Tuesday, 1 October 2013


I should have slept last night, instead (albeit with my eyes closed), I listened to the radio feed of C-SPAN on my iPad. The speeches in the Senate and the House of Representatives were broadcast as the clocks moved towards midnight in Washington. Then at 5am, I heard Louise Slaughter state that the time had come - and the government was now shutting down. After months of argument - the new financial year had begun, and Congress had failed to provide money for it. Congress has proved that it has become a non-functioning body.

How has it come to this?

The roots go back many years. I am not a believer in a mythical "Golden Age" - when politicians were impeccably civil towards each other; when decisions were reached by consensus, without the intrusion of party politics. Politics has always been hard fought. Even the most well mannered gentlemen knew how to push and shove, and play hardball when necessary. Reading Congressional and Parliamentary history is a great antidote to the rose-tinted view of earlier days.

But something has gone badly wrong. We are getting used to seeing political "suicide-bombing". A small group of dedicated ideologues holding a country hostage - and threatening to - (and last night in Congress, actually) - inflicting harm on fellow citizens. There are public servants who will not get paid. They will cut back on their spending threatening others' livelihoods. Holiday makers (sorry Sis, your trip to New York to visit the Statute of Liberty today will be thwarted - as will be your planned visits to the Gettysburg Battlefield Visitor Center and the historic buildings of Philadelphia on the rest of your holiday) - will be disappointed - and foreign visitors like my Sister won't be transferring money earned in Britain into the US economy.

In the UK we have the Eurosceptic fanatics - I don't mean those who have their concerns about the direction and policies of the EU (I respect that and will happily engage in dialogue with them) - I mean the fanatics who are prepared to invent any story to discredit Europe; who are determined to have Britain out "of Europe", whatever the cost in jobs and British influence.

How has this suicidal tendency got itself into our legislatures? I think its worth remembering the words of President Kennedy at his inauguration -

"So let us begin anew—remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.

Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us."

It has been forgotten. "No surrender" is the battle cry of the Congressional warriors - but let's remember that that slogan lay behind, and continued for years, the conflict in Northern Ireland. Politicians have got elected on a promise to "take on Washington"; they've portrayed deliberation and negotiation as weakness or selling out. Cross-party working has been shunned.

Partisanship has increased. There are many academic explanations of it - and I would thoroughly recommend Sean Theriault's excellent "Party Polarization in Congress". We need to go beyond this - we need to start working on making politics function properly again.

That doesn't mean cozy stitch-ups; or an unrealistic denial of the very real differences in opinions about how to solve our common problems - it does mean a greater emphasis on deliberation; on honourable negotiation - a rejection of the view that 'compromise' is weak.

It means that politicians should stop listening to un-elected gurus who urge slash and burn tactics - Malcolm Tucker is a fictional character - Lynton Crosby; Damian McBride; Dick Morris; and their ilk are not. Voters should tell the parties that they will punish them if their behaviour continues to deteriorate.