Sunday, 28 April 2013

Suspicion and Trust

"The Constable was playing it safe by siding with the "A" camp, he knew it would be popular with the St Helier voters and would have been political suicide to have gone with either of the other options."

I read that quotation on a Facebook group. It is, of course, quite untrue. I know the Constable in question from years ago, and the kind of political ideals he had. In fact, I met him quite by chance on a Wednesday night, when he first told me that now the Referendum Law had been  passed by the States, he felt he could justifiably put aside the political neutrality he had to show as President of PPC, and declare his support for Option A. I was probably one of the first to know; he told me that he had just released the news on Twitter.

But there seems to be a tendency in local politics to ascribe dark and hidden motivations to people; there is a hermeneutic of suspicion which does not take politicians at face value.

Politicians, of course, have done much to deserve this. They dissemble, they spin, they don't give a straight answer. Just read Question Time in Jersey's Hansard. We can see the mirror held up to politics in "Yes, Minister". And yet even Jim Hacker has some ideals. Part of his motivation is of course popularity, gaining votes, or support for his party. But if you watch the series, you will see that he also manages on occasion to thwart the civil servants, and actually make some important changes.

Perhaps part of the problem is the high pedestal on which we place political office. We have in our mind an ideal politician, and no real human being is ever going to measure up to that. When they don't we hunt around for a hidden agenda, and try to make sense of their actions. Plain bumbling, mistakes made, and lack of competence rarely are rarely first on this agenda.

And it is here that the darker motives come in. Perhaps they are just out for cheap publicity, or perhaps they have skeletons in the closet, and are being manipulated by dark forces behind the scenes? Here is one submission to the Electoral Commission whose author certainly believes that dark forces, Masonic and Jewish, are the real powers in Jersey:

"Law is not served, justice cannot be done nor seen to be done, whilst democracy is identified as shot through with repeated rumour, suspicion and anecdotal evidence of private conflicts of interest - that often involve the swearing of private oaths to outside bodies of which the public can and will invariably remain totally ignorant."

"We need to keep the Constables of the Parish in politics and each Parish needs to have a right to only Deputies as Senators need to be scrapped as does the Dean who serves a woman as his master not our Lord and God our only true master and so the vows every Constable and Deputy takes need to be to not be a Mason serving a Private oath to the Church of England but to the Public duty to the people of Jersey as well as the Deputies who also need to attest they are not Masonic brothers or serving their Masonic private oaths interests but one true Master and the people of Jersey."

This strange submission (and I am quoting from the more coherent part of it) comes at the extreme end of the conspiracy theorists in Jersey politics; there is a spectrum, but common to them all is the idea that behind the scenes, there are puppet masters pulling strings.

I'm not saying that there never people behind the scenes who seem to have undue influence, and in recent Jersey politics, I'd cite the former Chief Executive of the States, Bill Ogley, who seemed to have a rather unhealthy influence over two Chief Ministers, both of whom were persuaded by him to sign a resignation clause which would leave him half a million pounds better off. But the days of his influence were numbered, and as Terry le Sueur's term of office came towards its end, Mr Ogley invoked the resignation clause and disappeared off into the sunset, £500,000 better off. Mr Ogley certainly seemed to be influential in advising Terry Le Sueur, but his sudden departure shows how limited his influence was over the entire States.

That is very different from positing some kind of secret society which doesn't die out, whose members are replenished over time, and who are always working behind the scenes, secretly pulling strings and making politicians do what they want (except of course for those politicians who are members of this exclusive club).

Of course, the wonderful thing about conspiracy theories is that they are endlessly plastic, capable of fitting almost any circumstances, and wholly beyond any kind of refutation. With regard to Mr Ogley, I am sure some people will argue that he was put in place by the puppet masters, and when he no longer served a useful purpose, he was discarded.

We are not too far here from that paradigm of 1960s paranoia, the TV series "The Prisoner", where the shadowy Number One remained behind the scenes, and only a succession of temporary Number Twos were the public face of authority, but were disposable by their masters.

Joshua Foster, writing in Psychology Today, suggests that conspiracy theories are coping mechanisms:

"conspiracy theories help us cope with distressing events and make sense out of them. Conspiracies assure us that bad things don't just happen randomly. Conspiracies tell us that someone out there is accountable, however unwittingly or secretly or incomprehensibly, so it's possible to stop these people and punish them and in due course let everyone else re-establish control over their own lives. Conspiracies also remind us that we shouldn't blame ourselves for our predicaments; it's not our fault, it's them! In these ways, believing in conspiracies serves many of the same self-protective functions as scapegoating."

Where these have a pernicious effect in politics is that they are like an acid, eating away at trust. On the one hand, you have some former politicians telling us we should "trust politicians we elected to get on with the job" regardless (which seems palpably naive), and on the other, conspiracy theories which tell us we should not trust any politicians - except when they are the ones telling us about the conspiracy theories.

And of course, once trust is lost, it is hard to regain. As Abraham Lincoln said: "If you once forfeit the confidence of your fellow citizens, you can never regain their respect and esteem. It is true that you may fool all of the people some of the time; you can even fool some of the people all of the time; but you can't fool all of the people all of the time."

Trust takes years to build and seconds to shatter. But if we are ever to see better voter turnout in a referendum or an election, we need more trust. And politicians as well need to be more honest, less evasive, less concerned with political point scoring, and learn to trust the goodwill of the public more. Trust works both ways. Time to start building.

In Franco Zeffirelli's wonderful film about the life of St Francis of Assisi, "Brother Sun, Sister Moon", Francis decides to rebuild the ruined chapel of San Damiano. Soon his compatriots are helping him. Zefferelli punctuates the building with the song "If you want your dream to be", and of course, it is not just the church which is being rebuilt, but the community. The ruins are rebuilt stone by stone. There are no shortcuts.

If you want your dream to be,
Build it slow and surely.
Small beginnings greater ends.
Heartfelt work grows purely.

If you want to live life free,
Take your time go slowly.
Do few things but do them well.
Simple joys are holy.

Day by day, stone by stone,
Build your secret slowly.
Day by day, you'll grow, too,
You'll know heaven's glory.

No comments: