Are Politicians Value and Principle Driven?

Foods for Thought

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

A long-time friend of mine, former teacher, sent me a kind note of appreciation after reading my article of last week, ‘What kind of society do we want?’, which reads as follows: ‘it is the ideal society that will bring peace, harmony, and progress. But unfortunately, the example is very rarely given from the top. Politicians have their own agenda which, I dare say, is that once they are in power, their main objective is how to get re-elected. The country gets divided and subdivided, which suits the politicians, they rule according to the power of division. For decades I have occasionally shared with my students the elements which will usher in the ideal society. And I still believe in it although what I see in many countries is the contrary of what the politicians promised to do during their election campaign.’

I don’t know if today’s teachers take the trouble to similarly broach the topic with their students, but when I read about the violence amongst students directed against their own fellow students or perhaps even friends, and also against teachers (some of whom, I concede, are caught for sexual or other misdemeanors) I cannot help thinking that there is something terribly missing in their education, namely character formation. Of course, this has to start with the parents and family in the home, and the teacher complements this role with his own inputs. Both subtly and directly teachers used to transmit the needed messages to the generation that my friend and I belong to.

This started in primary school, when everyday we would be made to line up before classes started, and both the headmaster and the teachers used to do their inspection round – our arms were outstretched palms down so they could check the cleanliness of our nails, our hair had to be neatly combed and free of lice, clothes had to be clean even if old (as was most often the case for most of us from modest backgrounds), similarly for shoes (save for some pupils whose parents could not afford them and they were barefooted). Instant punishment, verbal and at times with a ruler without causing any physical injury was meted out, and warnings given. Parents knew about this routine, and were happy that their children were being disciplined. At the same time, though, this imposed a responsibility on them to make sure that the children left home in a state to meet the hygiene standards and expectations of the school.

Of course, I am aware that today’s circumstances are altogether different, but the fundamental premise is unchanged, that grooming children to become well-behaved students and responsible citizens is a cooperative responsibility shared between the home, the school and society at large through both formal and informal means. Often, it is the informal or subtle methods that have the greater influence, but we are so bombarded with an overload of information that it is the louder and more direct ones that tend to hold sway.

And to my mind this is where the rub lies in our contemporary society, and also where social leaders hold a tremendous responsibility. More so politicians, especially the leaders among them, as they frequently make pronouncements which are widely reported and likely therefore to exert more influence. Hence the need for them to be value and principle driven, because through policies they steer a country’s overall direction of development in all its dimensions.

Unfortunately, as my friend pointed out, politicians seem to be indifferent to such considerations.

By sheer coincidence I had picked an old issue (2012) of the Indian magazine Frontline, and came across a book review that I had read before. The book – Why Leaders Lie: The Truth About Lying in International Politics by Prof John Meirsheimer of the University of Chicago – he is the one who shortly after the Ukraine war began took a stand against the US’s intervention, if we go by a video clip that was aired on social media. If I am not mistaken, he even wrote a leader in The Economist in this regard. 

To come back to the topic at hand, let me cite a paragraph (edited for brevity) from that review: ‘There are a good few studies on the lie in politics, both domestic and international. Three deserve particular mention: Peter Osborne’s The Rise of Political Lying(2005) about the rise of political lying during the John Major and more particularly the Tony Blair governments; Eric Alterman’s When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences(2004); David Wise’s The Politics of Lying: GovernmentDeception, Secrecy and Power (1973).’

Wow! That list takes us back nearly 50 years – but more likely political lying stretches further into the past. Perhaps it is even institutionalised in politics all over the world, and what a pity that would be. Apart from lying though there are a lot of persistent political practices that demonstrate that values are not a politician’s forte. One example is captured in our local slogan bonnet blanc, blanc bonnet, put another way it is plus ça change plus c’est la même chose.

Bang-on comes a real time example as recently as two days ago, as a headliner in the British press proclaimsed ‘Liz Truss conducts clear-out of Sunak supporters as she builds “cabinet of cronies”’ – rings a bell? – as ‘Liz Truss’s hopes of uniting her party after a fractious leadership contest were tonight at risk after she conducted a brutal cabinet clear-out of supporters of rival Rishi Sunak in her first hours as prime minister… putting personal loyalty to her over the competence needed at a time of virtually unprecedented crisis.’ 

What with the Covid crisis and the war in Ukraine, the times are full of uncertainties, and there is a high risk of them becoming dangerous what with the other critical problems we are facing such as the impacts of climate change. Add to this errant politicians who only think of themselves, and we have to be very worried for our collective future…

Nevertheless, by no means is there any implication that all politicians fall in the same basket, and throughout history one can find examples of statesmen who have been far-sighted and have put country before personal interest. In so doing they have had to make personal sacrifices, itself an indication of probity and honesty in running the affairs of state. One can only hope that this were more common and demonstrably evident. If that were so, it would certainly help in dispelling the more generalised perception that all politicians and leaders are corrupt or liars.

Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 9 September 2022

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