Compassion – the Missing Ingredient in our Politics

Yesterday I posted about the lack of ambition in UK politics. Of course, it’s not quite true to suggest that many of the parties or their leaders have low expectations. What I’m saying is that their ambition is limited only to the immediate, and based almost completely on the interests of a subset rather than of everyone.

My suggestion is that if you want people to be interested in the political process, this is shortsighted. It’s well known that people, and often those who don’t vote regularly, care and sometimes passionately about many inherently political issues. They just don’t link the issues to the people and institutions who are supposed to be sorting those issues out. Or worse, they do link them but think those people and institutions simply don’t understand or don’t care.

Political parties occasionally fixate on the gaps in their own reputation that seem to prevent their reaching more people. David Cameron famously attempted to “modernise” the Conservative Party when he became leader. More recently, Michael Gove (of all people) gave a speech in which he suggested that the Tories should be the “warriors for the dispossessed”, mirroring the “Good Right” movement spearheaded by the prolific and tireless Tim Montgomerie, the Times columnist and one-man Conservative think tank. Even Boris Johnson has been making noises about more moral politics in the press this week.

It’s easy to be cynical about such rhetoric. In Gove’s and Johnson’s case, it’s easy to see why they might be hammering out a slightly different message from their party’s suffocating but undeniably disciplined economic message. What’s perhaps harder is to recognise that they might be on to something. They may have stumbled upon the most important missing ingredient in our politics.

That ingredient is compassion. This is often thought of merely in terms of sympathy for those who are suffering, but it goes beyond that. Compassion is to suffer with others, with an accompanying desire to alleviate the suffering.

Our politics sorely lack compassion. I was struck reading this horrific BBC article about just one failed asylum seeker in London how a senior politician would naturally react (in public) to such a story. They would make some sympathetic noises, certainly; perhaps even offer to write a letter to the relevant Minister. They might refer back to policy decisions their party had taken, especially ones that were tangentially related, in an attempt to suggest that they have helped the person by association. But they’d also be cautious – perhaps suggesting that it’s important to look after the vulnerable but at the same time referring to the equal or greater need to ensure that only people who have a legitimate reason to be in the UK should stay here.

This is particularly true of the way we treat immigrants and asylum seekers. A friend of mine commented on a recent Facebook post:

I really think the way we treat immigrants as a society is the issue above all others that we’ll look back on and say ‘how did we ever think this was acceptable?’

But it applies, probably just as much, to the vulnerable in our own society – a group that encompasses the homeless and disenfranchised, disabled people, sexual or lifestyle non-conformists, low-skilled workers, even people in receipt of any kind of benefits other than pensions.

Most of all, in order to be truly compassionate, you have to be able to feel compassion for people that you might at best ignore. That’s what our politicians are particularly bad at. We’ve moved so far away from that as a society that it’s now not only acceptable to ignore such people; it’s part of political campaigning actively to sneer at them, to judge them and to punish them.

I’m not suggesting this is easy. But if politicians truly believe in public service and the public good, they must start to grapple with this – and how to reintroduce compassion into what they and their parties say and do.

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4 thoughts on “Compassion – the Missing Ingredient in our Politics

  1. I agree, there is little compassion and the sight of LibDem leaders enabling a government that has caused so much suffering is nauseating.

    This is not trolling, I am quite serious. By tying the party to the Tories cabinet the leadership threw away most of it’s power as holders of the balance and demonstrated a complete lack of compassion for those we all knew would be hit by the Tories hardest.

    All I can see from the coalition is the enabling of one of the nastiest and most hardline governments in modern times. A million British citizens had to beg for food last year for goodness sake! And the leadership is now saying they would like to continue the coalition?

    This is insane. Have they learned nothing or do they really lack any real compassion?

    Even if the leadership feels the need to support the largest party, they do not have to lock out the possibility of letting the whole of parliament have a say by enabling another minority to dictate again.

    By staying out of any formal agreement and acting on a bill by bill basis, they would have far more power to force any government to do the right thing. Especially in concert with the other smaller parties.

    I’m perplexed and disappointed and the inane stupidity of wanting to continue a coalition that would further damage the party and restrict it’s power to dissent again…

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    • Hi Cholmondeley,

      First of all, thanks for taking the time to comment and at some length. This is a pretty new blog so I am grateful for anyone who reads it!

      The Lib Dems haven’t stated a preference on who they would work with after the election – their campaign is actually based on being able to soften the worst policies of whoever is asked to form a government (on the assumption that there will be a hung parliament).

      So in response to your comment – I’d ask what you think would have happened without the Lib Dems in coalition government over the past five years. You are entirely right that this government has done some bad things, cutting services that they shouldn’t have, and hitting living standards – especially for the poorest – harder than they should have.

      However, I personally feel it would have been a lot worse without the Lib Dems there. If they’d tried a confidence-and-supply agreement they’d still have had to vote for Tory policies, but they’d have had less power to make them better. Instead, they took what was probably the harder path (certainly in terms of popularity with voters) and stopped a lot of things: http://www.markpack.org.uk/129190/what-the-lib-dems-have-stopped-the-tories-doing/

      I think there are lots of things the Lib Dems could have done better, but I think it would have been far worse for the UK if the Tories had been allowed to govern alone, and potentially gain a majority through a second election.

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