A widely familiar refrain is that politics is a dirty business. But that does not deter those who are attracted to it for many different reasons. Competing views, endless arguments, deception, dissimulation and sometimes outright trickery, together with many other varied pressures, are part and parcel of a democracy. But that is preferable to the oppression and diktats of authoritarianism so that, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, the ballot is stronger than the bullet. Some say that politics is anyway not a business at all but a noble occupation with the aim of providing service to one’s country.
Whatever view one may take of this, there is said to be a rise recently of anti-politician sentiment in Britain during a period of political disaffection to the extent that the public has lost faith in the body politic and in members of parliament across the board. This may be partly attributable to the uncertainties, even chaos, surrounding UK politics just over a year ago. But, by common consent, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has succeeded in steadying the ship in the intervening months.
Now, however, politics in Britain, which as the “mother of parliaments” purports to be an exemplar for the Westminster system in other countries like The Bahamas, is in the spotlight again. The two main reasons are the sacking of the Home Secretary following her criticism of the police for their lack of impartiality in handling the pro-Palestinian protests over the Israel-Hamas war and publication of the latest UK immigration figures which show an unacceptably high increase.
Before examining these issues, it might be interesting to take a brief look at the people at Westminster who are actually responsible for the ‘exercise and function’ of politics – that is to say the MPs themselves.
A leader of the current debate about this in the UK, Ann Widdecombe, is known as one of the country’s most outspoken and celebrated retired politicians. She is a former Tory government minister and Brexit Party member of the European Parliament and is now a national newspaper columnist. She and others contend that today’s politicians and their parties have become less distinguishable in ideological terms while the calibre of many of the contenders vying to become MPs has deteriorated. Instead of people who are idealistic and motivated about shaping society and passionate about helping their constituents, politics is now seen as a so-called profession with people interested in attaining power and influence and the perks and trappings of high office together with a steady income. Many go straight in to politics without having a working career or a ‘real’ job and any practical experience of life. Moreover, the selection of MPs as candidates now depends partly on diversity targets and other forms of positive discrimination. Nowadays, people ask where are the political giants and statesmen of the past - those who were instantly recognisable as making a contribution to the community and protecting and promoting Britain’s interests overseas and who became pillars of society.
Critics point to the dangers of “romanticising the past through rose-coloured glasses” and idealising political leaders who were later judged to have made serious miscalculations and errors of judgement. Just one example, in foreign affairs, that always stands out in history were those leaders who drew up the unnecessarily heavy-handed Treaty of Versailles in 1919 after the end of the First World War.
The conditions imposed on the vanquished Germany were harsh, and they were bound, in time, to create a fierce reaction that led indirectly to the Second World War. But, in contrast to that, historians point to the successful handling of the aftermath of that second global conflagration by more enlightened statesmen, with reasonable peace terms and the Americans wisely creating the Marshall Plan for the reconstruction of Europe. This was an essential step after the Allies had earlier ceded control to the Soviet Union over countries in Eastern Europe which then suffered under communist rule for half a century.
Back to UK politics and fast forward to last week. On Wednesday, the National Statistics Office in London announced that net migration to the UK – the difference between the number of people leaving and arriving in the year to December, 2022 – was 745,000. This is a new record and significantly higher than the earlier estimate of 606,000 for the same period. This means that three years after Brexit, one of the reasons for which was to enable the UK to control its own borders, UK net migration has never been higher.
In the 2019 general election, the Tories promised that the numbers would come down. “We will ensure that the British people are always in control”. As one commentator put it, how terribly hollow those words sound today. But the Labour Party have been equally dishonest. When Tony Blair won his landslide victory in 1997, he did so with the pledge that “every country must have firm controls on immigration”. But when in office it suited him politically to lift restrictions and open the floodgates. The result was that net migration rose from 45,000 in 1992 to 349,000 in 2004 and the trend has been accelerating ever since. Meanwhile, the problem of illegal migrants crossing the English Channel is a separate issue yet to be resolved.
There is a gradually hardening belief in Britain that not only is this huge explosion of arrivals putting intolerable strain on infrastructure like the National Health Service, housing and the welfare state system but that social cohesion is being undermined by the impact of new immigrants who are likely not to share the nation’s values of liberal democracy. These are perilous times when the UK is threatened by terror, anti-Semitism and erosion of essential liberties like freedom of speech as the principle of equality gives way to divisive identity politics and undue emphasis on the rights of minorities.
