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Of politicians … and poo


Here are the percentages of people who say that they ‘trust’ different professions:

Doctors: 92; Teachers: 88; Professors: 80; Judges: 75; Clergy/Priests: 75; Scientists: 72; TV News Readers: 66; the Police: 61; the Ordinary Man/Woman in the Street: 56; Pollsters: 51; Civil Servants: 48; Trade Union Officials: 41;Business Leaders: 31; Government Ministers: 22; Politicians in General: 20; Journalists: 19.

Note that Doctors, Teachers and (amazingly) Professors do well, Government Ministers and Politicians in general badly – almost as badly as Journalists.  You might say that this is no surprise, given the 2009 expenses scandal, but these are in fact data from Ipsos-Mori from 2006, before we’d ever heard of duck ponds and moats.  The effect of expenses was to push politicians below journalists, but it was not as if they were falling from a great height.

There’s a voluminous (and growing) literature looking at why we have such a low opinion of politicians. In all of this, we sometimes miss one crucial distinction (one of many, really) between politicians and these other professions.  It is that politicians are the only ones engaged in systemically attacking and criticising the others, as an integral part of their profession.

You saw a good example of this yesterday, when the latest set of parliamentary expenses were released.  A constant complaint from the political class is that – whilst they accept that much of the behaviour in the past was wrong – many perfectly legitimate claims can be made to look bad.  They ask, constantly, for a more level-headed, and fair, discussion of what constitutes legitimate expenditure.

Yet yesterday the Conservative Press Office put out four tweets (from @ToryPressHQ), helpfully pointing out Labour MPs who had either had claims rejected or had made what could (on the face of it) look like embarrassing claims.

One of these claims involved Chuka Umunna, the MP for Streatham, and his claim for around £40 for loo roll and soap.  Frankly, I found it a relief to discover that the saintly Mr Umanna ever did something as vulgar as having a poo.  But more generally, this is a claim for the running of his office – and so we assume that his staff will occasionally need to go to the loo.  Or, as the Lib Dem blogger Mark Pack pointed out, does this mean that at Conservative Campaign Headquarters, staff are expected to supply their own loo roll?  This is, to be fair, quite a lot of toilet paper (Sainsbury’s do nine rolls for just under 4 quid, and liquid soap for a pound a bottle), but Umunna is clearly a Safety First man, determined never to run out.

Philip Cowley

Published inBritish Politics


  1. if you think that politicians are the only profession on that list to engage in mutual criticism then you’re simply ignorant. they might be the only to engage in infantile mudslinging, but that’s very different. science and medicine are built on mutual criticism of each others ideas and practices, to the extent that this is hardwired in as the core of many of our institutions, more here:

  2. Ben, I think there is a qualitative difference between the process of mutual criticism operated in academia and medicine and that which operates in politics.

    For one thing, politics is a lot more visceral. Academics do not (on the whole) try to convince people that their opponents are vile, selfish, greedy, hypocritical, criminal liars. All of which would be par for the course in a typical politician’s attack.

    For another thing, politicians aims their critiques at a broader audience. Every academic has received hostile reviews, or a roasting at a conference, it is part of the job. But I doubt the wider public have much awareness of this – peer review does not take place on live television or in the press. Politicians, by contrast, aim their attacks at the broadest possible audience.

  3. Fair point: my phrasing was off. What I meant was that politicians are the only ones engaged in systemically attacking and criticising people’s behaviour – trustworthiness, honesty etc – rather than their ideas. For sure, academics et al engage in debate about ideas, but are much less likely to engage in ad hominem attacks. And whilst peer review can get heated at times, it tends to be much less public than politicians’ attacks which are designed for public consumption.

    So maybe it should say something like:

    It is that politicians are the only ones engaged in systemically attacking and criticising the behaviour of their fellow professionals – their honesty, their integrity – as an integral part of their profession, and they do so in attacks that are specifically designed for public consumption.

    Does that make me less ignorant?

  4. Paul Heywood Paul Heywood

    Talking of corruption and poo, Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) – renowned worldwide for its thoroughness and effectiveness – outlined in a recent report how it had been called in to investigate a bulk order of toilet rolls for the whole civil service. When it was weighed, it was found that two departments had received fewer toilet rolls than they had ordered. The ICAC was informed and questioned both public officials and the contractor. The contractor said that it was possible that the departments had received fewer toilet rolls than they had requested because his machinery did not produce standard number of toilet rolls. He said that some departments would most likely have received more than they ordered. When the ICAC checked with other departments, sure enough they found this to be correct. The contractor was required to make up the shortfall to the departments which had not received the proper amount.

    I owe this particular piece of arcanum to Professor Ian Scott, who presented a fascinating paper at a workshop on ‘Controlling Corruption in Greater China: Practices and Trends’, which I attended last week at City University of Hong Kong.

    The public don’t hugely trust government or its officials in Hong Kong either, but they *do* trust the ICAC!

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