George Washington once said parties were the problem – he was right

Plenty of politicians mean well, but their ability to do good has been greatly undermined by factionalism

1788:  The inauguration of George Washington as the first President of the United States, also present are (from left) Alexander Hamilton, Robert R Livingston, Roger Sherman, Mr Otis, Vice President John Adams, Baron Von Steuben and General Henry Knox.  Original Artwork: Printed by Currier & Ives.  (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)
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I have a confession. I like politicians. Not all politicians, obviously. But I do like quite a number of them, despite evidence to the contrary. Voters in the US, UK and other countries across the world often tell opinion pollsters that politicians are selfish and “only in it for themselves". I think many, perhaps most, politicians are better than this, but even so, they are often likely to act with their political tribe rather than with their conscience.

For years I have been on friendly terms with politicians in Britain, Ireland, the US and elsewhere. The good ones try to solve problems, rather than create them. Most tend to be reasonable, hard working and talented.

One guide to their characters, as I discovered early, is to ask how they got into politics in the first place. In Northern Ireland during the Troubles, the good ones usually began with community action, although since the communities were very divided and violence an everyday reality, politics was still likely to be at times vicious. In England, one politician, whom I like, began by running a university sports club. He was advised that the club was so popular he could become president of the student’s union. That led him into a political party, although more recently he lost his seat in Parliament. When I saw him recently, he looked 10 years younger than when he was an MP – and undeniably happier.

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Across the world politicians are putting their party’s narrow interests before the interests of their people

Another politician told me recently that he ran a student newspaper and was then drawn into the debates on Scottish independence. He is now an MP. A third is a very successful businessman who keeps trying to get a parliamentary seat, although he knows that becoming a British MP will mean taking a big pay cut. I disagree with this friend on many political issues but I think he will be an asset to Parliament eventually.

And then a few days ago, I spent time with a well-known British politician talking about the dire state of politics in the country now. We discussed Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s wrecking of standards in public life through his lying and deceit over drunken parties in Downing Street and other matters. But the bits of our conversation that stay with me are not political at all. They are personal. This politician spoke of family loss, grief, and caring for others.

Now, whether I agree with any of these politicians on any of their policies is irrelevant here. I recognise decent human beings from four different parties whose party policies are completely at odds with one another. They all want to do "the right thing" even if they disagree on what the "right thing" might be.

Why do I believe any of this is worth thinking about? Because there is a sense of malaise and even disgust about so much in party politics and democracy around the globe right now.

America is going through its traditional convulsions about why anyone can buy weapons whose only real use is in warfare and then go on to murder school children. Self-serving US politicians know that their failure to change gun laws will result in more deaths in more school shootings, yet the gun lobby wins every time. In Britain, Conservative MPs know that Mr Johnson is a disaster for the country, yet many remain complicit in supporting him. Why? Because they fear that a change of leader now will lead to a general election in which they will lose their seats in Parliament.

US President Joe Biden meets Texas Governor Greg Abbott in Uvalde this week. Both leaders have opposing views on gun control. AFP

All across the world you can find examples of politicians putting their own and their party’s narrow interests before the interests of their people or their country. I am not seeking to defend any of this. But what I am seeking to do is to remind myself that most politicians I know do work hard and do try to act decently. Most are not stupid. But watching on both sides of the Atlantic right now politicians defending the indefensible, the bizarre gun laws in the world’s most important democracy, and the deceitful and deviant behaviour associated with the supposed "mother of parliaments" in Westminster, it is surely long past time to recognise that party loyalty and sectional interest are the problem.

In his famous farewell address to the American people in 1796, former president George Washington noted that political parties carry within themselves great dangers because they become factions pursuing their own sectional interests at the expense of society as a whole. That is the modern democratic paradox. Only through joining a political party can talented people in a democracy manage to get into government. But political parties inevitably tend towards factions and special interests. The gun lobby faction dominates in America. It is literally killing people. The Boris Johnson fan club currently dominates in Britain. Its lies and deceit have undermined key principles and norms of behaviour in our democracy.

I am naive, perhaps, in believing from those politicians that I know, that they are capable of independent thought and of behaviour beyond narrow factional interest. Now would be a good time for them to show it.

Published: June 01, 2022, 9:00 AM
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