Today’s blog is in response to a heartfelt observation by one of my friends.I believe he reflects the vast majority of voters – he is not disinterested in politics and recognises the great capacity it has for good, but is bitterly disillusioned. To him, our political class seem to offer nothing but more of the same, and the satirists and commentators offer criticism not alternatives. Understandably, he feels that politics offers little by way of hope, and wanted to know what hope those involved in politics are holding on to. My brief answer is quite well captured the so-called Serenity Prayer: that I would accept what I cannot change, change what is within my power to change, and have the wisdom to know the difference. As I reflected on my hope, three thoughts struck me.
The first was that my hope is not completely in politics. Hope is tied to the idea of tomorrow being better – that somewhat the ills of today will not prevail, but instead will be overcome – and the greatest challenge is the human heart. I sincerely believe that both left and right wing politicians subscribe to this. This is why education is so important to the left, and individual responsibility is so important to the right – the left believe in the fundamental goodness of the human heart, that society corrupts it, and that education overcomes it. The right believe the human heart to be fundamentally flawed, but that a society which requires individuals to take responsibility for their actions minimises the hurt caused and encourages humanity to be the best it can be. While both have a point, I do not set my heart on a false hope – instead as a Christian I look to a future hope when the human heart is renewed, and accept that in this life there will be trouble and strife – or to put it another way, I do not feel disheartened when things don’t seem to change and the world seems horrible and hopeless.
That said, I also recognise that politics can still make a difference. The Earl of Shaftesbury is an example that I particularly admire. His commitment as a Christian to a future hope did not cause him to withdraw or to give up. Rather, in view of that hope, he gave his entire energies to making the difference that he could. He was instrumental in bringing forward legislation to get children out of factories and coal mines, and established a myriad of societies, including the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. I could list other Christians who have contributed to public life, most notably William Wilberforce’s work to abolish the slave trade, simply to reinforce the point that even if Christians have their hope placed in the future they can (and should!) make what difference they can now. It is also easy for all of the failures of government to overlook the fact that government does a lot of good – not least in the defense of the realm and the upholding of law and order. Even beyond that, history is ripe with examples of educational and welfare reforms by all parties that have made a real and significant difference to the wellbeing of society.
My third point however is something we should all bear in mind – politics is a nasty business. The reason is very straightforward – while it would be wonderful to believe all politicians were altruistic, the use of political power attracts people with less honorable motives, and often corrupts even those with good intentions. Even in my young political career I recognise the challenge that not everyone is motivated by the right reasons – and sometimes it is not within your power to do anything about it. I also recognise human frailty and the capacity for mistakes – the Earl of Shaftesbury poignantly opposed the 1832 Great Reform Act – our political heroes sadly are not perfect! Of course this is discouraging – but there are countless examples from Wilberforce to Rosa Parks of people who faced major opposition and discouragement – but they stayed in the game, they persevered, and in time they made a difference.
The limitations of politics do not make any less important the very real differences those in politics can make. It is part of the reason I am encouraging debate as well as engagement – while I can forgive new Labour for some of their well-intentioned policies, I cannot forgive them for turning politics into a narrative where if you dare to express reservations, ask questions, or suggest a contrarian view, you are somehow a bad person. Politics exists because we do not agree and tough choices have to be made, which is why I have little patience for the likes of Russell Brand and the Greens (and formerly, the Liberal Democrats) suggesting that ‘new’ government will somehow make a difference. When the new leadership steps up, in whatever form it is, they still have to decide what the government should and should not do; whom and what to tax, and by how much; and what laws we should live by – they still have to make difficult choices, and you are still going to have groups in society who take decisions.
I am an optimist – but I am also a pragmatist – and I speak from very painful personal experience that it is very easy to be discouraged. A year ago my doctor diagnosed me with ‘low mood’ – in essence a mild form of depression. It makes me likely to see the worst, not the best, and to be easily discouraged. My wife is very good at getting me to change perspective – I am the type of person who gets to the end of the day, and is sad because of the things I did not get done, rather than pleased because of the things that I did get done. She reminded me as I thought of politics not to be disheartened because of what I could not change, but excited for the difference I do make, however great or small that may be. And really I think that is what my hope is for politics – for everyone:
- Don’t be discouraged – because the capacity of good men and women to bring change is incredible
- Don’t be deceived – because politics cannot change everything
- Be encouraged – because the change you can make, matters