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.