FROM PRESIDENT BARTLETT TO ED BALLS

Tom Carty on cynicism in politics

I'm currently re-watching the 'The West Wing'. I know it's soft-centred, both in its underlying assumptions about America, and its portrayal of folksy liberal virtue in the too good to be true shape of President Josh Bartlett. This also applies to the way his ideological opponents are played, but I can live with that, since they tend to be our opponents too. That is anyway part of the attraction. It reminds us, if we are old enough, of the time when it was possible to be idealistic about politics, not to mention politicians. However, the series’ main fascination lies in its detailed picture of a candidate's campaign team developing into a president's staff. Tensions between principle and expediency are common to both situations, but the sheer pressure of competing priorities makes the White House the more challenging environment.

Among the questions it implicitly raises is whether a degree of cynicism is inevitable in politics. And if it is, does that make it acceptable? Asking those questions risks making you sound trite and pious, not to mention naive. Even worse, it could be taken as reflecting the currently prevalent and dangerous anti-political mood. Nonetheless, not least from a Christian standpoint, the question needs posing. In doing so, I must confess to having been involved in some cynical, knockabout local campaigns in the past. If we thought at all about it, I suppose we would have justified what we were doing as giving the Liberal Democrats a taste of their own medicine. It was also great fun.

I’m not talking about straightforward lying here. Lies are of course a feature of the cynical attitude to politics, as we saw in the media interventions of ministers during the run-up to the Iraq war. As a Christian writing for a largely Christian audience, I assume that I don't have to make out a case for regarding lying as simply wrong. It’s the more subtle dishonesties routinely involved in normal political discourse which most of those actively involved in politics no doubt regard as necessary and in no way problematic that interest me.

To take a recent example, why does Ed Balls' policy, launched in his recent conference speech, of freezing child benefit for the first two years of a Labour government make one feel so uncomfortable? It's not just that the policy stinks. It is also not based on any principles or policy priorities concerning the benefits system. The fact is it's not even about what level of child benefit the country should or could afford (the resulting savings will be tiny), It is designed to demonstrate (to whom?) that a Labour government will not spare welfare, that it will not be a soft touch. It is an example (admittedly a relatively mild one) of the recent trend to draw a line between welfare recipients and 'hard-working families'. Labour seems to have embraced the rhetoric behind this policy of exclusion. I will at least pay the leadership the compliment of not believing that they really think in these terms, but that's what makes it cynical. They would no doubt see it as prudent positioning … .

What would President Bartlett say? Or Jesus Christ?

Tom Carty is the author of ‘The Jesus Reader. The Teaching and Identity of Jesus Christ’ Columba Press 2013

Access his blog ‘SEEK FIRST THE KINGDOM’ via his website tomcartysite.com

 

 

 

 

 

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