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What defines the state of politics

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This article is prompted by the thought provoking editorial of last week’s Vincentian, captioned ‘Why do people say politics is a dirty game?’ I aim simply to extend the conversation. The author builds a case to support the view that it is naturally dirty, but suggests that the thought that it is selfish politicians who make it dirty should not be ignored, although he proceeded to demolish that.

The reality of politics in the past and today does, in his view, prove that it is dirty. Politicians have lost their moral values in their quest for political gain and affluence, some even stating that they will never be poor again. He declares that there are no rules to ensure parity and fair play and uses the ‘Road Blocks’ following the election of 1998 as an example of a game without rules. Politics is about winning at all costs and in politics it is difficult not to compromise, really a thin line between being corrupt and becoming a sacrificial lamb. On the question of dishonest politicians, he argues that once their conscience and moral force remain alive they will do no such thing. But, he declares, that is not the reality.

The author misapplies a quotation when he suggested that in politics there are no permanent friends nor enemies, only permanent interests. This is really attributed to Henry Kissinger, American Secretary of State and National Security Adviser and although framed differently, to British statesman and Prime Minister Lord Palmerston, before him. In both cases the reference was to country not politics per se.

The editorial’s analysis needs to be expanded. First, politicians are not the only players. The country’s electorate are indeed players, providing politicians with power which they are supposed to exercise on their behalf. It is not true that there are no rules to ensure parity and fair play. Some countries have checks and balances to prevent abuse of power. There are national constitutions, regulations governing parliamentary conduct and national laws that should apply to everyone. The British have conventions that govern how politicians operate, but unfortunately, we adopted their system minus the conventions. The continuing debate here about Integrity legislation and Accountability is about holding politicians accountable, especially regarding corruption and affluence.

To suggest that compromise in politics is inevitable is short changing the argument. The question is, do they do so on principles or values or do they lose their moral compass? To compromise is to make concessions and there is nothing inherently dirty if it is about policy or ideology. There might be political consequences but that is a different matter.

We are not perfect beings so one expects certain transgressions, but an alert and informed public with necessary checks and balances could bring much of that under control. I am fond of saying that it is we, the public, that make politicians so. They do what they think they can get away with. We fail to realise that we are their masters; that we put them there and can remove them.

Politics is about people. It is, certainly, not by nature dirty. We must take responsibility for any dirt. We allow our politicians to abuse the power we give them. The more latitude we allow, the more dirt they will cover themselves with. There are, of course, other factors to be considered, including the state of poverty and political illiteracy. We need to vet our candidates before we make them politicians and to consider their track record even while acknowledging that the true test of a man is to expose him to power.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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