Rory Stewart: We've stopped expecting much from politicians, and this is the perfect ecosystem for chancers to thrive
This sorry election campaign is finally done. The end was depressing enough for most of us to obliterate the memory of the beginning. Who remembers now that a cabinet minister was forced to resign and the deputy leader of the Labour Party retired?
Who remembers now the manifestos – each in its own way incredible, but only in the sense that they defied credibility: absurd promises, unaffordable commitments, impossible to deliver. The state of debate was devastatingly poor. On our televisions, a sea of slogans swept across the stage while barely a question was answered.
Parliamentary candidates were exposed for lying and racism. This was politics untethered; no longer bound to the old rules of achievable promises, affordable policies and reality. In some ways we are victims of a single global phenomenon. There are signs that we are experiencing the politics currently seen in Turkey, Italy or even the United States. The assumptions of liberal democracy that seemed so solid as recently as the Obama presidency are shattered.
What happened to leaders prized for their dignity, moderation, intellect and seriousness? What happened to balanced and objective reporting in the media? What happened to the idea of the thoughtful policies of the centre ground? What happened to deference to our constitutions? What happened to compromise?
An entire generation has been swept aside before their time. Recent prime ministers – Major, Blair, Cameron – seem unable to understand the new ideologies of their own parties and unable to influence their direction. What civil servants assert cannot happen, suddenly happens. The great machines of advertising, marketing and polling have become flat-footed – unable to keep up with the mood or potential of this new public life.
And somewhere in the heart of all this is a great vacuum – a vacuum of citizenship. As the politicians parade in ever-more preposterous postures, the average voter seems to have less and less practical involvement in shaping their own local community. They seem to have less time, or perhaps interest, in serving on local committees or changing their own neighbourhood.Perhaps the only way to understand the whole spectacle is that we now think politicians are purely ceremonial – people who no longer have power to improve our lives. That is why we hardly think it worth analysing their record, or defining what we would like them to do, or how we would judge whether they were failing – or whether there was any real way of telling whether one was better than another. This is the perfect ecosystem for chancers to thrive.
I have a suspicion that we can only begin to repair this broken structure by returning to the foundation. It is at the level of our towns and cities that politics is genuinely intimate, relevant to our most pressing needs. It is at that level that citizens have the most relevant knowledge – where we can show that we know what it takes to make things better. It is at that local level that we should know exactly what we can blame politicians for.
I felt often as a member of Parliament that I’d like to be blamed more. But instead the strange institutions of Parliament, party whips and the rest made it almost impossible to link promises to performance. None of this is about an individual. A more effective politics is not about what any single person can do. It is the sum of a million tiny acts.
Within our own communities, we know what needs to be changed – but also where we need help. Many of us are desperately concerned about growing inequality and division, but don’t know how to bridge the divide. Many of us want to help the elderly, but find it easier to reach a national organisation than to embrace a life next door.
We need to harness this energy, and make it easier to volunteer, easier to work for a charity, easier to find and help neighbours in need. We should respond to this dismal collapse of politics by doing more, not less. We must become more active as citizens. It is that involvement which will give us the knowledge to choose the right leaders. It is that engagement alone which will make us fuller members of our society. If we retreat from politics, however understandable that temptation may be, we become people to whom things are done – passive, powerless, isolated, and lonely.
We can still recover from grandstanding and sloganeering. But we will do it by being more practical, more local and more humble. And paradoxically we may find that this will make us both more effective and more ambitious.
This week I have been...
Decorating...Anyone who has taken even a cursory glance at my Twitter feed will know that I have something of an obsession with trees. It’s not just because of their carbon capture capabilities, their beauty, nor the homes they provide to untold species of wildlife, but also because of the psychological benefits that come from being in proximity to them. It is for all these reasons that I have been campaigning for more trees on our streets.
And this week, like many other families, I have gone one step further – carrying a 6ft Christmas tree half a mile down the road and up two flights of stairs into my home – for my toddlers.
Watching...I’m hooked on the BBC’s amazing production of His Dark Materials. I’m obviously obsessed by the Panserbjorne Iorek Byrnison – and mesmerised by the performance of Dafne Keen as Lyra. Less delightful was my wife’s answer when I posed the question of what my daemon might be. While I was imagining myself as an athletic leopard or a brave bear, her answer was… hedgehog.
Singing...I was honoured to be invited to do a reading at “Singing for Syrians” – a wonderful and very moving carol service held to raise money for some of Syria’s most vulnerable. I read “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou – a poem that evokes the pain of confinement and oppression more powerfully than any other I know.