Saturday, September 08, 2007


Are We Too Tough On Our Politicians?

We live in an age of disrespect for politicians. I recall when Richard Dimbleby used to address the prime minister, humbly, as 'Sir'; the decline of deference has changed all that. Taking our cue from interviewers who arrogate to themselves, on our behalf, the right to brow-beat and occasionally abuse, we choose to see them as 'knaves and fools', as Peter Hyman suggests:

Lying, arrogant, aloof, egotistical, obsessive, out of touch, philandering, false, hypocritical, untrustworthy, shameless, freebie-grabbing scoundrels. Those are some of the more polite terms thrown at politicians. And it's taken for granted that "they're only in it for themselves" and "they're all the same". Resignation piled on cynicism too often now passes for political commentary.

He argues that this is at variance with his experience as a Number 10 aide:

The vast majority of politicians I have worked with believe in public service. They are driven by ideals and a desire to serve, rather than by power or any of the very few perks of office.

I tend to agree with this; having interviewed some 40-50 senior politicians in pursuit of my research, I have not found one I would class as a 'wrong un'. In fact British politics is remarkable for the absence of corruption or criminal tendencies; something we should recognise and applaud, rather than erupting with anger and sanctimony whenever some minor infraction is discovered. But should we then, seek to reclaim the deference of the fifties?

Of course not. Estelle Morris tells a tale of a recently elevated Cabinet colleague of whom she enquired: 'What are they really like then?' The reply was: 'The good news is, they're just like us; the bad news is, 'they're just like us': a wonderfully ambiguous but accurate analysis. Just like normal people, politicians are kept on the road of rectitude by rules which we accept as legitimate. Hyman assures us:

Ultimately we are served not by clowns or villains but passionate, hardworking, intelligent, often eccentric, sometimes mistaken individuals. What more do you need for entertaining drama?

History shows that if we allow human beings too much power, they will almost always come to exploit it. So we must remain very much on our guard. But just as we would not think of treating a doctor or a teacher with sneering, abusive scepticism, then so we should treat our politicians with respect and appreciate that they are doing a job at which very few of us would excel or even enjoy.

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