Introduction

One question I regularly hear is: can you be a politician and retain your integrity?  Is politics such a dirty game that everyone who plays ends up covered in muck?  I think there are three short answers.

  • Yes, it is possible to be a politician and retain your integrity - but it isn't easy.  And it gets harder the higher up the political tree you climb.
  • However, much of the time, it is only hard because we make it so, or because we allow the status quo to continue.  Politics is a human system, and human systems can be changed - they may never become perfect, but they can be improved.  The real question is: do we want to put in the work required to make these changes?
  • If good people stay out of politics - for whatever reason - then we are creating a political system populated by and shaped by bad people, and this cannot be a good thing.  We need to encourage good people to get involved in politics, and support them through the difficulties.

Some context for this article: I am writing from the perspective of the United Kingdom in early 2022.  As I write, increasing numbers of our citizens are having to choose between food and heat, our government is trying to outlaw public protest, and Putin is trying to start World War III in Ukraine, so things are not good.  But we can either work to make things better, or just give up and let everything fall apart, so why not explore what can be done?  If these thoughts apply to your situation too, then great; if not, then please make your own contribution.

Integrity is Hard

Politicians face all the same challenges to their integrity as do the rest of us, but they often face these challenges more intensely and more obviously.  It is possible (and, I believe, necessary in the modern world) to compromise without a failure of integrity, but this is difficult, and the more we become used to compromising on what we seek to do and how we seek to do it, the easier it becomes to lose connection with the things which motivate and matter to us.

Most of our politicians, I firmly believe, get into politics because they want to make the world a better place.  But if you want to improve the world, unless you are going to set up your own political party, you have to join one of the existing parties - either way, you become part of the political system.  Signing up to a political party always involves compromise: you simply have to be clear where you are compromising, and why.  When you sign up to a political party, there are two key relationships for the politician to maintain: with the public, and with the party - and they sometimes pull in different directions, so more compromise is needed.

All progress involves compromise: you may care about a dozen issues, but you can only work on one at a time.  You have to take things you care about and put them to one side for now, so that you can make progress on something else you care about.  With hindsight, perhaps it would have been better to focus on something else, but imperfect decisions are often better than a failure to choose.  And how do you select what to focus on?  It's probably one of the things you consider important, which are inevitably biased towards the things you know about, the things you care about and the things which affect you.  Our judgement is compromised because we are all biased by the simple fact of seeing the world from our own perspective.

Our judgement is also compromised through the social pressure we experience - much of which is pressure to do good.  On many occasions, I have been asked to donate money to fight cancer, and I always say no.  They often try to explain that I probably know many people who have had cancer (I do), I might know people who have died of cancer (I do)  and there is a good chance I might die of cancer if the cure is not found (I probably will).  However, cancer is a first world problem: we sometimes die of it because of smoking or chemicals in the environment, but we mostly die of it because we have not previously died of something else.  A pound spend on Oral Rehydration or malaria prevention will save far more lives than a pound spent on cancer research.  The problem is, we in the West don't see the people dying of malaria, or the children dying from diarrhea (a course of treatment to save a life costs just $0.50).

Compromise on your objectives is also frequently necessary: you often have to accept some progress, but less than you want, rather than hold out for a goal which may never be achieved.  It can be hard to accept failure - failure to deliver on your vision or promises - even if that failure will deliver real benefits for real people.  But then, perhaps the partial progress will result in the issue dropping down the public priority list, and will mean that the deepest need is not addressed for much longer, so maybe that real but limited benefit now comes with too high a price?  Our plans are based on judgement and guesswork about such matters, and again is partial, biased and imperfect.  We simply have to do the best we can.

For all these reasons, we have to make peace with compromise, but each potential compromise must be considered not just from the pragmatic perspective (will this take us in the direction we want to go?) but also from the ethical perspective (given all the circumstances, is this the right thing to do?) - and the temptation is always to argue that the end justifies the means, but once we accept that principle then the battle to retain integrity has already been lost.  The question is not whether to compromise, but what to compromise, and why (and, probably, when).

And, of course, it's not just about compromise. 

Politics is a battle.  It is all about gaining power for your party, your group, your political tribe.  You have to fight to win, and winning is often as much about harming your enemy - the other tribe - as it is about promoting your principles and persuading the people.  It is hard to retain your integrity in the battle; it is a fine line between selectively quoting the other party and misrepresenting them.  It is hard to remain honest when a carefully placed lie can do so much harm to the other party, and it is sometimes easier to lie through asking invalid but effective questions, than by making explicit claims.

And, as we know, all power tends to corrupt: we want power so that we can do good, so we justify the things we need to do in order to achieve power - or retain it - as a necessary cost, part of the price of doing good.  We are all familiar with the story: "I want to do good, my opponents will harm the country, so it is in my country's best interests for me to be elected.  It's sad, but if a few people need to be harmed for the sake of the greater good, then a wise and strong leader must make that choice."  The closer you are to power, the stronger thais argument becomes.  It's very easy to justify a great deal of lying and manipulation this way.

Politics is a Human System

Integrity is hard, so if we want our politicians to act with integrity, we - the voters - need to help them.  Here are a few suggestions.

  • Vote.  Vote for politicians who demonstrate integrity in preference to politicians who promise policies you like.  Reward integrity, and turn the political battle into one between politicians who demonstrate integrity - choose the person with the polices you best like from that group.
  • Talk.  Tell your politicians you care about integrity, and you want them to prioritize building and maintaining systems of transparency and accountability over short term effectiveness.  The person in power will always be better able to fight the battles of the day if their hands are not tied by the petty rules which deliver transparency and accountability.  But if you give them that freedom, will they use it to fight those battles - and only to fight those battles?  You will never know, but you can probably guess.
  • Support.  Praise politicians who admit to being wrong, support those who change their minds when the evidence changes - don't criticize them, and don't penalize them for doing what they ought to do.  If we praise and reward good behaviour in our politicians, we might see more of it.
  • Select.  Use media sources which prioritize integrity, especially integrity in our politicians and public servants, but also integrity in the business community and wider society.  Politicians are not insulated from the values of the society they live in.
  • Pay.  Pay to access ethical sources of media (remember: if you are not paying for the product, you are the product).  We need journalists who are motivated to discover and broadcast the truth, not just stories which will get a lot of clicks and bring in advertising revenue. 
  • Participate.  The system of party politics often rewards immoral behaviour, such as plotting against your colleagues and betraying them for political advantage.  This will not change unless the people involved choose to change it - so get involved in party politics and be a part of making that change to the systems and culture.

Finally, I think we need to recognize another major issue, which touches on this subject.  There is a fascinating Politico article: We Found the One Group of Americans Who Are Most Likely to Spread Fake News. Their research suggests that a significant number of people believe themselves to be conservative, but are in reality strongly attached to a certain view of the world and their place in it - so attached that they are willing to let the world as we know it fall to pieces and burn up if they believe this will bring about the world they wish to live in.  It takes the whole discussion of integrity onto another level, but that is probably the subject of another article ...

 

[See Social Challenges: Politics]

 

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Comments

  • But if a politician is honest about the compromises, surely they can keep their integrity.  It is the deceit that plagues me the most.

    • I agree.  But it's not easy - partly because it is a very difficult thing to do.  "This is my principle, and this is how I am compromising it, and the reason why I believe the compromise is necessary."  It's a hard position to work out, and a very hard thing to communicate and sell to the electorate.  The media only works with simplistic messages, and attacks if you try to communicate anything difficult.

      I believe this is the fundamenal problem Corbyn suffered: his position had integrity, but it was not simple enough for the media to cope with.

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