Realpolitik is politics defined as
politics based on practical and material considerations, rather than based on ideological or ethical considerations.
Realpolitik has been practiced, to varying degrees, by the West since before the term was coined. It has been predominant since the end of the World War II. Realpolitik has resulted in various nefarious practices, including (but not limited to): seeking out and supporting “strong men” as bulwarks against Communism (and more recently as protectors of Western interests), using aid programmes to prop up or undermine regimes, and deposing democratically elected leaders.
As Brian Crozier says in his 1965 book “South-East Asia in Turmoil”:
In its search for local ‘strong men’, the United States used anti-Communism as a decisive credential… administrative capacity, and even honesty, were less important than unwavering anti-Communism plus willingness to become a partner of the United States. Nor did it matter if a strong man was also an oppressive despot, as Syngmnan Rhee of Korea and Ngo Dinh Diem of Vietnam turned out to be, so long as he kept repeating that he was anti communist.
Or put more succinctly in the apocryphal statement attributed to Franklin D. Roosevelt:
Somoza may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.
(Some claim that this was actually a self-serving statement fabricated by Somoza himself.)
The trouble with realpolitik is that it just does not work. Sure, it can produce short term advantages, but those advantages don’t last, and the long term consequences can be dire. Even a cursory examination of history shows this.
The 1955 partition of Vietnam and the support of President Ngo Dinh Diem – that didn’t work out too well did it? The 1953 overthrow of democratically elected Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh of Iran and his replacement with Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi – that didn’t work out too well either. The subsequent US backing of Saddam Hussein in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, how did that go? The appeasement of Nazi Germany during the 1930s was arguably a form of realpolitik, since an ethical stance against Germany was replaced by a pragmatic one directly seeking peace. That could hardly be called a success. And recent events in the Middle East and North Africa show that the “stability” achieved by supporting despots and kleptocrats is short-lived.
It’s not actually very surprising that realpolitik doesn’t work. If we replace the phrase “practical and material considerations”, with “short term considerations” (since “practical considerations” are effectively things we believe are achievable in the short term) and if we replace “ideological or ethical considerations” with “long term considerations” (since our ideology and ethics is based on how we believe things should be, along with a recognition that those ideals may take some time to achieve), we then find the definition of realpolitik is changed from:
Realpolitik is politics based on practical and material considerations, rather than based on ideological or ethical considerations.
Realpolitik is politics base on short term considerations, rather than long term considerations.
When put like that, it’s not surprising realpolitik doesn’t work.
Advocates and practitioners of realpolitik often accuse those who advocate more ethically based policies of being naive. I argue that it is the practitioners of realpolitik who are simplistic in their belief that long term interests can be achieved by narrowly pursuing short term gains. Real-realists know that to achieve your long term goal you often need to make short term compromises.
It’s time for real-realpolitik. It’s time to recognise that we cannot achieve our long term goals by abandoning them as naive and unrealistic. It’s time to recognise that our foreign policy should have a much larger ethical component, not only because it is “the right thing to do”, but also because it is what works and it is what is in our own long-term self-interest.
The newly formed The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) has consulted on a new system for managing MPs’ expenses. Its proposal is here.
Unlike some government consultation documents, this one is well written, thorough, and takes a neutral analytical approach to the problem. Normally when responding to government consultations I eschew the questions posed, since they set the agenda for the response, often in a way that is biased in favour of the proposed changes. In this case I think the questions are thorough and unbiased, so I have responded by answering the questions.
MPs’ Expenses Consultation – comments from Martin Budden
This document, dated 11th February 2010, contains my response to The MP’s Expenses Consultation, at: http://mpexpensesconsultation.org.uk/
I am commenting as an individual. My name and address is:
Please remove my address in any published form of this document.
Question 1: Do you agree that the CSPL’s principles, supplemented as proposed, should form the basis of the new expenses system?
The principles need to be extended with something based on the statement made in paragraph 1.18 of the consultatoin document, namely: “It is not appropriate for an expenses system to be in any way a substitute for salary increases”. It was the sense of entitlement that came with the view that expenses were a substitute for salary that led to the abuse of the expenses system. With such an extension I agree with the principles.
Question 2: Do you agree with our proposal to concentrate on expenses rather than allowances wherever possible?
Question 3: Do you agree that there should be annual limits to the amount that can be spent from public funds on each of the main elements of our expenses scheme, except for travel and subsistence?
Question 4: Do you agree with our approach to the submission of claims?
Question 5: Are you content with our proposed approach to the publication of claims?
