Look across Europe, and think of the calibre of its leaders. Merkel, Sarkozy, Cameron. Zapatero, Berlusconi, Tusk. Reinfeldt, Løkke, Pahor. Brussels with Barroso and Van Rompuy. This is not a quality lineup, not what one would classically call a statesman or stateswoman among the lot of them. Not a Schuman, an Adenauer, even a Delors or Kohl. With the danger of a Greek default drawing ever closer it’s not as if we can do without determined leadership in Europe.

Stepping back for a moment, why are we in this predicament?

It starts, I think, with the nature of representative democracy in the era of the internet (building on the era of 24 hour news), and the way that political parties function internally.

About representative democracy James Madison wrote that it would “refine and enlarge the public views by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.

Where are we today with efforts to achieve that end? In the formal sense our representative institutions – at least at a national level – are still working (although thousands of Spanish would disagree). However, as Madison implies, representative democracy is a process through which the interests of different groups are weighed up, evaluated, and decided upon. From Aberystwyth dealing with parking infringements via Merkel’s U-turn on nuclear to the UK government’s EU bill, the balance between the people and their representatives (the governors and the governed) is in a state of flux.

In the era of 24 hour news, furthered by the internet connected era, it is possible to muster mass critique of anything and everything to a much shorter time than throughout most of our history of representative democracy. Importantly it is much easier to muster critique than it is to build something positive instead. Taking long term or tough decisions against that backdrop is more complex than ever.

With this in mind, politicians think they need to be more and more conscious of what citizens think, and shape their policies on that basis – in the UK context it’s the sort of stuff written about by Paul Richards on LabourList, and can be gleaned from focus groups and listening exercises: “the greater danger for Labour […]: to be on the wrong side of the public’s attitude towards NHS reform, tackling Islamist extremism, reforming parliament, or providing council houses for people on £100k“.

In short it’s ‘if the people are there, we’ll go there’.

The paradox of this is that while politicians are trying to be ever closer to the people, so trust in them also declines, a point developed further in New Elites by George Walden. Taking that a step further, within a political party what incentive is there to choose leaders who are bold or interesting? Surely better to choose some that give the impression that they are in tune with the people (although of course that continues trust seeping away in the paradox).

But hold on, what if the people are wrong? Or at least politicians have not weighed up their relative interests correctly?

Sorry, rather shocking to say it this way, but it is not hard to imagine how such a situation would arise.

What should happen if 55% of the population as a whole want to leave the EU, but 85% of business owners in the UK don’t want to? (stats are made up for illustration purposes only) Or every citizen wants to keep driving and flying and doesn’t want restrictions on either, but unless the common interests of all of us are taken into account, we will end up with gridlock, chronic air pollution and runaway climate change?

Democracy is more than 50%+1 of the people wanting something. It’s a delicate balance between leading and listening, and balancing the needs and requirements of different groups and individuals. It’s about deciding what’s right, setting a moral vision for countries and for Europe, and finding practical ways to get there.

There is a politician at least partially capable of doing it, and there are plenty in Europe who idolise him. Interesting is that he is less bound by party political constraint than his European counterparts. Time for Europe’s heads of states and governments to learn some lessons?

Photo: kusito “Looking Back

January 16, 2007 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution

3 Comments

  1. Pingback: Martin Kettle: when UK commentators get it wrong about the EU | Socialist and democrat

  2. The trouble with national politicians, like the EU itself, is they’re very happy to say for everything every citizen might be for, but they’ll very rarely put their money where their mouth is.

    In terms of mediocre leadership, I cannot help but notice almost all of Europe is ruled by the centre-right which, on average, is pro-Washington and pro-business. Hell even the centre-left these days is basically pro-business and deregulatory (see New Labour).

    But then the Afghan and Iraq Wars happened, then the financial crisis happened. In short: the ideology of our ruling elites was just that, an ideology which prevented them from seeing reality, even as they went from disaster to disaster. Why would such an ruling elite have any success or provide any inspiring leadership?

  3. “What should happen if 55% of the population as a whole want to leave the EU, but 85% of business owners in the UK don’t want to?”

    Should be fairly obvious for a social democrat, shouldn’t it? Even if you’re not a Marxist, you don’t have to pick the other side in the class struggle. If there is such a discrepancy in the views on this issue, it should indicate fairly well whose interests EU membership is serving.

    “There is a politician at least partially capable of doing it, and there are plenty in Europe who idolise him. Interesting is that he is less bound by party political constraint than his European counterparts. Time for Europe’s heads of states and governments to learn some lessons?”

    So they should learn from Barack Obama, who ignores the views of the people to such an extent that he has recently dragged his country into a war that his countrymen overwhelmingly oppose. And who is so much “less bound by party political constraint”, that he regularly sides with Republicans against progressives, cutting taxes on the rich, trampling on civil liberties, etc. etc., all in a bipartisan way.

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