Why do we hate our leaders so much?

Why do we hate our leaders so much? Why do we go after them with quite so much ill-concealed relish? Caroline Spelman, the Conservative Party chairman, is the latest politician to be run over by the sententious juggernaut of punctiliousness tearing its way through the polity, the last in a line of politicians cast in the role of swindling, unscrupulous politician. Before her there was Tory MEP, Giles Chichester; before him Wendy Alexander, then Peter Hain, each of them a flagrant example of the bizarre – but apparently ubiquitous phenomenon – of the “capitalist politician”: men and women running their political careers as if they were one-(wo)men PLCs pursuing the bottom-line.

One has to ask at this stage, with the newspapers desperate to expose any infraction of the rules no matter how innocuous and footling: just how ridiculous is this going to get? Is a Tory frontbench spokesman going to have to resign amidst howls of synthetic indignation for accepting a nice bottle of wine from a grateful constituent at Yuletide? Is a Secretary of State going to be cashiered for surreptitiously taking home one of Her Majesty’s Government’s Bic biros in his red ministerial box? It worries me greatly that people cannot see this for the side-show that it is – an inane politics of recriminatory pedantry. If people are unable to grasp that there are greater injustices to be angry about, more important issues to recur to continually and more egregious political sins, then I want to know what our politics is coming to.

We need to gain a sense of perspective about these things: both about the extent of the corruption in our politics and about its importance in the wider political context. The British political system is one of the cleanest political systems in the world. There is so little bribery, purchasing of influence, vote-rigging and violence that British politics lacks utterly the glamour and perceived danger of politics in America, or Russia or Latin America. British politics is bland, wan, bloodless, miserly – a sort of caricature of the British national character. Wherever you are, no matter how strict the rules, no matter how prohibitive the political culture, no matter how nauseatingly virtuous people are there will be some measure of corruption. Expenses will become a little bloated; the line between what it is legitimate to claim and what illegitimate will come to seem just a little fuzzy. But that’s what we have in this country: the bare, boring minimum of corruption below which the cost of still further reducing corruption outweighs the benefits. That is no cause for hysteria; in fact, it is a reason for a real sense of satisfaction – pride, even – in British politics that one, of course, never sees.

Because just imagine how easy it would be for our politics to be completely deformed by corruption and money. Our politicians, in a country of plutocratic hedge fund managers and Russian billionaire oligarchs, don’t earn very much. Our political parties are desperate for money (the prospective General Secretary of the Labour Party didn’t take the job in the end because he was worried that the party would go bankrupt and that he would be personally liable). The first-past-the-post electoral system means that the outcome of a general election is effectively determined by a very small – and quite easily identifiable – number of swing voters in marginal constituencies. And the electoral system is parlously insecure: postal ballot fraud is by all accounts childishly easy and to vote in person still doesn’t require photo-ID, as opposed to, say, getting access to Cambridge University Library which does. If our political culture were different politics could easily come to be dominated by big money, fraud and corruption.

You might argue that the extent to which British politics is exposed justifies the hysteria as a sort of defence mechanism. It doesn’t. It necessitates vigilance, not the proportionless Puritanism and feigned squeamishness that affects to be appalled every time it runs up against the banal shortcomings of human nature. The problem here at a fundamental level is our attitude to politicians. This attitude is beset by paradox: there is no group that we think of as being more lowly and scoundrelly and self-interested than politicians, and yet there is no group from whom we expect more high-minded, disinterested standards of service. Two models of the politician have been superimposed balefully on top of each other. One is the politician as stage villain: a squalid, greedy, fixer or demagogue; a power-hungry egotist who seeks office solely because of what he can get out of it. The other is an essentially aristocratic notion which represents politicians as the best men of the community called upon to disinterestedly serve their peers, enjoined like Maximus in Gladiator to give up the selfish comforts of private life in deference to an ethic of public service. In one breath we express the belief that politicians should be held to the most stringent of standards and in the next we execrate them for being the class of human being most incapable of living up to any standard at all.

