Saturday, May 19, 2007

Government for the People

Why are our elected representatives such prats?

There has been lots of high moral commentary about the latest action by British MPs, who voted to exempt themselves from the Freedom of Information Act. Not for their benefit, you understand, but to preserve the privacy of their constituents.

We could have a technical discussion about the degree of protection constituents already had - either from the Data Protection Act or from other provisions of the Freedom of Information Act. I had a minor disagreement with Robin Wilton recently on the adequacy of the DPA. [See his post Exploding Venus Probe.] For my part, I don't believe the DPA is strong enough. But if our legislators have now (belatedly) realised this, the proper thing for them to do would be to make the DPA stronger, rather than tinker with some other legislation in an apparently self-interested way.

In a later post
, Robin despairs of our elected representatives. "I don't know what's more depressing; the idea that our MPs haven't read their own legislation, or the idea that they think we can't."

This problem is not a new one. Our beloved legislators produce too much bad law all the time - and not just when there is any apparent self-interest. In general, legislation is hopelessly complicated, self-contradictory, and riddled with accidental loop-holes and unintended side-effects. (I've seen a lot of badly designed software systems, and I recognize many of the same characteristics.)

What is the effect of this bad legislation? More work for lawyers, and more wriggle-room for the powerful. In many cases, it is not the MPs themselves who are affected by the low level of legislative competence, but those behind the scenes pulling the strings.

But I wanted to go beyond the technical legal discussion. Some people have complained that blatant self-interest serves to distance the elected representatives from the people they purport to represent. I don't agree with that argument. We may observe that the rogue with his hand in the till often has much more popular support than the cold fish who wouldn't dream of bending the rules.

It's an interesting question - should not the elected representatives have the same collection of strengths and weaknesses as the population as a whole - including their moral weaknesses? Surely the biggest turnoff for the electorate is to be presented with a supposedly superior governing class? In the past, the supposed superiority has been through attending the right schools and universities (the magic combination of Eton and Oxford has a good chance of producing yet another Prime Minister, if Gordon Brown doesn't watch out) - or perhaps the right trade union credentials. In the future, perhaps, the superiority will be through squeaky clean morals, a completely respectable CV, and a total lack of testosterone.

But who can the British people relate to better - John Prescott or Hilary Benn? Yes our MPs may be prats, but there are worse alternatives.

[Update July 2008] This was written before Prescott published his autobiography, revealing that he suffered from an eating disorder. [Prescott tells of bulimia battle BBC News April 2008]
I'm not sure whether that makes any difference to my argument, although clearly he was not willing to reveal this until his political career was over. However, there are larger questions about politicians and mental health. [MPs reveal mental health problems BBC News July 2008]


Scribe said...

Very interesting post, some great questions. The apparent strength of GW Bush is apparently his "weakness" - he doesn't come across as a guy who's going to fool you into doing something you don't want to. He's a "mate", as it were.

I think a similar thing is happening here. We want people we identify with, not people with enough power over us to fool us. Maybe that's a result of the move towards greater middle class - everyone's jostling for status, and nobody thinks anyone else should have more power than them any more. Everyone thinks they could do better.

Certainly the purpose of the political institution needs to be considered. "Trust" is usually thrown about as something that's missing, but maybe what's missing is a "respect" instead - the same kind of respect we could be giving teachers, nurses, etc. But it's easier to lose respect than to gain it back.

Richard Veryard said...

Eton and Oxford has now produced a London mayor, Boris Johnson, who has some of the same qualities as GW Bush. (Not all the same qualities, thank goodness, and possibly more testosterone.)

But do these old Etonians really count as middle class? Perhaps they can. After all, George Orwell (Eton but not Oxford) described himself as lower-upper-middle class (see The Road to Wigan Pier).