Politics All Over the World is a Disappointing Business
Published on Friday, May 18, 2001 in the Guardian of London
Politics All Over the World is a Disappointing Business
by Martin Woollacott
When Henry Asquith lost office in December 1916, he spent the evening translating passages of Kipling into Greek, then turned to the Bible. Asked by his wife which part of the Bible, he replied: "The Crucifixion". Whether Asquith was impious enough to imply some parallel, or instead sought perspective by contemplating an infinitely greater sacrifice than any he would be called on to make, his answer touched the perennial problems and pretensions of politicians. Not much goes as expected; actions intended to achieve one end may achieve, instead, the opposite; and, while victory can grace your efforts without it being quite clear why it should, crushing defeat is always equally possible. Margaret Thatcher summed it up in a more homely fashion two generations later when she commented, mainly to herself, that "it's a funny old world".

Politics is a skilled human activity that depends for success on the projection of a certainty and confidence that its practitioners often do not feel, and on an assumption of sound judgment among citizens that may also not be all that well founded. The complexities of collective action are such that, as the political scientist John Dunn has suggested, politics are often mysterious before they are anything else. "What does the prime minister of Britain, or the president of France," asks Dunn in his recent book on the difficulties facing the modern democratic republic, "suppose that each has been doing even for the last six months?"

At one level the response is simple. Every day brings its quota of meetings, briefings, speeches, decisions and law-making. But, at the level of strategic human ends, it is not easy to answer for men and women who manage to get along in the political profession, generally speaking, through a mixture of faltering intuition and tactical calculation. This is one reason for the bland and generalized nature of rhetoric about the future, for those battered words like "modern" and "new" and "vision" that leaders all over the world - not just Tony Blair - deploy to cover their uncertainty about whether their policies are really "working" and about where things are really headed.

Our own election will make a fourth to three recent contests in the industrial democracies where the hit-and-miss nature of elections has been rather evident. In the US, citizens got one government rather than another by a hair's breadth. They also got a government which, in its narrow devotion to the interests of American domestic business and its recoil from the international engagement of the Clinton years, may well turn out to be one which many of those who cast their votes for it did not understand they were electing.

Mandate could also prove a slippery concept in Japan, where Junichiro Koizumi is supposed to concentrate on economic and party reforms but has initially shown more interest in abolishing the peace provision that prevents Japan having "proper" armed forces. In Italy, Silvio Berlusconi has come to power in an election which was essentially a referendum on his own personality rather than a rounded and issue-based competition with the center-left parties which have given Italy competent government in recent years.

Different although they obviously are, these elections have some things in common. One is their somewhat accidental nature, as victories arising out of odd circumstances - the photo-finish in America, Japan's long disarray, Italy's response to a showman. But odd circumstances for elections may be becoming normal. Another is that they have been watched censoriously by an outside world which, on the whole, did not want Bush to win in the US, does not rate Koizumi in Japan and considers Berlusconi too compromised a figure to be the leader of a large European country.

They all had some element of turning away from that world, of demonstrating to foreigners and international institutions that there are limits to their intrusion into domestic affairs. And they were all concerned, as is every election in the industrial democracies, with how to reconcile the defense of the national and the local with the workings of the international economy.

In America that may be particularly a matter, for this administration, of giving precedence to manufacturing and extractive industries, and to small business, over the American financial establishment. In Japan, it is how to reconfigure what was once a winning formula for economic success both abroad and at home. In Italy, it is supposedly to release the most dynamic sectors of that economy from excessive tax and bureaucratic restraints.

The British election's accidental quality arises from the imbalance between the parties and the fact that the only choice is the degree of support to give Labour. It is not an election in which there is any outside hostility toward the outcome. But it features our own inward turning, on Europe and on immigration, and our own version of the dilemma over business. For the Blair government the crux of that dilemma may be whether particular decisions that penalize or exclude business can be prevented from being received as a general signal against business.

All these contests do have in common is that those involved in them have a tendency to treat enduring issues as if they were new and as if they could be fully resolved, whereas the evidence suggests the opposite. Long before New Labour, Margot Asquith was telling Herbert Morrison: "The worst of you Labour men is that the moment you get into the cabinet you become blue, die-hard Tories." And long before the present generation of corporate critics and defenders, the danger of what the Canadian nationalist George Grant called "the private governments" of corporations had been identified. The problem of human co-existence with capitalism is, Dunn argues, one that admits of only partial solutions that have to be crafted again and again.

When we dismiss politicians, we dismiss ourselves. Politics, as Dunn says, involves deep questions, such as whether we can become clearer about our intentions (to really know what we want), whether we can predict and avert unintended consequences (to ensure that we get what we want) and whether we can control our immediate appetites and passions (so as not to undermine the getting of what we want).

It is not surprising that people, including politicians, flinch at trying to decide whether the state should be mainly a local agent for the world economy, mainly a device for ensuring individual self-realization or mainly a local enforcement body to prevent us destroying the planet. It is perhaps more surprising that they do sometimes attend to such matters, if never with full care and attention. As a result, Dunn writes, "the experience of politics... will always be somewhat irritating and in the end all but invariably disappointing." Asquith would have known what he meant.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001