Politics

Agenda: Should we allow politicians their failings?

THE past year produced its fair share of failures amongst world leaders. These included Donald Trump’s ruthless attempts to subvert established democratic procedures, Boris Johnson’s apparent inability to distinguish truthfulness from mendacity and Nicola Sturgeon’s extraordinary memory lapse when informing parliament about the date of a crucial meeting with her erstwhile mentor. The implications of those failings have been analysed by colleagues, professional commentators, amateur bloggers…and letter writers to The Herald … and, while it is unclear what the lasting impact of such malfunctions will be on their electorates, history suggests these faults do harm the reputations of the individuals in question.

Today’s news feed delivers a virtually instantaneous account of politicians’ actions and behaviour, both the bad and, much less often, the good. Social media devotees remain constantly on watch, crouched over smartphones, ready to pounce on any peccadillos. Mature reflection and conclusions based on reliable information and corroborated before being published are seen as less important than coming first in a race to “break” the news, no matter how fanciful the content. This is not to deny the value of a scoop, but the constant spate of vexatious material, released so as to damage their opponents, degrades the process. Negative reporting does exactly what it says on the tin…engenders negativity.

It was not always thus. For example, JF Kennedy’s misuse of drugs and love affairs; Winston Churchill’s alcohol consumption, Francois Mitterand’s mistress and their daughter, were kept out of the public gaze while they were in power. They went about their business free from intrusive investigations. Did any of those transgressions prevent their achievements and would they have survived today’s relentless scrutiny without their images being damaged, authority undermined or even being forced out of office?

Although conclusive evidence for the existence of a supernatural agency willing and able to pardon an individual for their faults remains elusive, possibly for all eternity, it is more than 300 years since Alexander Pope wrote that a defining characteristic of humankind was to err, while granting forgiveness was the responsibility of a god. Robert Frost’s more recent aphorism, “Erring is human, not to, animal” pithily endorses Pope’s assertion, ignores any role for spirituality and is perhaps more in keeping with the zeitgeist of the 21st century. Mistakes in life are inevitable and politicians, being human, are not exempt from that reality.

It is essential that decisions made by parliamentarians are examined, links with vested interests exposed, corruption uncovered and departures from the truth when performing their duties revealed. A finding of guilt should result in the person being declared unfit to hold public office. However, should such an approach ignore what they do after closing time or would that distinction be naive and merely encourage unethical behaviour? If the errors of an entire lifetime were to be included, who then would be a politician? Ultimately, when choosing whether to offer them our support we must decide if the extracurricular activities of our law makers are more important than any useful qualities they might possess.

Bob Scott is a retired GP, a humanist celebrant and occasional Herald contributor

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