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Carol Craig is the Centre's Chief Executive. She is author of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence, Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People, The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow and The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives. Her latest book is Hiding in Plain Sight: Exploring Scotland's ill health. She is Commissioning editor for the Postcards from Scotland series. Carol blogs on confidence, well-being, inequality, every day life and some of the great challenges of our time. The views she expresses are her own unless she specifically states that they reflect the Centre's thinking.

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Posted 16/05/2010

When I was young my passion was politics. Indeed I studied politics at university and left with a single honours politics degree. One of the main text books on my comparative politics course was The Civic Culture by Almond and Verba. One of most notable things about politics in the UK was that people believed in the political process: they respected politicians and they weren't cynical. This contrasted with other countries where people believed that politicians were corrupt and self-serving.  Oh how things have changed since the late 1960s.

I did a Ph.D in a politics department. I also tutored and lectured and was at one point a post-doctoral fellow in the Unit for the Study of Government at Edinburgh University. The academic life wasn't for me and I moved on to work in current affairs for the BBC. Once I had children politics very much took a back-seat and I became somewhat out of touch and increasingly disillusioned. Of course, I read the paper, I voted and I campaigned for devolution but I rarely read a politics book. My passion and energy went elsewhere.

In March I went up to the Ceilidh Place to the 'Changin Scotland' weekend Jean Urquhart and Gerry Hassan organise there twice a year. Politics is often on the agenda but there are also sessions on arts and culture. This one was a real eye-opener for me. Anthony Barnett, who set up Charter 88 and Open Democracy was speaking. So too was Peter Oborne who I thought put forward such an interesting argument that I bought his book.  I've hardly been able to stop thinking about it since. Indeed it was fantastic to read it on the eve of an election campaign as just about everything he describes was then brought to life.

Oborne's book is called The Triumph of the Political Class. Essentially Oborne (a historian and political columnist) argues that during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries British politicians and others swept away old corrupt, self-serving practices and created a way of working which stressed the public good and maintained high standards of integrity. Oborne, quoting Anthony Sampson, says that there wasn't a single establishment but various establishments each with their own power base and strong codes of what constituted acceptable behaviour.  This was also a world dominated by mass political parties, thus ensuring a strong link between politicians and the parties they represented.

In the last decade or so of the twentieth century this started to change – a political class was born. Unlike previous MPs who had what Roy Hattersley calls 'a hinterland' or some experience of non-political life, a group of people began to dominate who can be described as career politicians. Ideology and party differences ceased to matter. So too did constitutional niceties or codes of behaviour. Power and influence were what mattered. Success mattered much more than principles. The political class also felt they were entitled – to decision-making, to perks and, as we know only too well, to expenses. 

In such a system back-bench MPS themselves were sidelined. Indeed the Whips Office, once an important institution, was moved out of No 12 Downing Street and replaced by that centre piece of modern politics – the Press Office. The parties – members and conferences –were also downgraded. What mattered was the direct relationship with the electorate – mediated by the media. Thus important political announcements were not made on the floor of the house of commons but in The Mail or The Sun. Oborne calls this type of politics – 'manipulative populism'.

I can't really do justice to Oborne's argument and those who want to know more will just have to read the book themselves. I was so glad I read it because it helped me understand how the UK had changed so much since I studied politics. It also made sense of some of my own reactions and to my increasing frustration with implicit authoritarianism and anti-democratic tendencies. For example, one of the things which shocked me over the research I did into SEAL was the way in which the UK Government was prepared to manipulate information, silence critics and base such a potentially large change in education on such flimsy evidence.

Now I see that this is the tip of a huge and worrying iceberg. Will the new politics warm the water, weakening the position of the political class? Time will tell.  

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