A Modest Politician

Is Modesty the Best Policy for a Politician? 


Listener: 1 April, 1995. 


Keywords: Political Economy & History; 


“It is not true that only the unfeeling cynic, the vain, the brash, and the vulgar can succeed in politics.” 


Shortly after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, followed by Czechoslovakia‘s “velvet revolution”, the tenants of a Prague apartment received a note from its janitor, apologizing that he would no longer be working for them, but had just been appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs. Like many other dissidents against the communist government he had felt unable to contribute to it intellectually, and undertook manual work in order to earn a living. One of his fellow dissidents, playwright Václav Havel, even spent time in prison. This week Havel visits New Zealand as the president of the Czech Republic. 


One of Havel‘s recurring themes has been that of morality in a political regime, an issue which other Czech writers have explored. Ostensibly they write about sexual mores, but often the story is about the way a politically repressive regime corrupts personal relations. One of their most prominent writers, Ivan Klíma, attended the Wellington Arts Festival last year, including reading from his novel Judge on Trial, which has this theme. (When Klíma was reactivating PEN, the writer’s collective, he was interrogated by the security police. A main concern was Havel should not become president of Czech PEN. Within three months the he was president of the entire state.) 


These morality questions have not gone away, even if the regimes which posed them have. These days Havel is in a tussle with his prime minister, Václav Klaus, an economist, who was also a dissident against the communists, when he worked for the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences. 


Thus far the Czech economy has adjusted to market liberalization better than any other east of the old iron curtain. (The official unemployment rate is around 4 percent.) The reasons include that it was one of the strongest before the revolution, and there was little government debt so that its fiscal position is strong. Moreover the economically weaker part of Czechoslovakia separated off into the Slovak Republic. However Klaus would claim that it is also due to the correctness of his policies. 


Like other economists, Klaus was appalled by the communist’s infringement of orthodox Western economics, and attracted by the rigor and austerity of the version we associate with Mrs Thatcher. I have not read enough about him to be able to judge whether he goes as far as Thatcher’s view that society does not exist, but there is little doubt that he is in deep conflict with Havel who is an ecologically minded social democrat, stressing the virtues of civil society. It is easy to condemn Klaus, drawing attention to the way his crash through philosophy (“speed is more important than accuracy”) appears to have led to corruption and illegality in market transactions. Even so Klaus, like Thatcher, is driven by a morality, albeit a different one to Havel. (We should also remind ourselves that other east-central economies with less hard nosed economic policies are also riven by corruption and illegality.) 


The office of the Czech president is not managerially powerful, which seems to suit Havel because of his vision of moral leadership being key. At this point we get into murky issues of the extent to which political leadership is moral. Klaus is clearly irritated when Havel takes the high ground. How is a politician to respond to the following? 


“If your heart is in the right place and if you have good taste, not only will you past muster in politics, you are destined for it. If you are modest and do not lust after power, not only are you not unsuitable for politics, you belong there. The sine qua non of the politician is not the ability to lie; he need only be sensitive and know when, to whom, what and how to say what he has to say. It is not true that a person of principle does not belong in politics; it is enough for his principles to be leavened with patience, deliberation, a sense of proportion, and an understanding of other. It is not true that only the unfeeling cynic, the vain, the brash, and the vulgar can succeed in politics; all such people, it is true are drawn to politics, but in the end decorum and good taste account for more.” 


While every politician would want to associate her or himself with Havel‘s ideal, each knows we judge them all as cynical, brash, and vulgar. Certainly that is how they seem to behave. 


One is left with a feeling that the idealism is impracticable in a profession where modesty and humility does not win power. Yet that high ground is important. Under the communist regime each person was faced with the uncomfortable choice of dissent or compliance. It would have been easy after the velvet revolution for those who were the genuine dissidents, and suffered greatly and made great sacrifices, to declare vengeance upon those who complied with, and benefited from, the repressive regime. Fortunately Havel has supported a strategy of reconciliation and forgiveness. He is Europe‘s Nelson Mandela.