have functioning democracies. Go live in Africa for a bit, he told that greedy oil worker.

It’s not that Mullin is naive about the failings of politics and government. He always tells student audiences to challenge the official version of events (“it’s sometimes wrong”), and to be wary of simple solutions (because there aren’t any). When he was a young, ardent Bennite, during Bennism’s daft heyday, and briefly editor of Tribune – though he left that bit out – he thought compromise was a sign of weakness. It’s not, he now concludes: it is usually necessary.

Remember, we are talking about a key campaigner in the battle to overturn the bombing verdict on the Birmingham Six, and the MP whose expenses probe revealed he still owns a black-and-white TV set in his London flat: a backbencher who told Blair at PMQs – I remember it well – that Britain’s most dangerous enemies were not al-Qaida but poverty and injustice.

Politicians got things wrong; they inflicted wounds upon themselves, such as the expenses affair, Mullin said. But he added that it was also the Freedom of Info law they passed that had exposed that scandal and sent some MPs to jail. “But,” he added, “most politicians of my acquaintance, in all parties, are people of integrity.” Quite so. That is my experience, too: not geniuses – nor are most of us – just basically OK.

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