It is ironic that not long since Peter Oborne published 'The Triumph of the Political Class' we are at a time when the political class is at its nadir. The recent rash of exposures have confirmed what the public has always known, that politicians are corrupt deceivers. Caroline Spelman, whose elegant snout has hardly tasted the trough at all, might be wondering this morning 'why me?' and perhaps reflecting 'it's not fair.' And indeed it probably isn't.
Those who foolishly advocate that politics should be a 'career' as well as those who advocate that politicians should be accountable and sackable, those who say that manifestos should be enforceable in the courts and those that advocate that MPs should be triable for mendacity, and those who would have us provide professional training and qualifications for MPs are all equally responsible both for the rise of the political class and for its fall. They all, on one side or the other, want to apply the attributes of the free market to politics, but they simply don't apply.
The free market works on trust, certainty and valuable consideration, and is based on contracts and free choice. One who pursues a career offers his or her skills, ability and experience to the market; the market places a value on them, and a return which is commonly financial but may be emotional (in the case of 'social care' careers) or social (status) or a mix of these is obtained. A service provider works on real and measurable contractual commitments; how much health care will I get in return for my payment, what percentage of your crammer's pupils get places at Oxford? In a free market, individuals and firms that offer the best returns in a framework of free choice and voluntary discrimination win. The free market has mechanisms for dealing with non-performance; contracts of trade and contracts of employment can be enforced or terminated.
Politics has been called the art of the possible - and the possible is anything you can get enough people to believe. Success in politics is by image, coercion, influencing and manipulation. The promises of politicians are not concerned with selling what they have but with what we have; a politician can't make one person wealthier or more advantaged without making another person poorer or less advantaged. Politics relies on forced redistribution, whether of wealth or status or power (yes, I know the last two are not economic concepts). For politics to work - for a political democracy to function - politics must remain far removed from the mechanisms of a free market. When politics was clearly a choice between widely separated ideologies none of this was an issue, but the positioning of all the parties on the same centre ground and the rise of the Political Class is not coincidental.
If we reduce politics to just another market exchange, we put politicians in the same class of commercial service providers as mystics and tarot readers, faith healers and crystal therapists. A manifesto promise becomes something you can complain to the Trading Standards about. A political vision becomes an undischarged contract term. We do away with elections and introduce selection processes to pick the very best of those who tender for a 'career' in politics at the best price. We sue and claim damages if they fail to effect a meeting with a metaphorical tall dark stranger.
Politics is not a career. It's not a profession. It's not subject to equalities quotas or positive discrimination. All those who have sought to make it so - the Political Class - are responsible for the loathing that the public feels for politics and politicians. Very well, the public are saying, if you want it to have the attributes of a real job, let's make it so; we'll control your pay and let's control your expenses and timekeeping as well, and set you all individual annual performance targets and have the sanction of dismissing you for employment misconduct.
A career is something an individual embarks on for personal betterment - financial, emotional or social; it's about getting, not giving. Unless we get back to a politics based on a desire to serve, to give rather than to get, to make personal sacrifices for the good of others, to communicate a genuine vision of a future common good and a selfless belief in abstract moral aims then we risk fracturing our very foundation of social democracy.