Is there really any honour among politicians?

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by Rona Mackay

The trouble with politicians is that you just can’t trust them. Thieving, lying scoundrels, all in it for personal gain and glory and to hell with the common good.

This is not a very honourable description of the decision-makers in our midst, that’s for sure. But it’s a view that’s all too common among the politically disinterested or disaffected in society.  Of course, there has been a steady stream of ne’er-do-wells who have brought great shame to the noble profession, and there always will be.

But are there still men and women of honour out there working in our best interests? Surely they are not all a parcel of rogues in our nation? At least in Scotland we can claim the moral high ground that none of our MSPs are languishing behind bars.

The truth of the matter is that there are many honourable and principled politicians who suffer from being tarred with the same brush as the baddies who abuse their privileged positions and give in to greed and cynicism.

But honour isn’t just about resisting the urge to pilfer from the public purse. It’s about putting the cause – whatever that may mean to an individual – before personal ambition.

The definitions of honour in the dictionary are: the evaluation of a person’s social status as judged by that individual’s community; personal integrity; allegiance to moral principles. Ah yes, principles. Some politicians definitely subscribe to the Groucho Marx school of thought: “Here are my principles – if you don’t like them, I have others.” Nick Clegg/Tavish Scott, anyone? Over the past year the Lib Dems have proven that they can’t even spell p-r-i-n-c-i-p-l-e-s far less stick to them. Iain Gray would stick to them until he had to prise himself loose to do a U-turn, when he felt threatened.

It’s certainly true that many of today’s elected members are career politicians following a familiar path: university, researchers, parliamentary assistants. Bingo. You’ve served your apprenticeship, now here’s your reward – a safe seat in which to ply your trade. But that doesn’t necessarily make them bad people – or bad politicians. By their actions shall ye judge them.

When Kenny MacAskill released terminally-ill Abdelbaset al-Mehrahi from Greenock Prison and allowed him to go back to his homeland to die, it was greeted with outrage from the Opposition. They seized the opportunity to hurl abuse at the Justice Minister and the Nationalists: how could you free this mass murderer; what about the victims; let him rot in jail; you’ve brought shame on Scotland. Blah di blah.

They simply could not believe MacAskill had freed al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds. This was anathema to them and the tabloid press who failed to understand that common humanity can actually exist in the political arena. It does exist in Scotland. We don’t need an eye for an eye. Revenge is not always sweet, it is more often than not ugly and serves no useful purpose.

Kenny MacAskill is not a stupid man. He took the decision knowing the furore it would unleash and political damage it could do. But he acted with integrity, with honour, and he followed his gut instinct that compassion cannot be traded for votes. As the situation in Libya unravels and more facts emerge about the Lockerbie bombing, I have no doubt he will be proved right to follow his instinct, no matter how cynical and hard-bitten his critics remain.

Then there’s the thorny question of knowing when to stand down for the good of the cause, to admit that by staying on as an elected representative you do more harm than good, however personally unjust you think the circumstances to be.

History is littered with politicians – and dictators – who hang on by their fingernails, refusing to budge when everyone around them is screaming at them to go. Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Uncle Tom Cobley and all.

But there are exceptions. Former Transport Minister Stewart Stevenson resigned during the hellish big freeze last year which saw motorists stranded in their cars throughout Scotland.

He was subjected to hysterical personal attacks by the media and treated like a Class A criminal who had deliberately misled the country about the extent of the severe weather conditions. “So when are you going to resign, Transport Minister? When are you going to say sorry? I’ll give you one last chance to say sorry…” a BBC presenter railed.

Within days, Stevenson stepped aside, knowing that the media hype had killed any confidence the public could have in him. In the end, it wasn’t about him, it was about a politician realising that he was not bigger than the Party, that he would not be the catalyst for his Government to suffer a sustained kicking.

There are other men and women of honour: The late Robin Cook and Former International Development Secretary Clare Short quit the Labour Government in protest against the illegal Iraq war; Denis Canavan called it a day when he discovered he was expected to ditch his Socialist principles in a party called New Labour; Tory David Davis took a stand against the erosion of civil liberties in the UK when Gordon Brown forced through the 42-day detention of terrorist suspects.

So yes. There is honour among politicians but there is also a tendency for those of a weak disposition to lose the plot entirely and forget why they are where they are, and who put them there.

Let’s just be thankful we have a Parliament in Edinburgh which is far more accountable and transparent that the one on the banks of the River Thames. The Scottish Government has shown over the past four years that it is not afraid of the big bad wolves who say there is no room for compassion in politics and revert to the populist, knee-jerk reactions of the hang ’em, flog ’em brigade.

The Scottish people – and honourable politicians – are bigger than that.