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2024 elections are looming: Do we expect too much of our politicians?

By Aaron the Humanist

In this article, Aaron delves into the complex landscape of British politics, focusing on the challenges and pitfalls that leaders from various administrations have faced over the years. He questions the unrealistic expectations the public often has of their political leaders, while also exploring the reasons behind shifting political affiliations among young people. He argues that regardless of who is in power, governing a nation is a daunting task fraught with difficult decisions and unforeseen crises. As such, he calls for a more empathetic and realistic understanding of what political leaders can achieve.

A recent report in The Times suggests that young people are not turning conservative as they get older. While I don't challenge the data, I do question the assumptions behind this shift, especially considering the challenges any government would face.

Every administration has faced crises and daunting challenges. Margaret Thatcher contended with miners' strikes and the Falklands War; John Major faced Black Wednesday in 1992 and backbench rebellions over the Maastricht Treaty; Tony Blair had the foot and mouth outbreak of 2001 and the Iraq War on his plate; Gordon Brown battled with the 2008 financial crisis; David Cameron had Afghanistan and the lead-up to the Brexit referendum; and Teresa May had the fall-out from Brexit to navigate. Voters tend to judge political parties by how well they adhere to their principles, keep their manifesto promises, and fulfil their commitments. But governments can easily be blown off course by events.

Boris Johnson had barely warmed his seat, after winning the 2019 election with a thumping majority to 'Get Brexit Done', when the global pandemic struck. This unexpected, although not unforeseeable, event effectively derailed the government's post-Brexit agenda, burying the optimistic vision that had won Johnson his landslide victory. Despite his promises of expansive growth and ambitious projects, he found himself in a position akin to a sinking reality TV star, and he was eventually ousted for misleading Parliament over 'Partygate' events during the Covid lockdown.

His successor, Liz Truss, remained in office for just 44 days. The Ukraine war led to a global gas crisis and a surge in living costs. Together with her Chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, she tried to do too many things at once: stimulate economic growth, help households with a massive energy subsidy, and cut taxes for the rich. A gilts market time bomb blew up simultaneously and the Bank of England had to step in to save the British economy. Public sector strikes added to the sense of crisis. After the fall of Truss, sensible technocrats Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt took the helm, and some calm returned to the markets.

Over the summer of 2023, we experienced a brief respite from the cost of living crisis with reduced heating bills, although food price inflation continued to soar. Eco-protests added to the disruption of daily life for many. The government seemed to be floundering, with each department looking for ways to squeeze more funds out of the Treasury, and the media played its part in portraying the Conservatives as solely to blame for our national problems. Many people seem to believe that their political party would have weathered these storms with better results and that life would be blissful with their team in power.

Just Stop Oil protestors causing inconvenience to the struggling citizens of the UK

Many of my friends accuse me of defending the Conservatives. In reality, my aim is to appreciate the complex issues all governments face. They are the decision-makers, armed with a limited toolkit to manage rapidly-evolving crises. Criticising them is easy; doing a better job is not.

The perception is that the grass is greener on the other side, and that another party would handle things better. But is there really a magical solution? While the honesty of politicians is often debated, no one is perfect. Any government will face scrutiny, possibly more than their predecessors. Maybe it's a good thing that every detail of their personal lives is in the public eye, but should they not be allowed to focus on their jobs – unless they do something which is actually corrupt or illegal?

The public expects high-quality services for the lowest possible taxation. We want our leaders to be paragons of virtue, expecting them to excel in every aspect, from work performance to personal life – even to styles of dress. But these expectations are often unrealistic. The qualities that make someone a compelling leader—charisma and boldness for instance—are the very traits that can lead to an excess of scrutiny and criticism. We want leaders to be just like us, but better, a paradoxical expectation that sets them up for failure.

So, whose fault is it when things go wrong? Are we, the public, also to blame for expecting too much? Would any decent person willingly enter the political arena knowing they will be scrutinized for every minor infraction?

Perhaps it's time to reflect on our expectations. No leader will ever meet every one of them, and that's okay. Our democracy allows us to choose our leaders, but once chosen, maybe it's time to let them get on with the job.

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