Where have all the good politicians gone?
Published by UnHerd (1st July, 2020)
Tony Blair has had the most successful career of any politician since Margaret Thatcher. He won three general elections, reshaped the country and became a major global figure, before going on to make a substantial fortune promoting himself and his views around the planet. So it was intriguing to read in an interview this weekend that he would be “really worried” if any of his children decided to follow him along the path of power in Westminster. In any case, while all his four children were “politically committed”, none wanted to go near parliamentary politics.
Blair bemoaned the declining calibre of today’s political class, adding that it was so poisoned by social media that he would be especially worried if his daughter decided on becoming an MP.
This is a depressing commentary on our times. What does it say about Britain’s political system when someone who so obviously thrived in it, someone who remains an astute analyst of electoral currents, feels so despondent about the harshness of its environment?
We need the best possible people in politics, so it is a problem if there is a dwindling talent pool. Look at the cabinet and there seems an obvious dearth of quality, which may help explain our country’s disastrous response to coronavirus. I asked several leading business figures which ministers they might like to employ; all struggled after a couple of obvious names at best. “The quality has definitely sunk far lower,” said Steve Richards, author of The Prime Ministers: Reflections on Leadership from Wilson to May. “Whatever your opinion, whether Left or Right, this cabinet looks the least substantial of the last 100 years.”
Every generation complains about its leaders; no doubt some Victorian analysts bemoaned that Disraeli and Gladstone were useless compared with Pitt, Peel and Palmerston. There are also always some time-servers, obsequious careerists and dunderheads. But just take a look around the cabinet table and compare that callow collection with the giants seen on both side of the tribal divide throughout the 20th century, many from generations forged by awful war or economic collapse and driven by deep sense of public service. Our post-war education secretaries, for instance, included Quintin Hogg, Anthony Crossland, Thatcher, Shirley Williams, Sir Keith Joseph, Ken Baker, Ken Clarke, David Blunkett, Alan Johnson, Ed Balls, Michael Gove and Justine Greening. Today it is Gavin Williamson.
There are some obvious reasons for this sorry state of affairs. Brexit reshaped the Conservative party, forcing out several heavyweight figures. Boris Johnson runs a highly partisan operation, a sign of insecurity that permits no dissent. Labour endured the Corbyn nightmare and Momentum takeover, which sparked despair among moderate MPs. Both parties have hardened ideologically at local level, so people of differing opinions cannot win selection despite representing swathes of their side’s traditional terrain.
Yet the roots of this crisis go deeper, revolving around the nature of politics in an age of coarsening discourse. One obvious problem is social media, which fuels tribal division and fosters aggression especially against ethnic minority and female MPs. “The abuse I get is horrendous,” said Labour’s Naz Shah. “I accept I’ve made a couple of mistakes, none of which were intentional, but it’s become normal to get horrible stuff all the time. Last week I was told to go back to Pakistan, then told I was racist. You have to have an almost psychotic desire to change the world to endure this abuse. The average person would step away.”
Then there is the changing nature of the job. The Tories have adopted the Liberal Party style of pavement politics over the past decade. This led to a shift towards MPs, especially in marginal seats, serving as local representatives rather than seeking to become national voices. Meanwhile well-connected advisers and A-listers were handed the safest seats. “For the past four general elections, CCHQ has increasingly co-opted safe seats for the favoured view, supplying associations with narrow, heavily-vetted shortlists,” said one long-serving member of the party board. “In the ’92 election a safe seat would often receive upwards of 300 CVs but by 2019 this was managed down to three. Open selections are deemed to carry too much risk as they can’t be guaranteed to produce the right result.”
This Tory said marginal seats reflect the “collapsing attraction” of parliamentary politics — but even winnable seats now receive fewer applications than in previous decades. “Too much risk for too low a status.” Much debate has focused on pay, but politics can never offer competitive rates for talent against worlds such as law and finance. “Successful people are willing to take a step back on salary for status and job satisfaction,” he said. “Strip those away and what is left?”
Their workload, like in so many professions, has increased and comes with a ceaseless deluge of emails — often organised by campaigning charities and pressure groups — and a constant struggle to escape their endlessly bleeping phones. In the chilling words of one female Labour MP: “Who wants to be away from the family and work all the time only to get death threats?” They also face pressure to concentrate on issues of local concern. “Once an MP could have got away with focusing on foreign affairs all the time if they wanted, but not now,” said a Tory backbencher. It is valid to ask whether this blinkered approach, however logical, is always best for the nation’s interests?
