Politicians' words and work are out of kilter

September 26, 2003

Pessimism results from rhetoric's failure to meet reality. Trevor Smith calls for more authentic discourse.

More than 40 years ago, William Kornhauser presciently forecast the shape of things to come in what he called "the politics of mass democracy". The current growth of public mistrust in politicians is part of a long-term trend. For the past 50 years, for instance, voter turnout at successive general elections and, with one temporary blip after the launch of new Labour, party memberships have been steadily declining.

Embourgeoisement and the rise of consumerism, together with the erosion of class-based ideological political ties, the eclipse of deference and a greater questioning of authority, are illustrative of a sustained movement away from the pattern of politics that held before the 1950s. However glacial that movement might have been in the past, the pace has now suddenly and perceptibly quickened.

The immediate reason given for this state of affairs is the style and achievement of new Labour generally and of Tony Blair's performance in particular. The Iraq war and the fallout from the Hutton inquiry into the Kelly affair are seen as precipitating factors, while the lack of any perceptible improvement in public services after six years in office fans the general disillusion. Neither set of factors is easily dismissed, especially the open wound caused by Iraq. After all, Blair made his "trust me" appeal to the electorate in 1997 and has subsequently reiterated it. He was believed and, despite disappointments or reversals, was more than given the benefit of the doubt by a public that returned him again in the 2001 landslide victory.

It was a very long honeymoon, although things turned sour just a year later. The usual public view that politicians are genetically mendacious has returned with a vengeance.

There is no doubt that politicians verbally duck and weave, prevaricate and (very occasionally) consciously and blatantly lie, but such behaviour is not the result of an unswerving devotion to Machiavellian textbook principles. It arises also out of the very activity of politics itself and the vocabulary of politics employed.

Politics is very different from most other activities. Politicians are the brokers of last resort. They have to address those problems others have failed to deal with. Sometimes this is because experts, pressure groups and other competing interests cannot agree and the government then has to arbitrate and impose a course of action. More often, it is because those problems that become political are the most intractable and insoluble and are amenable only to being managed or, more bluntly, fudged or botched.

Success in politics ought to be measured by a much lower "pass mark" than other types of activity, but such leniency is rarely extended.

In managing thorny political issues, vocabulary becomes a vital factor in determining success or failure, or whether governments are perceived as having spoken truthfully, been "economical with the truth", dissembled or perpetrated downright falsehoods.

Almost coincident with Kornhauser's predictions was Murray Edelman's analysis of types of political language. Among them he identified the "hortatory" style, which is as old as politics itself. This was greatly enhanced and consolidated with the advent of parliamentary democracy and the principle of indirect representation it incorporates. Exhortation is the primary means by which political elites seek to address the public and mobilise support. Hortatory rhetoric is the spectral opposite of what Edelman termed the "bargaining" language of politics, by which deals are clinched, treaties concluded and joint military adventures contrived.

Both linguistic modes are inherent in the democratic process but - and here's the snag - they are direct opposites. True, they can be employed separately or sequentially, but they cannot easily be made miscible. It is part of the tasks of politicians to achieve some sort of reconciliation, but this is rarely a complete success, and evident disparities between aspirations and achievements - let alone complete U-turns on manifesto commitments - feed political disenchantment and add to the popular misconception that politicians rarely speak the truth.

The task of bringing rhetoric and reality into kilter, to translate the Edelman categories, is becoming much harder as the context of politics becomes even more complex. Globalisation and a renewed sense of ethnic and regional identities, the retreat into fundamentalism among the major faiths, advances in science and technology and their unintended consequences, and the speed of modern communications all constrain and inhibit political decision-making. This is true nationally and internationally, while the increasing interconnectedness between the two further exacerbates the problem.

The recent history of Northern Ireland is instructive. For decades, politics was bedevilled by a surfeit of rhetoric and an almost total absence of any sense of "bargaining". In the end, the task of producing a better balance was "outsourced" to George Mitchell, the former US senator, who painstakingly and after much excruciating dialogue contrived the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Though fragile, and unable to reduce the degree of political rhetoric, it has succeeded in injecting a greater measure of reality and a sense of what might be possible into the zero-sum politics of Northern Ireland.

In the wider context of the UK, politicians have tried to square the linguistic circle by adopting a managerialist or technocratic style of expression. This device has proved somewhat counterproductive. Terms borrowed from the "bottom line" culture of the private sector with its talk of targets, especially when these are not met, mission statements such as the third way, which are simply vacuous, and "joined-up government", which is just a mantra, ultimately fail to convince. They are seen as part and parcel of what has pejoratively been called "spin", which at times has got perilously close to Joseph Goebbels' "Big Lie".

While pessimism is probably the best response to the current situation, there are some small signs of hope. Blair himself has acknowledged the need to abandon spin in favour of a more substantive dialogue, while Robin Cook's resignation from the front bench was both eloquent and principled.

Peter Hain, the present leader of the Commons, has regularly called for a more authentic political discourse over, for example, the euro, the growing divide between rich and poor, taxation policy and the need for his party not to ignore the aspirations of its core support. This is personally gratifying for me because Kornhauser and Edelman were main texts when I lectured to the young Hain.

Trevor Smith was professor of politics at Queen Mary, London, and later vice-chancellor of the University of Ulster (1991-99). He is a Liberal Democrat working peer and spokesperson on Northern Ireland.

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