Here’s a story about someone roughly my age. He (call him a he) grew up in a close family whose parents and family friends were fascinated by politics, both academically and practically. He inherited this love of politics, and read the subject at university. To him, a political career was a vocation, just as someone born into a musical family might become a musician.
He also inherited his parents’ strong sense of social justice, and support for the underdog. And he grew up in an inner city whose economy was ravaged by the Thatcher recession of 1980-81, where the police recklessly attacked innocent people, and whose democratically elected council was shut by Thatcher. He naturally joined the Labour party at a young age, and found his friends there.
But by the time he became an MP, the party had changed. The party he joined was that of the underdog and civil liberties. It became the illiberal mouthpiece of plutocrats.
What should he do? Should he abandon the vocation he’s had since childhood? Leave the party he’s loved for over 20 years? Should he speak against the trend the party’s taking?
These would be self-indulgent egotistical gestures - which would be out of character. They wouldn’t improve the life-chances of any of the people he joined the Labour party to help. They wouldn’t, in themselves, change the party’s course.
So, he bides his time, suppresses his true opinion, and works with the party. He might, he figures, be able to ameliorate, at the edges, some of the party’s worst excesses. And he signals his distance from the party, by, for example, publicly worrying about the growing gap between politicians and people, or by drawing attention to the convention of cabinet collective responsibility, thus showing that he’s bound by rules he hasn’t internalized.
I don’t know if this story describes any New Labour minister, or several. But it could.
What it does describe, but for details, are eastern European communist regimes. Even quite senior figures repressed their doubts about the system, preferring to work within it. Such preference falsification, says Timur Kuran, helped to sustain communism. As everyone repressed their true opinion, everyone thought that everyone else supported the system, when in fact few did.
But this could not last. Eventually, some tipping point caused the doubts to surface. And once everyone knew it was safe to speak the truth, Communism collapsed amazingly quickly.
Maybe there is a parallel here with New Labour. Maybe it’s sustained by the preference falsification of quite senior figures. If so, it too could, like Communism, collapse suddenly and unexpectedly.
I’m not making a forecast here. I’m making three points.
1. Power doesn’t merely corrupt. It enslaves. Many rulers are not as free as we think. This, in a different context, is one message of Xenophon’s Hiero.
2. What matters in politics is not the particular individual occupying any office. Office determines character more than character determines office.
3. There’s something deeply dysfunctional about political institutions. The great thing about markets is that they cause bad people, acting for bad motives, to do good things. Our political institutions cause good people, acting for good motives, to do bad things.