Democracy on trial

Peter KellnerPresident
May 16, 2011, 4:33 AM GMT+0

When Nick Clegg opened up a debate about family connections and internships, much of the media responded by reporting the help he had received as a young man through family connections. For once, let us play the ball, not the man. To what extent do people think access to trades and professions are rooted in merit rather than connections? In YouGov’s latest survey for the Sunday Times, we listed six occupations and asked which matters more – what people know and how good they are, or who they know and what contacts they have.

Here is what the public said:

We should not be surprised that the two highly technical occupations, medicine and accountancy, are thought to be the ones where success is based on merit, and that the law, which is more technical than TV dramas generally suggest, comes third.

As for acting and journalism, where the figures are much the same for both, we might deplore the role that connections play; but these are trades that depend ultimately on the audiences they attract – so the risks of choosing the wrong people for the wrong reasons fall upon those who own the newspapers, TV stations, theatres and film studios.

Politics falls into a different category. Whether we look at Britain over the past thousand years* or modern day Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Syria, democracy is supposed to be the antidote to nepotism – whether that nepotism takes the form of a powerful monarch, or a franchise restricted to landowners, or the hereditary peerage, or ‘rotten borough’ constituencies with no genuine voters, or today’s tyrants passing power to their sons.

In today’s Britain, with universal adult franchise, we voters have the power collectively to elect politicians that we believe have the right skills and values to make decisions on our behalf. Yet only eight per cent of us think that the politicians we choose are there on merit.

This is a profoundly shocking finding. It suggests a vast gulf between the political classes and the general public. Politicians are supposed to represent us but most of us regard them as occupying their own separate world of networks and scratch-my-back-and-I’ll-scratch-yours connections. Public faith in the probity of our political system has not been helped by the recent controversies – and, now, criminal convictions – that have been provoked by the expenses saga. But YouGov surveys showed that trust in politics was declining anyway. The rows over Tony Blair and the Iraq war haven’t helped.

Logically, there need be no connections between dishonesty, expense-fiddling and nepotism. None of the politicians that have been prosecuted for stealing money from the public purse is a member of some grand political family. Nor, for that matter, is Tony Blair. But once a body of people lose the respect of the public, they are liable to be condemned in all manner of ways, and not always fairly.

That is the real lesson, and the real concern, prompted by our findings. There is probably no measure by which the public would judge our politicians positively. And it is potentially dangerous when the democratic process is condemned for incubating the very vices that, historically, it was and is supposed to banish.