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The punishment we suffer, if we refuse to take an interest in matters of government, is to live under the government of worse men. —Plato

Politics and government are very different things. They interact, especially at election time, and almost everyone fails to see the difference—even, sometimes, politicians themselves, especially those in opposition, who are able to make promises proportional in size to the unlikelihood of their ever having to be fulfilled. But most responsible politicians recognize the difference between managing the complexities of a large and populous country, and the political endeavour of persuading voters to continue giving their support.

The public see only part of the external face of government. Its ordinary tasks, even those that are done well, rarely find mention in the media, which is hungry for mistakes, problems, lies, evasions, difficulties, conflicts, quarrels, arguments, disasters, miscalculations, personality clashes, and anything else which makes a good story. In consequence the public gets a low impression of politicians. Most politicians are indeed temporizers and opportunists, being either natural-born secondhand car salesmen, which is why they chose politics in the first place, or having been made that way by the grueling and pitiless dog-eat-dog character of the political life. Yet even if, improbably, there were not one single well-intentioned politician in the land, there are two connected things which in the end constrain those who conduct the government: freedom of the press, and the final sanction of the ballot.

If the press is free to seek and exploit the quarrels, difficulties, etc. just mentioned, it is by the same token and sometimes in the same breath able to expose genuine problems. The press indeed justifies its eagle-eyed watch for fissures, frictions and faults in both government and opposition by appeal to its performance of this democratic service. It often enough goes too far, conjuring mountains from molehills (or from nothing), but excess is better than deficit in this instance, because unless the press were absolutely vigilant, the politicians would use their time-honored methods—cover-up, sleight of hand, rationalization—to get away with things. They would think themselves foolish not to.

In consequence, consumers of the media have to exercise their own watchfulness. They have to exercise judgment concerning whether the media are offering a good story or a good point. They also have to balance what they read and hear of political strife with some acknowledgement of the difficulties of running a complicated society in which there are many conflicting interests, and many deserving claims which cannot all be met simultaneously. The easiest thing in the world is to complain from the sidelines; and so unforgiving is the stance of complaint that those on the pitch, in medias res, get scarcely any quarter, still less credit. ‘It is very easy to accuse a government of imperfection,’ Montaigne observed, ‘for all mortal things are full of it.’

The importance of politics to government lies in the spirit, the aspiration, which would-be governors claim they will bring to the task of governing. That is what electors choose between: different visions of how the vast laborious machine will be geared and run, and what directions it will be pointed in, if turning it is a possibility. Genuine differences ensue, because small touches of change at the centre, radiating out into the lives of real individuals, have big effects. One can judge between candidates by remembering Georges Pompidou’s remark that a statesman is a politician who puts himself at his country’s service, whereas a politician is a statesman who puts the country at his own service—or that of a group, usually his own. Among the worst of those who fail to distinguish between politics and government are those who proudly proclaim their determination not to vote. Most do so on the grounds of entirely spurious analogies (‘If two disagreeable boys asked me out, why should I be obliged to accept one of them?’), and all fail to recognize that their abstention might in effect work as a positive vote for the most disagreeable of the two boys. Not much nous is required to see why, but at election time, it seems, that is a commodity in shorter supply than usual.

By Anthony Grayling MA, DPhil (Oxon) FRSL, FRSA is Master of the New College of the Humanities, and a Supernumerary Fellow of St Anne’s College, Oxford.