Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Turncoats make enemies but they also make news

February politics in Canada warmed up briefly last week. Rocco Rossi, a prominent Liberal, switched to join the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party. He’d been the Liberal Party’s national fund-raiser, an early booster of Michael Ignatieff, a Toronto mayoralty candidate—and is a promising ideas man, with a healthy ego.
However, without any evident change in his values or in his nature, Rossi became a changed man when he changed partisan affiliation last week. And none of the changes appear attractive to his critics.
One columnist in Toronto imagined his darkest thoughts: “My political ambition is as naked as my exquisitely smooth bald head.” Jane Taber, who reports on real events as well as gossip in Ottawa, captured a classic recital on court manners:
“Most political conversions yield the same result; one party looks good, one party looks bad, the individual looks poorer in the eyes of all,” said Ian Davey, former chief of staff to Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff. "I'd say politics runs on loyalty and trust, but it doesn't anymore."
Taber’s story ran with the headline: “Former Ignatieff lieutenant’s defection leaves bad taste in Liberal mouths.” Was Rossi simply being rude? Is taste the issue? Surely, journalists—who feast on the wilful, the politicians who break the mould and surprise us—ought to laugh at such prim statements and, if anything, offer a little encouragement to trouble-makers like Rocco Rossi.
Loyalty, in good times and bad, is still highly prized in partisan politics. Leaders can change their staff and closest confidents. Unhappy partisans can go “anonymous” and talk to Ms. Taber. But, jumping ship is taboo. Nevertheless, loyalty doesn’t make news. It rarely tips the balance in a fight and almost by definition doesn’t lead to change or progress.
Switchers aren’t like weather vanes. Their moves don’t necessarily reveal where future political success lies. Indeed, ratting to the Liberal Party these days doesn’t necessarily work either. Nevertheless, as in any market, it’s the switchers, the independent thinkers and personal calculators that keep politics alive to change and cynics on their toes.
It’s inconsistent to fret about attracting exceptional people to politics while scolding the ones who switch. Exceptional people are never just team players. Obviously, abandoning your party and joining the opposing side takes a big ego, as well as personal courage. Egoists like Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt, Pierre Trudeau and RenĂ© Leveque that make politics the great sport it is.

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