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Truth is we get the politicians we deserve

Published 27/11/2015

John Locke, the 17th century political thinker, saw politics as a necessary evil. This judgment was rooted in his experience of the unprincipled machinations in the practice of government. Things have not seriously changed since Locke's time.

The rough and tumble of politics seems to bring out the worst in all of us. Five hundred years ago the much-maligned Niccolo Machiavelli set out to show the princes of Florence how to achieve power and maintain it. Implicit in his writings is the notion that politics is an independent activity with its own principles and laws, distinct from those of morality and religion. This shows itself in the apparent moral gap between the rulers and the ruled.

Anyone entering politics will not survive by occupying the moral high ground. The skill of politicians is not about conformity to the traditional moral virtues, but a willingness to do whatever is required to achieve their purposes, whether the actions are wicked or good in the traditional sense. Politicians are involved in the exercise of practical reasoning - doing what works.

Politicians succeed to the extent that they are seen to be working to our advantage. The essential quality in a politician, if he or she is to succeed, is moral flexibility, learning how to avoid appearing immoral when occasionally constrained to behave somewhat immorally, working hard at helping to lead people to see all that is done in a good light.

We seem to expect from politicians higher standards than those we expect from ourselves. We tend to vote not so much on the basis of moral considerations but on considerations of self-interest.

Politicians reflect the values we communicate to them. Perhaps we get the representatives we deserve.

PHILIP O'NEILL

By email

Belfast Telegraph

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