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CAMBRIDGE LETTER

Does everyone love to hate them?

BILL KIRKMAN

One of the problems of our current political scene is that the atmosphere is often of hostility and unpleasantness feeding on themselves.



Spontaneous anger in London...

SHOULD we always question the motives of our politicians? Should we start with the assumption that they are in politics for selfish personal reasons, and automatically disbelieve the principles which they proclaim, and doubt the purposes to which they profess to hold?

Any observer of the current political scene in the United Kingdom might reasonably conclude that the answer to each of these questions is yes. As the Hutton inquiry into the death of Dr. David Kelly — and into the intelligence background to the Iraq war — continues, the behaviour of senior politicians, and the probity of the Government are under close scrutiny. Frenzied speculation about who was responsible for what, and who concealed what from whom are filling many pages of the newspaper.

The opinion polls show that Prime Minister Tony Blair's popularity has fallen, as has that of a number of other ministers.

On the other side of the political fence, there is little enthusiasm for the Conservatives, and a widespread assumption that the "caring Conservative" policies which Iain Duncan Smith espouses are no more than a gimmick.

The dreadful murder of the Swedish Foreign Minister, Anna Lindh, showed a dramatically different attitude to politicians. She was clearly popular, and her death produced a great outpouring of grief, and affection. Significantly, the warm and positive feelings about her were not limited to those who shared her political views. In a referendum on whether Sweden should join the Euro, which Anna Lindh strongly supported, Swedes voted 56 per cent to 42 per cent against; her opinions were rejected, affection and respect for her remained.

It is clearly right that the actions of politicians should be subjected to critical scrutiny. If they make bad judgments, they should be questioned and criticised. If they abuse their power, they richly deserve to be deprived of it.

That is true — but it is not the same thing as always assuming the worst about them.



...and grief in Sweden.

My experience is that most people who enter politics in the United Kingdom do so from largely good motives. They believe in the policies which they and their party espouse and they genuinely want to serve their fellow citizens. Most of them are certainly no less public spirited than many of their critics including, it must be said, many of their journalist critics.

There is something inherently unhealthy, from a democratic point of view, and from the point of view of civilised behaviour, in a situation in which politicians are automatically seen as dishonest and unprincipled, and treated with contempt.

It happens for all sorts of reasons. One of the most important is the way in which politicians are portrayed in the newspapers. I have mentioned the frenzied speculation that has surrounded the Hutton inquiry. It is symptomatic of a more general approach, in which hostility, intemperate criticism, personal abuse and snide comment — about the families of politicians as well as the politicians themselves — have become commonplace. The "political village" is an unpleasant place.

At the end of last week I flew to the north of Scotland with two colleagues for a meeting. The place is quiet and peaceful. The subject of the meeting had nothing to do with politics. The atmosphere was relaxed and friendly. Different views were expressed, and different emphases put on the issues under discussion, but everyone enjoyed the occasion. The outcome was positive.

There was an element of fevered activity, but it had to do with the business of getting there (a 3 a.m. start for the journey north, and a 6 a.m. start for the return on the following day) and not with the business of the meeting. The contrast with my normal circumstances — for Cambridge is very much part of the "political village" — highlighted for me the fact that there are ways of doing things that do not require that disagreement is turned into personal abuse. One of the problems of our current political scene is that the atmosphere is often of hostility and unpleasantness feeding on themselves. It must be possible for personal respect, regardless of disagreement, to be similarly self generating.

On the flight home, one of my colleagues, an academic, half German and brought up in Germany, asked me if the fact that I was a commentator on political issues meant that I was a cynic about politicians. Because I had been thinking a good deal about these issues, I was able to reply quickly, and with sincerity, that I was always a sceptic, but not at all cynical. Surely this must be a distinction worth making.

Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge, U.K. Email him at wpk1000@hotmail.com

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