Another senior Tory MP put it starkly, with an apology for his pessimism: “The job is about survival,” he said. “It has become very, very attritional which is emotionally draining and physically taxing. It is a state of constant warfare that eats away at your self-worth. You are frightened the whole time — it’s like being under siege. We’ll end up only with people that have rhino skins rather than caring. Meanwhile demands on your time from constituents are constantly accelerating and much of it is not doing the helping of people that gives such satisfaction.”
When I ask this Brexiteer, a respected figure across Westminster, if there had been an impact on the calibre of people in politics, his reply was unequivocal. “Of course it has gone down. You can see that on all sides.” Perhaps the only way forward is to accept the decline and open up cabinet posts from outside parliament, subject to accountability. Yet this feels defeatist and counter to our democratic traditions.
I have met many decent and dedicated people in politics. Yet the prevailing view of the public — inflamed by the scandal over expenses, the banking crisis and Brexit — is to see Westminster as filled with duplicitous self-servers who all deserve scorn. One Tory MP who has focused energy on fighting racism, often in unfashionable areas such as mental health, told me he was frustrated by being repeatedly called racist due to anger on the ground. Such attitudes have been fuelled by the media, symbolised by the idea Jeremy Paxman approached all political interviews asking himself: “Why is this lying bastard lying to me?” Perhaps like many columnists, writing fast in the heat of the moment, I have gone overboard myself at times.
One poll last year found just four per cent of respondents feel properly represented in national politics. Yet studies have found women are only half as likely as men to be interested in standing for political office while poorer, less well-educated and working-class people tend to be less ambitious politically. People with disabilities are rarely seen and woefully failed by Westminster. Efforts to open up institutions, however, seem to have had less impact than expected. This will lead to “an intensification of anti-political feeling and a perceived growth in the distance separating those involved in political life from those who are not”, concluded a 2018 paper for Political Quarterly by academics Peter Allen and David Cutts. “Neither of these things should be accepted… in a healthy democracy.”
It is too simplistic to solely blame either traditional or social media for the steady corrosion of politics in this country. Both are influential, of course, but ultimately they inflame already existing attitudes in wider society. Now there are reports Downing Street plans to use worsening cultural conflicts for its own political advantage, a selfish and short-termist strategy. Yet as James Johnson, former pollster for Theresa May, told me, the public want to see more political consensus rather than division, especially on the big issues. “I saw this for myself at No 10 — people don’t operate in the partisan bubbles seen at Westminster.”
I glimpsed the hideous strength of this bubble during my brief formal time in party politics as David Cameron’s speechwriter. On the night of the 2010 coalition deal, I suggested to the new Prime Minister that he might exploit the new collegiate style of politics by allowing MPs to speak more freely on issues rather than forcing them to parrot party lines. He paused briefly, then shook his head and said it was impossible.
I remain convinced it is the remorseless spin, rooted in tribalism, that is so destructive for politics and sets the tone for much of the national debate. Ironically, a big chunk of the blame lies with Blair, who made much of Tory politicians’ personal problems under John Major — then unleashed a ruthless spin operation after winning office and deceived the public over Iraq, further eroding public trust.
This combative tribal stance is a world away from the reality of most people’s lives. It is anachronistic in an age in which traditional party loyalties have broken down. It also stops Westminster finding solutions to some of our most intractable problems, such as fixing the social care crisis, building sufficient homes or tackling drug addiction.
One of the finest political initiatives I have covered as a journalist was a prison reform process in Texas that spread nationwide and took the sting from the US criminal justice debate — and it began when a pair of politicians from opposing sides put aside their differences to find a solution to spiralling use of incarceration.
I was struck when Jerry Madden, a veteran Republican, explained to me how they started by working out where they disagreed, laid those issues to one side, then focused on their common ground to fix a problem that had become a costly failure destroying lives.
Is it really so naive to suggest that our own politicians might sometimes put national interests before their own sectarian struggles to solve the biggest issues? In this country, even at this time of grave crisis, our leaders talk of bold change and disruption but fear being challenged or the slightest dissent. And instead of reaching across the divides, we all end up retreating deeper into our bunkers, fuming with disgust at our foes and frothing with fury over political failures.