The Fallacy of the National Interest

If you follow politics at all you will be familiar with the mantra of ‘putting country before party’. At first glance it’s an eminently sensible and patriotic approach. However, I contend that this has become a dangerous and anti democratic device. It is a school of thought used to suck politicians in and it is anything but good for a country.

Many people support political parties. If you do it is generally for a host of reasons. You might believe in the ideology, you might like the leader, you might trust the local representative, but whatever the reason, you believe this party is the right one for the country. If you support their left or right wing thinking, for example, it is because you believe that is what the country needs. There is no dividing the interests of the country from the interest of your party. What is good for one must be good for the other. If this were not the case then everything would be a sham. Liberals would be happy in a conservative country; left wingers would applaud right wing decisions. It would be absurd. Therefore, you have to try make your party successful if you believe that it is their policies or people that can benefit the country.

There are those who do not lower themselves to grubby party politics however. Many in the media, academia and most of all in the civil service. For these people party politics is a silly game. Petty stuff. They have a ‘helicopter view’ of politics or so they say. They are ‘above’ all that. It is usually from such quarters that the call comes to ‘put the country first’. What does it even mean though? It is invariably used as a means of getting some policy through that people don’t agree with. It is used as a way of guilting politicians into selling out whatever it was they believed and implementing someone else’s policies ‘for the good of the country’.

I witnessed this at many times in politics. At no point was it more heightened than in the recent financial crisis. Ireland needed an election. It needed strong government with a mandate for such sweeping policies. The Fianna Fail led government however would not hold an election. Had they put the party interests first, then an election was the smart move at a much earlier point. It would also have benefitted the country to do so. The problem was that Ministers became convinced that they had to hang in there, keep passing budgets and policies for ‘the good of the country’. When it was pointed out that the party was dying, the mantra was rolled out that ‘we have to do this, the party comes second.’

It was a form of blindness. The current government has it too. Whether it’s the EU or civil servants talking they find themselves retreating from party positions to take a government line. That line is always the same. That line will sacrifice any party ideology, any personal belief and any career on the basis that ‘the country needs it’. Nobody asks if it’s truly what the country needs. Who is the judge that sits and decides exactly which policies are in the national interest and which are mere partisan squabbling. The Labour party has sacrificed much in recent years to honour this new mantra. The idea is sold that the only good government is long term stable government. Yet many of our most successful governments and most impactful ones have been short term governments or ones with a narrow majority that lived in fear of collapse. The Celtic Tiger from ’87 to 2000 was built on short term governments or governments with precarious majorities of all hues. It was lost by longer term and more stable governments. The Labour party will enter an election pact with Fine Gael on the belief that this too is good for the country even if it’s not good for the party.

More worryingly, politicians have become obsessed with this idea. The more unpopular a decision is the more patriotic it must be. The better it must be for the country. There is no doubt but that good government is often about taking unpopular decisions. That should not be confused with judging a policy by its level of unpopularity. Some unpopular decisions are just bad decisions. Sometimes your party is right and sacrificing you party on the altar of nationhood serves neither you nor country.

You can’t always be popular in politics. You have to offend people and do things they don’t like. That said you are either in a party because you believe it brings something different or else you believe that there is a higher law at play that over rules that. If so then it doesn’t matter what party you belong to. They will all end up having to do ‘the right thing’. Parties exist for a reason; politicians are there for a reason. It’s time they started believing in themselves or got off the pitch and left it to those who ‘know better’.

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