The rise of the career politician is a response to, and result of, British politics.
With yet another parliamentary recess currently dragging on, writers like me have a chance to take a step back and consider bigger picture issues, up too and including the very nature of our elected officials. And one of the most striking features of our current political landscape if the rise in numbers and prominence of professional politicians.
The professional politician is very much a product of our time; one could almost call them a response to market forces. Here’s why: With the exception of Thatcherism in the 1980s, the three main parties don’t actually disagree on the salient issues. Ideology is largely dead. All agree that the state should be roughly the same size. All agree that taxation is at roughly the correct level. All agree that spending is at roughly the correct level. In essence, they only really disagree on the minor technical details of how best to implement a policy program they all already agree on. And it is because the areas of divergence are so dull, technocratic and jargon filled, that it takes experienced politicians to handle them.
It’s worth reminding ourselves here what politicians actually do. To paraphrase Sir Humphrey Appleby, a Minister has three roles; secure finding for the department, act as spokesman for the department, and steer legislation through the Commons. They are explicitly not there to make policy. When we recognise that politicians are in effect, technocratic middle management, it’s not difficult to see why a professional political class has arisen.
So what’s the problem? Primarily, we are seeing an increasing disconnect between elected officials and those that they are meant to represent. A quick look at the benches of each party will show you the problem. Politicians are becoming clones of each other, following the same career path; upper middle class family, humanities course at university, party functionary, parachuted safe seat, tow the party line and climb the ranks. Politicians today dress the same, sound the same, and even intermarry. We are seeing the establishment of a political class.
This matters in a parliamentary democracy because we are meant to be governed by people who represent us. But that’s ceasing to be the case. There are ever fewer businessmen, engineers, farmers, doctors, artists, entrepreneurs and working class people in parliament. If an MP did work before politics, it was likely to have been in the field of law. We cannot be surprised that people are becoming disengaged with politics when it’s seen as being dominated by a caste with no notion of what life is like outside the world of politics.
But can we change that? One blunt instrument is to have fixed term limits. If somebody can only be an MP for, say, three terms, that would discourage those wishing to enter politics simply for greed or power. Indeed, that is what as been adopted in Mexico. But this brings with it its own set of problems. Firstly, some of the best and brightest, and those motivated by a passion to change the world for the better, are put off and instead chose careers in NGO’s or charities. Secondly, when an MP knows that their third term will be their last, there’s no incentive to try very hard. Mexicans have found that they rarely see their MP during their last term in office, and why would they? The man or woman in question is invariably spending their remaining time in power trying to secure themselves directorships of large companies, often passing questionable legislation that benefits one company or another as a quid pro quo for future lucrative employment.
Another method would be to insist that MPs have to come from the constituency they represent. This would break the strangle hold of those from upper middle class families in the Home Counties, but again there are problems. Firstly, how would you define the terms? Would somebody have had to be born in the area, or just lived there for a while? Could they have been born there, moved away, then come back? If we insisted that MP had to have spent their life in an area, we are condemning ourselves to government by people with rather narrow horizons. The second problem is that it infringes on the rights of parties to select their own candidates as freely as they might. Candidates are often gifted safe seats as a reward for loyalty, but they are also awarded for excellence. If there is a talented up and coming star in a party, is it right that we deny ourselves their talent in government just because they won’t get elected in their local area?
There’s a final aspect of professional politicians that is worth remembering too. They’re the only ones who can keep the Civil Service in check. It’s often said that it takes a new Minister at least a year in their department before they even begin to get a handle on how it works. Imagine the rings that the Civil Service could run around newbie Ministers if they got recycled every few years. Novice MPs wouldn’t stand a chance. We may think that rule by professional politicians is bad, but it is preferable to rule by un-elected bureaucrats.