Houses of Parliament

The advantage of an eclectic schooling, or even a disrupted one, lies in the way it conditions a person to the possibility of seeing things in more ways than one, through different cultural prisms.

The casualties of such a primary intellectual formation lie chiefly in the realm of mathematics and history. It is hard to get a grasp of numeracy when it is taught in more than one way and, as in my case, in more than one language. But the patchy impression one gets of history, from going to different schools and not always in the same country is, in the longer term, a far greater risk to intellectual health.

For one thing, if you change schools often, you don’t put down intellectual roots. This means that you don’t properly belong to any one thread of history. You have become disconnected from your own historical thread, the one you left behind when you went to live in another country, and you have arrived too late in the academic year, or even in the trajectory of your life, to pick up that of your adopted land. You feel disconnected from its particular contextual flow, from how your peers are already being shaped and acquiring their political identity from within their history. This puts you in a defensive position, one which makes it difficult for trust to take root, so you switch off during history lessons and, as a result, become even more alienated.

Perhaps one of the important things to learn from this election is that we are in the process of re-thinking our history, a history which is being shaped demographically. We can look at this demographic re-shaping of history in a positive light, if we choose to do so, or we can feel threatened by it. The choice is open to all of us. 

Our history is also being shaped by a fluid ‘pick and mix’ approach to politics, and by rapid change and temporary party alliances within the political system. It is arguable that these temporary alliances are partly a response to the rapid changes we experience at every level of our consumerist collective life. We have become a pick and mix society, picking and choosing between different party policies but seldom clear about how we coalesce as a nation. But even so, this political fragmentation may yet bear fruit in surprising ways.

What is needed is the re-establishment of trust, beginning with a genuine renewal of the system itself. The old two party system is faltering because a sizeable proportion of the population does not feel connected to it. This feeling of disconnectedness has grown out of a sense of disillusionment with the political system itself and with the people who govern through it. The system is a closed one by virtue of the way votes are counted and power subsequently allocated, and by the forced obeisance imposed through the party Whip.

It seems almost certain that the outcome of this election will lead to one of two things; either a marriage of convenience similar to that of the last parliament or, preferably, to a minority government in which all will have to listen to each other for the sake of the common good, and thereby begin to shape a new and better history for this country. They will do this by taking shared decisions on a policy by policy basis. The difference between these two methods of governance lies in their potential for re-building trust in a political system which has been strained to the limit as a result of the last two general elections.

On the one hand, and most recently, coalitions, for all their moderating effects, ultimately reduce governance to deal-making behind closed doors, to which all parties to the marriage are obliged to sign up even if they played no direct part in the brokering of the deal and know that those who voted for them disagree with the policy in question. On the other, lies the possibly less efficient, but more transparent, way of reaching decisions whereby policies are agreed upon openly and collectively on the basis of what is most good and sensible for the nation as a whole.

As with the system, so with the people who hold the power within it. Cameron’s recent Freudian slip suggests that politicians must speak and act in ways which protect their careers, even if the speaking and the acting do not ultimately coincide. As a result, those standing for election to the highest office in the land are tainted with the same distrust which many feel towards the political system as a whole. This will continue for as long as politicians choose to retain the present electoral system and operate within its protective confines, but history has proved that disillusionment in the people who take advantage of flawed systems, and govern through them, has serious consequences.

Politicians may be just like the rest of us but more is expected of them. That is the real price of power.