I’m often asked why I haven’t gone (and won’t go) into politics. A strong-minded, passionate and opinionated woman like you would make a really good politician, people tell me. You clearly know your stuff and you want to help people; you’d do a brilliant job, they say. Politics really needs more people like you to get involved, they say. You’re obviously intelligent and articulate and opposed to social inequalities – you’d make a great local councillor or perhaps even an MP, they say.
And to all that I say NO.
Aside from the fact that I’d be a rubbish politician because I actually care about people, I will never go into politics because I think that political power is a fundamentally dangerous thing in the hands of politicians. And power of any kind should never be left to the tender mercies of those who actually want it. That’s just asking for trouble.
Consider these small facts: the majority of politicians in Westminster are male, and the majority of them are from relatively socially and economically privileged backgrounds. The addition of political power/influence to this simply reinforces the social and economic power and privilege they already have – and this, almost inevitably, corrupts.
And as Lord Acton (1834-1902) sagely put it:
“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men” (1887)
Last year’s parliamentary expenses scandal showed that power does corrupt them all eventually, great or otherwise. Male, female, old, young – they were all, bar one or two somewhat more honourable examples, on the fiddle. And if they could justify being dishonest about their expenses, what else are they prepared to be dishonest about?
It gets them all in the end, you see; whether an MP has entered politics with the most honourable of intentions (or otherwise) makes not one jot of difference in the world of political power. And yes, it would inevitably get me, too, if I were to enter politics – quite frankly, I have no desire to be slowly eaten away by a corrupt and arrogant sense of entitlement. I have no desire to become rotten to the core.
Mind you, the destructive impact of corruption in political power is not a new phenomenon by any stretch of the imagination. To take but one historical example, this arrogance, sense of entitlement and – inevitably – political corruption were, in many colonial settings, an integral part of the way the British ran their empire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Naturally, this approach was also reflected in the domestic politics of the time, but the lack of concern for many colonial peoples meant that it was taken to often unpleasant extremes in an imperial context.
However, at times, this arrogant superiority displayed by the imperial political classes could also become unintentionally comic (something that is still true today – duck houses, anyone?). I was recently reminded of this whilst reading Piers Brendon’s very interesting doorstop of a narrative history The Decline and Fall of the British Empire 1781-1997.
Brendon recounts the tale of Sir Arthur Gordon, the erstwhile British Governor of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) during the 1880s, who took the superiority of his semi-regal status to a somewhat ridiculous extreme. Having discovered that a diary clash would prevent him from attending an important regional ceremony, Gordon didn’t do what anyone else would do under similar circumstances and send his deputy or senior staff member in his place.
Nope, of course he didn’t – that would be far too sensible. Instead, Gordon was represented at the ceremony by… his horse. Yes, you read that correctly; in near-Caligula style, he sent his horse.
Brendon quotes a contemporary description of the event in all its pointless and farcical glory:
“At the function itself, which consisted of a large procession of elephants, tom-tom beaters, chiefs, dancers, and the rag-tag and bobtail of the populace, the pony was lead in solemn state, closely followed by the officials. On its back was a saddle, upon which rested a cushion, that in turn carried a silver tray, on which rested Sir Arthur Gordon’s message to ‘The chiefs and people of Sabaragamuwa’… expressed in a ponderous mass of verbiage” – F. Lewis (1926) quoted by P. Brendon (2008), p.438.
Aside from the fact that giving political power to someone who thinks like that is guaranteed to screw a lot of people’s lives up and make a wide range of self-important people look extremely stupid, this is also a classic example of how political power corrupts an individual’s basic humanity. When someone cares more about maintaining the appearance of power and its material trappings (however eccentrically) than about using their privileged position for the benefit of the wider community (as naive a hope as that may be), they have lost what it means to be human and what it means to be a part of the community – which will always have a negative impact on us all.
And that’s why I won’t be going into politics.