The Politics of Good Intentions trade unionists, and so on, before entering politics. Problem 4: If representatives are supposed to govern as representatives of the will of the people, how can they possibly tell what
HAPPENING TO BE HATED LESS THAN ALL THE REST OF THE PARTIES BY LESS THAN A QUARTER OF THE PEOPLE CANNOT BE TAKEN AS A SIGN OF APPROVAL OF EVERY HALF-BAKED IDEA COBBLED tothe will of the people is?
gether in some dreary corner or Whitehall. Governments push through policies that were never included in their manifestos, and, even worse, which were specifically precluded in a promise to the electorate (“We will not introduce ‘top-up’ fees and have legislated to prevent them”; Labour manifesto, 2001). If ‘a week is a long time in politics’, then 4 or 5 years certainly is. In 2009, the government is still claiming to be representing the will of the people as (dubiously) expressed in 2005. So much has happened in between, and governments should not be able to claim legitimacy when the public has long since lost faith in them. Not only has representative democracy not been particularly democratic, it was never meant to be. The USA is held up as the classic model of liberal representative democracy, but the US constitution was written as an explicitly anti-democratic document which sought to take power away from the popularly elected legislatures. The founding fathers would have been horrified had they been referred to as democrats, and the image of them as ‘the inventors of democracy’ has been counterfactually imposed on them as the years have gone by. Policies are important - they have real impacts on real people, but the way in which policies are decided, the workings of our (I hesitate to say democracy) system is just important as what comes out at the end. Britain is not a dictatorship, the government (mostly) respects freedoms, but neither is it a democracy, and the sooner we recognise that, the sooner we can do something about it. V
This is the usual story of modernity: as religious faith fell to pieces,
the members of Western societies began to look elsewhere for the hopes and convictions no longer supported by a doctrinal framework. Into the vacuum came the monstrous ideologies of revolutionary terror, nationalism, communism, anarchism, fascism, which profited from the post-Enlightenment yearning for certainties while providing an extravagant symbolism, a common creed and an easy way to identify the enemies outside and the heretics within. That narrative is convincing, and it is worth advancing with it in order to challenge modernity’s complacency. For dangerous idealism still exists; it has just become more and more banal. Today, it is the ideology of good intentions which should make us apprehensive. And what is this ideology? If we can pin it down, then perhaps we can see why it must be rejected. Good intentions are the engine of the worldview which always favours doing something against doing nothing. Apathy, for the good-intentionalist, is a pointless speedbump in the way of progress. Making a fuss is better than being complacently mute. Raising awareness is better than letting others stay ignorant. Above all, says the good-intentionalist, we must constantly oppose something called the status quo. The real divide is not between different beliefs, but between the active and the passive, those who care and those who couldn’t care less. This was how the occupation of the Law Faculty was justified. One of the protesters opined on the occupation blog that ‘to do whatever it takes to have our voices heard...does not seem like something that needs any qualifications’. The academics who expressed support praised the students’ commitment, motivation, passion, engagement and so forth – something echoed by one activist’s speech as the group made their way out of the building: being at a university, he declared, ‘isn’t about reading articles or writing papers – it’s about changing things!’ Someone else writes in a University newspaper: ‘the Right believes in the futility of change while the Left believes in its necessity’, implying a preference for the latter position. Of course change is necessary; but there is a condition for change, which the good-intentionalist habitually forgets. It is simply that you must know what is worth preserving in order to know what is worth changing. There are many things that we would all leave out of our personal utopias: the existence of nuclear weapons; the demoralising effects of global capitalism; the disparity between the wages of a midwife and those of an advertising executive; despotism, war and poverty in foreign countries. But we know from experience that to try to expel them from the real world is an impossibility. Moreover, in trying to expel them we have frequently multiplied the problems. And well-intentioned communism is a good example. We have to be guided, then, by identifying not only what is wrong with the status quo but also what is valuable in it. And that means looking to the past, to know what does work and what does not. Before imposing our good intentions on University policy, we should ask ‘What is the function of a university’? Before reforming the House of Lords, we must discover what practical good it has done, and understand how it can continue to do so. In other words, we must take our lead from convention and tradition, from what has worked in the past. The past is, indeed, the only place where anything has ever worked. With its demand for ‘changing things’, the ideology of good intentions disregards the past, and so casts aside our best chance for a better future.
D IS VERMILLION, VIVID IS A VERNIER, VIVID TAKES VITAMINS, VIVID IS A VORTICIST, VIVID IS A VILLAIN, VIVID IS A