good at the next general election. Robert Whelan wonders if it's possible.
Cynicism and the common good
hen I was a schoolboy attending the John Fisher School in Purley, way back in the 1960s, there was a fictitious pop group called The Archies. They were actually cartoon characters from an American TV series, but their record, a piece of mindless pap called Sugar. Sugar, went to number one in the charts for five weeks. This led a classmate of mine to reflect that democracy might not be such a good idea.
Most of us have probably experienced the same doubts from time to time. When you consider the
moronic level at which
serious issues are debated by "members cif the public" on programmes like Kilroy; when you reflect on the importance of spin in modern political life; when you look at the papers and find every topic reduced to personalities (and generally assumed ones at that); it does make you wonder if voting is a good idea.
The great satirist Jonathan Swift once drew up a list of all the vices of the age, including gambling, drinking, whoring and other familiar failings. He put voting in the middle of the list.
He also imagined a meeting between the senators of ancient Rome, and the House of Commons of his own day. On the one hand, he saw a race of noble, disinterested men, serving the public good; on the other, a bunch of hypocritical, mendacious rogues lining their own pockets (remember this was in the 18th century).
My problem with Swift's comparison has always been that I doubt if the Roman senate was any different from the House of Commons. Politicians are for the most part cut from the same cloth.
A few weeks ago I was being interviewed by a journalist who was writing a feature on "Which party is the party of the family?" When he started asking me for my views on particular politicians, I told him that it would be best if, in the phrase they use on Friends, we didn't go there, as my views would be unprintable. He then told me that a friend of his, a senior civil servant in an important department, had refused to vote for the last 30 years, on the grounds that they are all scum.
Nevertheless, most of us come to share Winston Churchill's view that democracy is the worst of all systems apart from all the alternatives. Voting doesn't give us much real control over the political classes, who do pretty much what they like, but it is all we have. The alternative would be to let them do whatever they like — a thought too horrible to contemplate.
So, to paraphrase Dorothy Parker, you might as well vote. The question is, who should you vote for? The Catholic bishops have just published a paper entitled Vote for the Common Good, which is a sort of follow-up to the much more substantial document called, simply, The Common Good, which appeared just before the last election. It is available on the internet (www.catholicew.org.uk) in English and Welsh, and represents a brisk trot through selected topics which are thought to interest the Catholic voter.
i4owever, the document seems to reflect the priorities of the bureaucrats who inevitably compose these things in the name of the bishops, and who tend to absorb the outlook of other elite groups with whom they mix, rather than the ordinary Catholic in the pew.
That is not to say that anything in it is wrong or misleading. I just don't think it is of much use. For example, on the issue of crime and punishment, I find that most Catholics share the general concern that the criminal justice system has become so skewed in favour of the crim inal, and so biased against the law-abiding citizen, that they are unlikely to want to empty the prisons.
The section on asylum seekers and refugees is even more woolly. "The goods of the earth are intended by God for the whole of humanity", the bishops tell us. "This forces us to ask uncomfortable questions about our attitude to economic migrants and to the help given to our poorer European neighbours."
Presumably this means that the bishops believe we should be 'transferring even more billions to the European Union and other redistributive bureaucracies, but why don't they say so? And how does this help Catholics to decide between candidates?
The huge gap in the 1996 version of The Common Good was the family. Apart from one sentence at the front, stating the central importance of this institution, there was nothing about it at all. The new version acknowledges the serious consequences of family breakdown, for individuals and for society, and calls for a public policy response. This is supposed to address job insecurity, poor housing, poverty, debt, and "inadequate support for poorer and single parents with young children".
Although the bishops tell us that it is not their intention to present an end of term report on the Labour Government, this is exactly New Labour's line. Nothing is said about the weakening of marriage by permissive divorce laws, about the grave disadvantaging of the singleearner, married-couple family in the tax and benefit system, and of the disgraceful way in which all rights and responsibilities previously reserved to married people are now being handed over to cohabiting couples. The latest adoption bill will represent the last nail in that particular coffin, although it has hardly been commented upon.
Surely the bishops could at least have found the space to mention that this government, which has said so much about targeting resources on needy families, will go down in family history as the one which abolished the Marriage Allowance? "The good of society requires the promotion and support of the institution of marriage," say the bishops. And how is this to be achieved? Through "appropriate education in schools and funding for relationship counselling". Give us a break.
The bishops are far more specific on the right-to-life issues than any others, as you would expect given the efforts which have been made by the Catholic population over the years to oppose the culture of death. Vote For The Common Good supports the idea of asking candidates for their views on abortion, euthanasia and cloning, and acknowledges that some Catholics will vote for a particular candidate on this basis.
However, the report goes on to say that "the Church's social teaching entails a consistent ethic for life", and that perhaps we should take into account global poverty and injustice as well. What this entails is spelled out in the next section: we are supposed to be in favour of even more foreign aid, which in practice often means handing over large capital sums to corrupt dictators, coupled with debt writeoffs when money which should have been invested for economic development has been spent on private jets and apartments in Monaco.
It is a fact of modern political life in Britain that most pro-life MPs are Conservatives. Support for foreign aid and debt relief is stronger on the Labour benches. So if we are going to trade off one against the other, Catholics will find themselves voting for candidates who support abortion. Is this really the best sort of advice the bishops can give?
The bishops conclude by
warning against pessimism, and advising us all to look to a better future. This is sound advice, which we should all take to heart. But let's not look to any set of politicians to deliver this better future, or we will be disappointed. The best we can hope for is to limit their ability to destroy what they can't create.
We need to be realistic about politics, and I would like to suggest a campaign for the return to our screens of Spitting Image, with its accurate depiction of life at Westminster.
It was taken off their air because its producers said they found it impossible to exaggerate the absurdity of what was happening in real life. Surely this just indicates the need for a more savage line in satire.
Come back Jonathan Swift, we need you now.
Robert Whelan is deputy director of Civitas, an independent think-tank.