Political Life over Fifty Years -- a Reflection

Article excerpt

IN 1952, on the untimely death of her father, our young Queen returned from East Africa to be received at the airport by her Prime Minister, Winston Churchill and the Cabinet. A lasting memory is of the photograph which appeared in the press next day. Here was a young monarch shown to have the support of a Prime Minister of worldwide prestige and great experience which he would be proud to put at her service. Whatever our political allegiance, this picture was re-assuring and gave confidence for the future.

It would be wrong to say that in those days all politicians were held in high esteem, but most were more respected than they are today. What is more, they could be expected to do the decent thing when the need arose. There have been two outstanding examples of this in the past half century.

In 1954, there was what was known as the Crichel Down affair. A piece of land, requisitioned during the war, had not been returned to its rightful owners, but had been sold by the Ministry of Agriculture. This had been done by the department -- not the Minister. Nevertheless, when the error was revealed, Sir Thomas Dugdale resigned. Though he had not even known of the mistake and it was entirely the fault of his bureaucrats, he regarded himself as responsible for what had been done in his department and he went.

In 1982, the Falklands were invaded. Lord Carrington, the Foreign Secretary, resigned. In his memoirs, Reflections on Things Past (Collins), he gave a full description of events and said 'It was not a sense of culpability that led me to resign ... the country felt angry and humiliated. I felt the same myself ... it was right, in my judgement, that there should be a resignation ... the disgrace must be purged ... the person to purge it must be me ... My departure would put a stop to the search for scapegoats'. Peter Carrington went on to hold high office as Secretary General of NATO and he continues to command respect as a man of honour.

Look back at those two episodes in our recent political history and reflect on the world of the spin doctors of today with the shifting of blame on to the Civil Service. Given the present attitude of ministers, would either Sir Thomas Dugdale or Lord Carrington have felt it necessary to go? Of course they would. Whatever one may think about the rights or wrongs of recent events in the Ministry of Transport; however much Stephen Byers believes he was let down by others, he was head of his department. Had he taken the same course as Carrington and Dugdale, might not the whole sad story have, in Carrington's words, been purged and political life made healthier? Might he not also have had a political future?

Perhaps it is here that one sees one of the major reasons for the sharp change which has taken place in public attitudes towards politicians in the past few decades. The situation today has become unhealthy. In the 1950s and 1960s, there was a turnout of between 70 and 70 per cent of the electorate on polling day. Now, barely more than half can be bothered. It is called apathy and numerous reasons are offered. Might it not, however, be more accurate to call it antipathy? Politicians are neither popular nor respected. There is a belief that an election result will make no difference; that MPs are all 'in it for themselves' and care nothing for the voters once they are elected. This, of course, is a misconception. Few MPs look upon the prospect of defeat with equanimity. Almost all want to stay in the job. They do try, therefore, to show themselves in the best light to their constituents. At least part of the problem is that the electors ignore them. In so far as they take any notice of the political news, they look only at Party Leaders end vote for or against them.

What the public hear and see is all too often the result of the greater activity of spin doctors. Everyone has heard of the attempts to 'bury' bad news on a day when the media will be diverted by other events. …