In defence of politics

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At the 30th anniversary of the Long March for Freedom, 26 January 2017 (Image via @LindaBurneyMP)

The problem with politics' negative image is that it discourages people from having a go when there is so much political work to be done, writes Barry Hindess.

IN ONE of his most popular books, In Defence of Politics, the late Bernard Crick argued that, while it is tempting to take a cynical view of politics, with all its betrayals, back-stabbing, broken promises, compromises and power struggles, it remains the most promising way of maintaining more or less peaceful co-existence within large and complex communities. The only practical alternative to politics, he suggested, was government by straightforward coercion.

We can get a sense of what concerned Crick by considering Linda Burney's observation, on ABC's Radio National, on January 17, that, while she was sympathetic to the idea of changing the date of Australia Day, the Greens' adoption of the issue risked turning it “into a political issue” and that this would involve a narrow view of Indigenous affairs. As a good Labor parliamentarian, she stuck to the Party line, pointing out that there was no current Labor proposal to change the date and adding that we should also be talking about the Uluru Statement. In this case, the suggestion by a professional politician that it was not a good thing to turn something into a political issue seems just a little strange.

Ms Burney's comment can be understood in terms of a persistent ambiguity in our usage of "politics" and related terms. In Australia and many other countries, people operate with diverse understandings of what politics is. It can refer to the conduct of international affairs and, within Australia, to conflict within and between the parties represented in Australian parliaments or, more broadly, to attempts to influence the conduct of Australian Governments at local, state or national levels. Politics is not always about the activities of professional politicians.The work of GetUp!, Change.org, the Refugee Action Committee, Mums 4 Refugees and Green activists are clearly political, and so too were the efforts of many Indigenous Australians in preparing the Uluru Statement. Only the Right are likely to object to political action in this broader sense.

Ms Burney's comment clearly referred to politics in the narrowest of senses – politics, that is, as inter-party competition – and the Australia Day debate was clearly political, in a broader sense, well before the Greens got on board. Yet Burney's disparaging use of the term political also deserves attention. She is not the only professional politician to use the term in this way.

Addressing the House of Commons in March 1966, during a damaging national strike on the docks the then British Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson said:

"... the pressures which are put on men I know to be realistic and reasonable, not only in their executive capacity but in the highly organised strike committees in the individual ports by this tightly knit group of politically motivated men who, as the last general election showed, utterly failed to secure acceptance of their views by the British electorate, but who are now determined to exercise back-stage pressures, forcing great hardship on the members of the union and their families, and endangering the security of the industry and the economic welfare of the nation."

Here we see a professional politician, at the height of his game, disparaging motivations he describes as political. Wilson points out that neither these politically-motivated men nor their leftist motivations had received much electoral support in Britain in recent elections. He goes on to suggest that they had no business dragging their political concerns into serious politics or into such "non-political" areas of social life as industrial relations. The men he described as "realistic and reasonable", rather than "politically motivated", were the local and national leaders of the major union concerned – particularly Frank Cousins, general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union – and it is these men he describes as under pressure from "politically motivated" activists in the local branches of the Union. It is not clear what, if anything, Wilson knew about these activists.

At this time, union branches in Liverpool and most other British ports were dominated by members of the small British Communist Party. While they may have pressured the union leadership, they were themselves under pressure from even smaller Trotskyist groups intent on showing up the CP as selling-out the workers they claimed to represent. It would have been difficult for an outsider to get a clear sense of any local strike committee. Wilson's own electorate (Huyton) was close to the port of Liverpool, one of the centres of the campaign about which he complained, but, as in today's Australia, it would be foolish to imagine that elected representatives would have a good understanding of developments around and within their own electorate. He would certainly have received advice from police and rabidly right-wing intelligence agencies.

Wilson also used the phrase "politically motivated men" in other contexts — notably in private Labour Party gatherings, where I sometimes heard him accuse his critics on the left of the Party of having political motivations (but why else would anyone join a political party?). He was by no means the first British political leader to disparage politics. 

In Benjamin Disraeli's first novel Vivian Grey – published in 1826, well before he first became Queen Victoria's favourite Prime Minister in 1868 – one of his characters advises the young Grey not to attempt a career in politics:

'There is no act of treachery, or meanness, of which a political party is not capable — for in politics there is no honour.'

While the reference to honour might now seem archaic, I suspect that many of my readers will sympathise with this sentiment.

Accusations of inappropriate political motivation are not uncommon in Australian politics. In addition to the politics as inter-party competition invoked by Linda Burney's observation, we might recall the charges of "class warfare" and "the politics of envy" that are trotted out whenever Labor raises the issue of tax reductions – AKA hand outs – for the wealthy. The charge of class warfare taunts Labor by portraying it as the socialist party it has never dared, or even seriously pretended, to become. It suggests that the politics of envy – class warfare on behalf of the disadvantaged, unlike class warfare on behalf of big business and the wealthy – represents a dangerous kind of politics that serious politicians should avoid.

We might also recall that the then Treasurer Joe Hockey described most criticisms of his 2014 Budget as "political", suggesting that they need not be taken seriously. Unlike Wilson's speech, in which "politically motivated" referred vaguely to some kind of Marxism, Hockey's description of his critics as "political" invoked the charge of class warfare, combined with something more obviously technocratic, suggesting that the Budget is basically a matter for Treasury and professional economists, so that political considerations – and the politics of envy in particular – were simply out of place: "political" criticism of the Budget is essentially frivolous; it means failing to treat the technical side of the Budget process seriously. Resorting to 'politics' in this way, Hockey suggested, was obviously not a good thing.

Such disdain for politics or for certain political motivations readily translates all-too-easily into disdain for political activists and professional politicians: the latter's mildly disparaging Australian nickname, "pollies" says it all.

The real problem with the negative image of politics is that it discourages people from having a go when there is so much political work to be done. Crick argued that we need politics because the only practical alternative was government by straightforward coercion. While some readers might find this claim appealing, we should bear in mind that Crick's defence relates to an idealised image of politics, not to politics as we know it in the UK, Australia or anywhere else.

We might also suspect that Crick's contrast between coercion and the discussion, negotiating and cutting deals of political life may be a little overdrawn. Political negotiation and cutting deals have a place in our society, but so too does coercion — it is an important part of how business and bureaucracy work. Crick's politics and coercive rule are not so much alternatives we can choose between as interdependent; anyone who has been actively involved in politics will know that we actually have both.

Barry Hindess is an emeritus professor at Australian National University’s School of Politics and International Relations. You can follow Barry on Twitter @barryhindess.

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