In the months leading up to the next UK general election - which must be held no later than January, 2025 but will more likely take place next autumn - immigration will surely be at the top of the political agenda.
A NEW BEGINNING FOR DUTCH POLITICS
An important, even seismic, event took place in the Netherlands last week which is said to be spooking Europe. It seems to have been largely ignored by the US media, preoccupied, as it is bound to be, by the Israel-Gaza war.
The result of Wednesday’s general election there was a substantial win for veteran hard-right politician and anti-Islam populist leader Geert Wilders and his PVV Freedom party, who won 37 seats in the 150-member Dutch parliament, putting him well ahead of his nearest rival.
Famous for his firebrand rhetoric, Wilders is now the leader of the Netherlands’ largest parliamentary party but does not have enough votes to govern alone. So, weeks of horse-trading lie ahead in order to build a coalition which, he admits, will require compromise on his part to find political bedfellows.
But, as he says, the PVV can no longer be ignored after he has been a divisive figure in Dutch politics for decades with his anti-Muslim stance, preaching the need to ‘put Dutch people first’ and limiting immigration. He has been called the Dutch Trump, not only because of his policies but also because of his appearance.
Wilders has also linked immigration from Muslim countries to terrorism and called for a ban on mosques and the Koran. He has campaigned to take the Netherlands - an EU founding member - out of the bloc and may push for a “Nexit” referendum even though quitting the EU is not popular amongst Dutch voters.
In such circumstances, it is hardly surprising that this dramatic victory for a hard-right politician has shaken Dutch politics and sent shockwaves across Europe. He has already received support from the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban, who also takes an anti-immigrant and Eurosceptic stance, and Italy’s right-wing leader may add to this. But, of course, it remains to be seen whether Wilders will be able to form a coalition government that will require him to temper his more extremist policies, some of which he has said he will ‘put in the fridge’.
It is also too soon to know whether Wilders’ win may spark off a similar trend elsewhere in Europe and create a pattern. He claims that his success was partly due to his harnessing widespread frustration about mass migration which last year in the Netherlands more than doubled.
This and the continued high cost of living seem now to be the major issues in Europe and have already aroused considerable concern, so that some are saying that Brussels would do well not to ignore these discernible political winds that are gradually gaining strength.
An attitude of gratitude
After last week’s piece in this column about Thanksgiving in the US, I should like to follow up today with a few words about the need to express gratitude – and it is noteworthy that the subject is addressed editorially in yesterday’s Tribune. It is covered extremely well by the late Sir John Templeton in his book, a copy of which he was kind enough to give me, entitled “Discovering the Laws of Life”. This was described by one reviewer as a book that “belongs to the list of seminal publications of the twentieth century”.
First published in 1994, the Foreword by Norman Vincent Peale describes Sir John, who lived in The Bahamas, as an internationally prominent financier and a man of “boundless erudition and fathomless curiosity” who presents his readers, friends and admirers with the summing-up of a lifetime of wisdom and observation. Another reviewer, Billy Graham, commented that Sir John Templeton “understands that the true measure of a person’s success in life is not financial accomplishment but moral integrity and inner character”.
It would be impossible and even presumptuous to try to sum up in this short piece today what this important and comprehensive book is all about.
Suffice it to say that it comprises the author’s discovery that the lives of human beings are shaped by certain eternal laws. He explains these and the meaning of good and evil, fear, morality and right and wrong and the importance of prayer, humility, love, laughter and thanksgiving. He also offers guidance and advice covering the whole gamut of the human condition and behaviour – for example, the need for kindness, faithfulness, loyalty, forgiveness and self-control – while also writing about joy, peace, enthusiasm, perseverance and the importance of exercising calmness and patience.
As regards gratitude, Sir John Templeton’s main theme is that thanksgiving is a creative force that will produce more good in people’s lives and more to be thankful for. Most people have much to appreciate but remain blind to the blessings that they already possess – and counting those blessings can more often than not transform melancholy into cheerfulness. He concludes that thanksgiving leads to giving and forgiving and to spiritual growth. More prosaically, he writes that we can be grateful for the things we have or we can focus on things we don’t have and make ourselves and others miserable in the process.
The wisdom and sound advice contained in Sir John Templeton’s admirable work is exceptional and it is almost limitless. It is quite simply a wonderful read.