I think that both of these constructions are ideal types unsuitable for blanket application. On the whole politicians are much more like anyone else that you might meet than they are like stage villains or aristocrat-politicians. The former conception, though, is in the ascendant at the moment and is the one most in need of debunking. If politicians wanted power and money, an easy life of decadence, glamour and command, they would be singularly foolish to enter politics. The vast majority of politicians fail. Most never make it into Parliament; instead they spend their lives in unheated community halls putting leaflets futilely into envelopes and attending raffles with extraordinarily dull people who expect them to pretend to an interest in their lives. If they do make it past the long years of unpaid, tedious labour they then have to face the difficulties of climbing the ministerial ladder (if their party is in government) whilst simultaneously humouring and placating their constituents. In fact, there is an awful lot of humouring and placating to do. If they ever make it into a ministerial or a Cabinet position the likelihood is that they won’t remain there long; that structural constraints will prevent them making much of a personal impression; and that they will leave burnt-out, embittered and discredited. Politics uses people up; it is an unkind mistress, the sort that only a masochist would choose. I exaggerate for effect, but I exaggerate on the right side. Politics is being poisoned by people’s misrepresentation of politicians – they need to come to understand that Parliament is no longer a sinecure: MP is a difficult job to get in the first place, which requires one to live in two different places and work very long hours and which rarely ends well.

Let me give a further illustration of the damage that unfairly negative perceptions of politicians do to our politics. In his interview with Jimmy Carter, published in The Guardian today, Jonathan Freedland writes:

These past three decades of work – too long to be the twilight of Jimmy Carter – also raise a fascinating question about politics itself: why is it that those slammed, whether for weakness or shabby compromises in office, so often flourish once outside it? Why is it that Al Gore was able to become the world’s leading advocate of action on climate change only after he turned his back on electoral politics? Why is it that Carter looms larger the further behind him the White House recedes?’

The answer is that on some level we see the role of professional politician as being morally corrupting. When the same person ceases to play that role and brings themselves to our attention in another way as an elder statesman, an environmentalist or – as in Michael Portillo’s case – a media personality we are much more receptive to them. It is as if there is a collective blindness that afflicts us when it comes to looking at politicians – we simply cannot see them apart from their role; and as soon as the veil is lifted we are able to see these men and women as what they really are. When the contamination is as blatant as that, when we are so clearly falling into irrationalism, surely we can acknowledge that the time has come to rehabilitate our politicians? Let’s try and see each politician for what they are in their specificity: some of them fools, some of them heroes, some of them charlatans, some of them leaders, but probably most of them mediocrities and complex characters not best summed up by a single Dickensian epithet.

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4 Responses to “Why do we hate our leaders so much?”

  1. Barrie Singleton Says:

    All hail! I come from the Newsnight blog bearing a puzzled frown. I have just read “Why do we hate our leaders so much?” I long ago gave that up for the much more valid hatred of us. There are politicians and the causes of politicians – we are the latter. While voters vote for rosettes, any changes will be of little account. It is poignant that the first Reith lecture of 2008 was on Confucius. Britain, under a Westminster ethos, is declining in competent, adult behaviour (“virtue” in Confucian terms) in pursuit of production and consumption. It will not be bad behaviour of politicians that sinks us but individual incompetence. Culturally we have broken faith with Nature and at every step move further from PSYCHOLOGICAL sustainablity. All focus is now on the physical/material, but the one does not yield the other.

  2. adammcnestrie Says:

    I suspose I don’t see the spiritual and the political as being quite so clearly intermeshed as that. Perhaps that is because I tend to dismiss the spiritual. And certainly I dimiss any normative conception of Nature. There are no lessons to learn from ‘Nature,’ no laws to be discovered, no design: nature is just what happens to have happened.

    I think that to talk of our politics having been corrupted by a focus on production and consumption is much more fruitful. The Westminster ethos is a business ethos and the Brownian ideal is sadly narrow and economistic. But what we need is not to respiritualise politics, but to rehumanise it.

  3. Barrie Singleton Says:

    Spiritual?

  4. adammcnestrie Says:

    I don’t know – you were talking about Confucianism and the way that we’ve broken our faith with nature. I thought you were coming on all spiritual…

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