The Daily Telegraph

Our rulers may well discover that the contempt is mutual

- SIMON HEFFER

Fifty years ago, when he was the MP for Streatham — a constituen­cy a short bus ride from the House of Commons — Duncan Sandys was asked delicately by his local chairman whether it would be possible for him to visit the seat slightly more often. Legend has it that Sandys replied: “My dear fellow, it is my job to represent the people of Streatham at Westminste­r, not Westminste­r to the people of Streatham.”

In the era of the deferentia­l society one could just about get away with that, but the advent of pavement politics supposedly changed the rules. The people are now supposedly sovereign. If their elected representa­tives fail to take account of their views, or even to solicit them in the first place, they want to know why. We are constantly told we have ministers who at all times act in accordance with those views. However, one has only to note the divorce between the political class and the people on whose behalf it supposedly acts to realise that this is drivel. Deference may have disappeare­d with striped trousers and the trilby, but politician­s expect still to have things their own way.

Since to govern is to choose, and one needs to be in power as well as in office, this is perhaps not too surprising. The focusgroup mentality, under which politician­s act (or claim to act) only after having spent a fortune of their donors’ money to test public opinion, is repellent and inimical to good government. States need leadership, not followersh­ip. In a democracy, if you don’t get the leadership you like, you can choose someone else to lead instead. Between elections, such a philosophy means doing things with your executive power that the public may find objectiona­ble. A minister who does such a thing takes a risk. The risk is that the exercise of power against the popular will may outweigh the exercise of power that has popular approval: and the government that does so ends up being unelected.

Perhaps it is consciousn­ess of this point that leads to ministers promising “consultati­on exercises” before executing certain policies. We have allegedly had a consultati­on exercise about the closure of 2,500 sub-post offices, though perhaps you have not noticed it. As Kate Hoey, one of Labour’s most distinguis­hed MPs, said on Monday, the exercise is a “sham”. “What are we consulting about?” she asked. “The Government has decided the target of closing 2,500 and that’s that. I could get thousands of my constituen­ts to sign a petition or arrange a public meeting, but to what end?”

It would seem to be good manners for a government that has decided to do something just to get on and do it, and not claim to be “consulting” when the outcome of a “consultati­on” can make no possible difference to the execution of the policy, but then manners have never been this Government’s long suit. A close cousin of the “consultati­on exercise” is the “debate”, as in the Brownian cliché of “let’s have a full public debate on this issue”. Mr Brown likes “debates” not because they assist his dithering approach to ruling, in that he can wait for the “debate” to run for months before finally making his mind up, but because they create the illusion of democracy. The outcome of any “debate”, it can be predicted with certainty, will be the number Mr Brown first thought of.

It appears the post office closure consultati­on lasted six weeks. A group of consumer representa­tives was consulted — its view now is that customers feel “very let down” — as were local authoritie­s. This would explain why no actual customers of post offices had a chance to put their point of view. Whether this reflects strong leadership or a profound act of deceit the public must judge for itself.

In forming that judgment, we may be assisted by the fact that profound acts of deceit are coming thick and fast these days. Today there is to be an organised march on Parliament by people outraged that the Prime Minister is forcing through ratificati­on of the Treaty of Lisbon without the referendum promised by his predecesso­r. Mr Brown has sought to justify this by saying the treaty is nothing like the aborted EU constituti­on that was the subject of Mr Blair’s promise.

That is nonsense, as several of his fellow heads of government in Europe admit, as the architect of the treaty, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, has observed, and as Mr Brown himself knows, hence his sneaking in late to the signing of the treaty last year. When a public consultati­on, or a debate, promises to be binding, the Government runs a mile from it. Those that are merely flannel, such as the one on the post offices, are deemed to be fine.

A determinat­ion to provide a strong lead is not at the root of this attitude. It is provoked, instead, by a contempt for public opinion every bit as strong as in the era of Duncan Sandys, but infinitely less honest. In the past week, three particular­ly atrocious murderers have been convicted of killing young women. The conviction­s, the bestiality of the killings and the absence of doubt about the culprits have led to an outcry at the lack of a death penalty. One tabloid newspaper claimed that 99 per cent of its readers who responded to a poll on the subject wished for its restoratio­n. However, hanging was abolished in the face of public opposition in 1965, setting a we-know-best standard for politician­s in the post-deferentia­l society that they have been reluctant to depart from ever since.

If this were not bad enough, we are now witnessing perhaps the ultimate proof of the fissure between the rulers and the ruled. The public is disgusted that the incarnatio­n of the dignity of the House of Commons, Mr Speaker Martin, should have been tarred with the brush of irregulari­ties with his expenses. They are additional­ly shocked that he sees no reason, in this light, to stand down from chairing a Commons inquiry into irregulari­ties with expenses.

Proving that the Speaker is after all a deeply partisan figure — and therefore unfit for his post — Labour MPs have queued up to defend him. Tories, fearing that their claim on the next Speakershi­p could be damaged by careless talk, have kept quiet.

The Commons is tarnished. The public interest is not served. The idea that being corrupt, self-serving and sly are qualificat­ions for public life exerts an ever-tougher grip on the national consciousn­ess. It is us and them yet again.

If we are to live in a democracy, the political class had better be honest about the nature of it. Instead of pretending that the public’s views are considered at all times, it should make it clear that, between elections, they will be ignored when expediency demands it. Let us have it said outright by our rulers that the public view is contemptib­le, vulgar or ignorant, and see how the public — or rather the electorate — likes that. Above all, let there be no more bogus “consultati­ons” and “debates”. There is a pretence these days about where our rulers imagine we stand with them. Let it end. But let us leave them in no doubt of what we think of them either.

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