Political courage

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By Michael Saward

What do we expect of our elected political leaders?  What should we expect?  In the UK and well beyond, mainstream liberal democratic politics prompts cynicism and low expectations.  Politicians are often portrayed as lying, as not representing real people or real problems, as being out only for themselves. Resigned apathy, or turning away from mainstream parties, are common responses.

Those inclined to defend politicians can find it hard.  In the UK at least there’s a clear case for widening the pool from which our representatives are drawn (more from diverse backgrounds, more women, more quality).  But consider the demands of the job.  ‘Lying’ – and another common accusation, ‘just acting’ – might be shorthand for having to keep options open. Politics requires negotiation and compromise and they both need time – time that representatives can buy by being less than forthcoming on where they stand.  We could call it being strategically noncommittal, and learn to tolerate it now and then. And moats and duck houses notwithstanding, the pay is surely too low for a job with such extraordinary demands.

But politicians’ (lost-cause?) defenders are entitled to be aggrieved at the current serious lack of what I will call political courage.  Why is it so hard, so rare, for political leaders to stand up and defend what they believe, or what they know, to be right? There are exceptions that prove the rule.  Europhiles (and especially EUrophiles) are entitled to some exasperation at the unwillingness (perhaps even the inability?) of the EU’s leaders to make a robust case for the EU’s shape, functions and very existence. Manuel Barroso edged this way recently when giving a speech in London, showing some fight when Grant Shapps called him an ‘unelected bureaucrat’ by saying he was ‘not aware of who Mr Shapps was’, and pointing out that ‘he had spent years in government before becoming EC president, and had twice been elected as president by the elected members of the European Parliament’. But since the days of Delors it is rare for a European leader come to the UK to do major interviews and speeches defending and advocating the EU. A smugly jargonistic sense of indestructibility can be common in EU affairs.  Politics needs to be shown to be done, and not just done. Legitimacy has to be won and re-won, not just assumed. And this crucial work of showing and winning appears dangerously underrated in Brussels.  For the most part, the EU performs only to itself.

Perhaps the EU’s very real ‘democratic deficit’ lies at the heart of this political shyness. But if the Soviet Union can disappear overnight, so can the EU. Maybe Shirley Williams was right when she said recently that ‘… the Commission no longer has as its stars … men and women who are capable of reaching out across the whole of the continent and giving people a sense of belonging to that continent. Whereas I think when you look back people like Brandt, or Schmidt, or for that matter Delors, you’re looking at great men, and I would say one or two great women too, who have passed from the scene, had a really huge vision’.

Arguably, the political courage deficit is even starker today in the UK. UKIP’s rise appears to have spooked the major parties. Prime Minister Cameron and Leader of the Opposition Miliband engage in a race to the bottom on immigration, outbidding each other on the issue. Cameron suggests that he will ignore the EU – ‘I’m very clear about who the boss is, about who I answer to and it’s the British people. They want this issue fixed, they’re not being unreasonable about it and I will fix it’. Miliband has said that ‘people talk to me about the way the country has been changing. They talk to me about builders from eastern Europe who are here and part of the community, care workers from overseas who sometimes don’t speak fluent English. What does that say? That says there are big changes happening in this community. These are the realities of work, of family and of community.’

These ‘people’, summoned before us by Cameron and Miliband, are those who might vote UKIP.  Copying UKIP’s signals to prevent that is the strategy. It could be called a ‘dog whistle’ strategy. Surely political courage demands something different – defending your own position, and advocating it, even in the face of opposition? Who will dare to take UKIP on? The apparent fear of doing so grows out of fear of losing by-elections and maybe general elections. But political performance – acting from conviction, and doing so publicly and clearly – creates as much as it reflects popular opinion. Perhaps there are political victories to be won by taking that chance, taking on the debate, rather than running to catch up with the new opponents, whether or not you really agree with them?

michael saward

Michael Saward is Professor of Politics and International Relations at the University of Warwick. He is the co-editor of Enacting European Citizenship (Cambridge University Press 2013) and his most recent publication is ‘Shape-shifting representation’, American Political Science Review 108, 4, 2014.

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