Joyce McMillan: Politics needs to win back our trust

Politicians will never be as popular as Clooney but they need to restore tarnished reputations, writes Joyce McMillan
Alistair Carmichaels case could end in a by-election  but there are wider issues at stake. Picture: GettyAlistair Carmichaels case could end in a by-election  but there are wider issues at stake. Picture: Getty
Alistair Carmichaels case could end in a by-election  but there are wider issues at stake. Picture: Getty

Thursday lunchtime; and while heavy November skies hang threateningly over the city, the social media remind us that all is happiness and good cheer in Edinburgh’s Rose Street, where the mighty Hollywood mega-star George Clooney has dropped by for a coffee at the Social Bite, a coffee shop which encourages its customers to buy an extra meal or drink for a homeless person, when they pay for their own snacks. Clooney, of course, is not only a hugely successful actor, but a forceful campaigner for human rights; and to say that people love him is to understate the case - indeed if he were to run for President of the United States, he would no doubt win in a landslide.

The truth is, though, that a large part of Clooney’s appeal resides in the fact that he is a showbiz star, and not - for all his campaigning activity - a professional politician; for if successive polls are to be believed, politicians are now the most disliked and least trusted professional group in our society, given even less credence by the general public than estate agents, bankers, or journalists.

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This profound contempt for politicians is, of course, partly the result of a long-term campaign against politics itself, conducted by some of the most powerful vested interests in our society. Politics, in their book, is something that can sometimes get in the way of corporate power by actually daring to reflect the views of the kind of “little people” who usually don’t matter; so the more they can sell the idea that politics is bunk, and that all politicians are “just the same” and “in it for themselves”, the less political scrutiny they themselves are likely to face.

If big vested interests are likely to leave no stone unturned in diminishing the respect - and therefore the power - enjoyed by politicians, though, it’s impossible to deny that many politicians play straight into their hands. The Liberal Democrats’ broken pledge on student finance, for example, is still haunting the party, five years on from the 2010 general election; the mass culture of petty and not-so-petty greed and dishonesty exposed by the 2009 MPs’ expenses scandal was truly shocking to an electorate struggling with the impact of recession.

And it’s against this backdrop, I think, that we have to understand the current case of Scotland’s sole remaining Liberal Democrat MP, Alistair Carmichael, the former coalition Secretary of State for Scotland who has now been caught red-handed not only authorising the leaking to the press of an inaccurate report of a private meeting - a report which alleged that Nicola Sturgeon said she wanted David Cameron to win the UK general election - but then flatly denying his own involement in that leak, first to Channel 4 News, and then to a Cabinet Office inquiry. A group of outraged voters in Carmichael’s Orkney constituency have identified these untruths as a possible breach of the Representation of the People Act, and have crowd-funded a court action against him; cue much tribal grandstanding on either side of Scotland’s yes-no political divide, with SNP sympathisers roaring as if Carmichael’s actions represented perfidy on a previously unknown scale, while some of his supporters - notably the former scottish Liberal Democrat leader Malcolm Bruce - argue that such “bare-faced lies” are the normal stuff of politics, and not to be made much of.

And about this fierce little hurricane in the Scottish political teacup, there are perhaps two things worth saying. The first is that voters probably do not expect complete transparency and honesty from their leaders in all matters. Most doubtless understand the need for confidentiality in some areas of policy-making, and for playing cards close to the chest in certain negotiations.

What’s clear, though, is that voters are also wary of that traditional flexibility with the truth, and inclined to accept it only from politicians who have proved themselves trustworthy in big-picture terms. If Carmichael’s untruths about his effort to smear the First Minister have been received with special outrage, for example, that perhaps also reflects some pent-up anger about the Liberal Democrats’ over-enthusiastic acceptance, in coalition, of a right-wing austerity programme that betrayed many of their own founding principles and priorities.

Then secondly, politicians who feel inclined to defend Alistair Carmichael’s actions should note that the growing reluctance of voters to accept this kind of behind-closed-doors manipulation is reaching a series of tipping-points, of which the two most significant in the UK so far have been the spirited rebellion of 45 per cent of Scottish voters against the politics of shut-up-and-put-up conservatism advanced by the “No” campaign in last year’s referendum, and the hugely decisive election of outsider Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party. The truth is that voters across the western world are showing signs of having had enough of the business-as-usual assumptions of the existing political class, including its weary cynicism about the “reality” of human nature and political possibility - a “reality” which in fact amounts to the lazy acceptance of a dominant ideology that is both depressing and reactionary.

To win the long-term trust of voters, in other words - and the room for manoeuvre that comes with it - politicians have to put in the hard work involved in mapping out the way to a better, more sustainable future, and then clearly showing themselves both willing and able to start moving in that direction. And what finally matters here is therefore not whether the judges in the Carmichael case will force a by-election in Orkney.

It’s rather whether UK politics, in the Corbyn era, can now dig itself out of the grave of cynical right-wing thinking to which it has recently consigned itself; and produce a new generation of politicians who - instead of disgusting the public with their ever-more vicious media spats over a steadily diminishing quantum of power - can actually build support among the people for real progressive change, and restore to themselves and the nation the kind of political life in which senior politicians have better things to do than to scan dodgy dossiers of misreported conversations, in a desperate effort to destroy their most lively and vivid opponents, and reduce them to the same banal and depressing establishment greyness they have so comprehensively achieved themselves.