The Public Point of View

My father died just over a year ago. I dreamt about him last night. Thinking about him, I’m reminded of two things today: first, that he loved me; and second, that he was – to put it mildly – puzzled by my choice of profession. He never saw the point of parliament, which he thought a ‘giant talking shop.’ Nor of passing laws (‘There are too many already.) And he felt politicians were ‘out of touch, ignorant, idle, self-interested, and ‘wet’.’

‘What,’ he would ask, ‘is the point of politicians?’ I never had a good answer. But now I’d be tempted to say, one point of us is to try to represent a different – public – point of view. Even if it runs against expert opinion. A medical expert might feel, for example, that if only community hospitals were closed, ‘more money could be reinvested in improving district hospitals'; an environmental scientist might press to rewild a fellside ‘in order to protect bio-diversity against sheep grazing'; an energy expert might argue that climate change can be addressed through more wind turbines; and an economist might encourage more housing and industrial parks in market towns.

But the expert may be focusing only on what can be quantified – the cost of a hospital; the measured impact of grazing; the carbon-savings; or the jobs created. They may ignore other types of values which matter to a community: a deep historical attachment to a community health-care centre; nostalgia for a small family sheep farm; the meaning of a landscape; or the beauty of a market-town. In which case an MP’s task is to challenge the experts’ views; to lead a march in favour of the cottage hospital, support the small farmer, or demonstrate against the wind turbine and the new development. This will bewilder the experts, who can always justify their views on the basis of thousands of scholarly papers. They will feel that the political opposition is purely ‘subjective’, ‘populist’ or ‘sentimental’. And certainly not to be preferred to ‘real’ medical benefits, ‘real’ environmental benefits, ‘real’ jobs and economic growth. And they will suspect the MP is simply ignorant, or dishonest, or afraid of voters, or incapable of showing leadership and ‘doing the right thing’. (I can imagine my father at this point adding ‘hear, hear’). 

But the reason I find being an MP satisfying is that public opinion can have its own wisdom, its own rights, and an uncanny reliability over time. And this is because it captures what we value most in human attachments, in traditions, or in a sense of beauty, landscape, and nationhood. Such views reflect our past, features of our soil, shards of national myths, and our own experiences at home and abroad – a mixture muddled in all of us, and fiercely disputed by people with different tastes, beliefs, and from different generations. Being difficult to measure, such things are too often overlooked (which is in part why the experts still struggle to come to terms with the Brexit vote) but they are no less important for being unquantifiable.

The role of a democratic politician is to listen as generously and imaginatively as possible to all these views and voices, and then to articulate them clearly. Not simply to get re-elected, but because listening to the public is what we are obliged and intended to do. But now that I write this down, I’m not sure this point about representation would have convinced my father. I can hear him saying “Yes darling, but really the key is ‘to get on with it’.” I suspect my father was a little suspicious of community movements and popular protests – he might have classed them with negativity, ‘back-seat driving’, and ‘second-guessing.’ And he tended to feel our greatest problem lay not in the actions of vigorous experts, but in endless consultations, and committees, with everyone vaguely talking round issues, passing the buck, and getting nothing done.

His vision of a Member of Parliament was not so much about listening, as about being directly responsible for a small patch of territory, on the ground, and ‘sorting things out’. Instead of relying on ‘idle’ civil servants, he felt MPs should recruit and rely on a band of volunteers – ranging from boys scouts, to energetic retired people. If there was a problem with crime, my father’s ideal MP would go out with the police to catch the criminals. If there was a shortage of schools or affordable housing, he would build some – immediately, and without too much fuss.  My father was a public servant for thirty-five years. When I asked him who ‘the people’ were, who he was serving, he replied: “I haven’t the slightest idea – I prefer to feel I am serving the Queen.” But I wonder if, after all, he wouldn’t have been a very effective Member of Parliament.

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