Question 6: Do you support the idea of requiring MPs to produce an annual report on their use of public funds?
No. The IPSA will publish will publish all expense claims, whether paid or not. Requiring the MPs to reproduce an annual report is an unnecessary duplication and waste of taxpayers’ money.
Question 7: We propose that MPs are eligible to claim for accommodation expenses unless their constituency contains a station within London transport zones 1-6. Do you agree with this approach?
Yes, reluctantly. Although this proposal is not ideal, I agree with your assessment that alternative proposals would either be too subjective or too costly to administer.
Question 8: Which of the following is most important in a long-term system for accommodating MPs:
No money passing through MPs’ hands.
Question 9: When should the payment of mortgage interest to existing MPs be ended?
In three years.
Question 10: Do you agree with our proposed approach to accommodation expenses for MPs with caring responsibilities?
Question 11: Do you agree with our proposed list of running costs for accommodation which might be met through public funds?
Question 12: Which of the options that we set out do you favour in providing assurance about claims for travel expenses?
Options2: MPs would need to list the date of each journey, its start and end, the distance covered and the reason for it.
Question 13: Do you agree with our approach to travel by public transport, including ordinarily travelling standard class?
Question 14: We propose to prohibit the use of public funds in the employment of family members by MPs. Do you agree with this approach?
I don’t think the prohibition goes far enough. The definition of family members should also include uncles, aunts, nieces and nephews. There should also be a prohibition on MPs employing family measures of other MPs. This is because MPs have proved particularly devious at abusing the rules – I can see a system where two MPs agree to employ each others’ relatives to get around the rules. I could even see MPs forming ‘cooperatives’ where MPs employed relatives of other MPs in the cooperative to get around the rules.
Question 15: We propose that IPSA should prohibit MPs from renting from, or purchasing goods or services from, members of their families. Do you agree with this approach?
Again, I don’t think this prohibition goes far enough (see my answer to question 14). The definition of family members should also include uncles, aunts, nieces and nephews. MPs should be prohibited from renting from, or purchasing goods or services from, members of their families or members of the families of other MPs.
Question 16: Do you agree with our proposed approach to communications expenditure?
Question 17: Do you believe there should be any form of payment in the event of an MP leaving Parliament, either voluntarily or otherwise?
Yes, I think MPs should receive a payment on leaving Parliament. A Parliament that has a healthy turnover of MPs is better than a Parliament that contains a large number of career politicians. A payment to MPs on leaving Parliament would help encourage this turnover.
Question 18: What impact do you believe our proposals might have on the diversity of representation in the House of Commons?
Your proposals will reduce the proportion of MPs that are members of the criminal class.
Question 19: Are there further areas we should consider which have not been referred to in this consultation?
Yes. A number of areas:
1) The system should recognise that mistakes can be made and should allow MPs who have made an honest mistake to correct that mistake without being labeled as corrupt.
2) One of the problems with the old system of expenses was that members of the Commons Fees Office were intimidated by MPs. The consultation document does state what measures are proposed to prevent the IPSA from being intimidated by MPs.
3) The consultation document makes no mentions of what sanctions will be applied to MPs who are found to break the new rules. The sanctions need to be able to deal with honest mistakes by MPs (where the sanction would involve repayment and perhaps additional oversight) and deliberate exploitation of the expenses system.
Update 2, 29th March 2010
IPSA has published the New Expenses Scheme for MPs here. The scheme is published in an extremely difficult to read format, and there is no facility to download the scheme in its entirety. My initial response is that I am disappointed, especially because the scheme allows MPs to employ a relative.
Much of the discussion around the release of the Lockerbie bomber has focused on the questions of “Should he have been released?” and “Why was he released?” – Was there a case for compassionate release? Should we ever release prisoners on compassionate grounds? Did Gordon Brown put pressure on the Scottish Government? Was there some kind of deal with Libya?
I’d like to talk about something else: who made the decision to release Abdelbaset al-Megrahi?
The decision to release al-Megrahi was made by Kenny MacAskill, the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Justice and an elected Member of the Scottish Parliament. A politician. And there’s the rub: as long as a politician is the final decision maker over the liberty or detention of an individual, that decision is politicised. The decision maker is subject to political pressure, and even if they act with absolute integrity, they are subject to political backlash and accusations of political bias.
It is just plain wrong that a politician can decide to release or further detain a prisoner. Such decisions should be made by the judiciary (or in the case of parole, by the parole board).
The decision about whether to release al-Megrahi should have been made by a judge, or a panel of judges.