Melanie Phillips, Michael Portillo and me

Mel P was sensible on Moral Maze, but Michael P behaved ridiculously.

I turned up on Radio 4's Moral Maze last night. The other "witnesses" were the former Sun political editor George Pascoe-Watson, the Tory blogger Iain Dale and the philosophy writer Mark Vernon.

On Michael Buerk's panel were the ultra-conservative columnist Melanie Phillips, the former Tory cabinet minister Michael Portillo, the conservative Catholic commentator Clifford Longley and the liberal contrarian Kenan Malik. So much, as I've often said, for the Beeb's so-called left-wing bias.

You can listen to the show here.

The subject of the programme, in the wake of the Gordon Brown/Piers Morgan interview and, of course, the recent row over "bullying" inside No 10, was "personality politics" -- do we have too much of it? Has it become a crude substitute for ideological debate and discussion?

I happen to think it has. Political coverage has been reduced to which leader has the nicest smile, whose wife wears the best clothes, and who can emote best in reality-TV-style interviews with the likes of Piers Morgan and Alan Titchmarsh. Voters are told to vote for the guy they "like" or identify with, rather than the guy who can best run the economy and best govern the country.

Here is the peerless Roy Hattersley, writing in this week's New Statesman:

Policies have become less important than personalities. Image has taken the place of ideas. Rawnsley is a paradigm figure from the age in which parliamentary reporting has been replaced by "sketch-writing" -- an attempt to amuse rather than to inform. The End of the Party debases politics not because it diminishes the Prime Minister, but because it reduces what should be a debate about great issues into a gossip column.

. . . It may be naive to believe that, in the age of reality television, politics should still provide something more noble than the parliamentary equivalent of mud-wrestling. But unless politicians return to the conflict of ideas, democracy itself will be devalued, and the Andrew Rawnsleys of this world will make their money by suggesting that elections should be decided by which party leader the voters would most like to see evicted from a Westminster edition of I'm a Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here!.

Hear, hear!

The problem on the Moral Maze last night, however, was a lack of definition. Neither the panellists nor the witnesses seemed to be able to agree how to define "personality" or "personality politics". I happened to agree with Melanie Phillips -- for the first time in my life! -- when she said, right at the outset:

There is a difference between personality and character . . . but the exploitation of sentiment and emotion by politicians is something that has gone too far.

She's absolutely, 100 per cent, correct. (Whoaaaah! There's a sentence I never thought I'd write: "Melanie Phillips is right." I think I can't breathe . . . )

But Michael Portillo wasn't happy with my argument. He went on and on about Iraq and how Tony Blair's personality had mattered in the run-up to the decision to invade Iraq, not policy issues. The lesson of the Iraq war, he argued, was that it was important to "understand the character of Tony Blair".

Really? Portillo, of course, supported the disastrous and illegal invasion in 2003 and (wrongly) predicted that all would be fine in postwar Iraq. So perhaps, on the contrary, he should have studied the issues (WMDs, UN resolutions, postwar reconstruction, etc) more, focused on the policy more, and not simply been seduced by Blair's irrelevant "character", charm, personality, brilliant rhetoric, and so on.

From the start of our exchange, Portillo seemed riled, and then became very aggressive and started sneering at me. For example:

Let me just comment that many people listening to this programme will think that you pick and choose according to your own personal preferences . . . You're just somebody who's got a series of prejudices and tries to stand it up with something you claim is kind of evidence . . . Perhaps that's because you're not very good at examining your own personality.

Oooohhh! Sticks and stones, Michael. I had to point out to the former defence secretary that perhaps I hadn't had the opportunity of examining my own personality in as many TV documentaries as he had.

Portillo strikes me as the classic "modern" Cameroonian Conservative: socially liberal, pro-war and Thatcherite on the economy. Here he is in the Sunday Times, in August 2009, quoting Charles Murray (!), railing against a "culture of entitlement" and accusing the welfare state of "boosting idleness". "New" Tories, eh?

During our exchange, Portillo refused to see the distinction between one's personality and one's background. This internet dictionary, for instance, defines personality as the "distinctive qualities of a person, especially those distinguishing personal characteristics that make one socially appealing". So why should my admission to being interested in David Cameron's schooling undermine my opposition to personality politics and my dislike for the trivialisation of debate by political journalists obsessed with whether or not Gordon Brown throws mobile phones, or the number of women Nick Clegg has bedded?

In fact, I don't need to know whether Brown has a bad temper or not, but I think I do have a right to know where Cameron went to school. That's because he has surrounded himself with other Old Etonians while pretending that "we're all in this together", and is advocating economic and social policies -- such as the inheritance-tax cut -- that would enrich Old Etonians, toffs, bankers and multimillionaires at the expense of ordinary people and, in particular, public-sector workers.

As Polly Toynbee pointed out in the Guardian in December:

If politicians often come from private schools and well-heeled families, sadly that's not surprising. The 7 per cent of people emerging from private schools dominate disproportionately in top universities, the Bar, medicine, the City, journalism and any well-paid profession. But politics is not like other professions. Background becomes significant if people go into parliament and devote their lives to preserving the privileges of people like themselves. Osborne and Harriet Harman were both St Paul's pupils. The big difference is that she has spent her career trying to promote fairer life chances for those without her privileges, while Osborne and his fellow frontbench Etonians seem bent on defending theirs.

I tried to make a similar argument on the Moral Maze but Portillo wouldn't have any of it. He kept bellowing:

You think it's an important point.

Not just me, Mikey. In 2006, for example, even the Tory-supporting Sunday Times commented that "David Cameron has more Etonians around him than any leader since Macmillan" and asked whether he could "represent Britain from such a narrow base". Perhaps Portillo should read his own newspaper before getting worked up on the radio . . .

Overall, I have to say that the former defence secretary is a man who seems rather bitter about having failed to get the top job in the Tory party. He "joked" at the start of the show that his own personal issues had been an obstacle to his ambitions:

It hindered me, which is why I am now sitting around this table, of course, rather than being gainfully employed in government.

Towards the end, he remarked:

I happen to have been at a disadvantage in politics, not having had children . . .

Bitter, Michael, bitter . . .

On a side note, I'll probably get pilloried for saying this (hey, when has that stopped me before?), but I couldn't help but be annoyed at how I got such a rough ride from Portillo, including personal attacks on my own "personality", while the Tory witnesses (Dale and Pascoe-Watson) had such an easy time. You might think the former political editor of the Sun might have some tough questions to answer about the manner in which that newspaper has so debased, devalued, trivialised and undermined British politics in recent years (Monday's headline: "The Prime Monster"). Not on the "left-wing" BBC.

By the way, the most bizarre, ridiculous and conservative line of the night came not from Portillo or Phillips, nor from the host, Michael Buerk, but from the panellist Clifford Longley, the Catholic commentator and leader writer for the Tablet, on the subject of whether or not Cameron's Etonian background was of relevance to the politics of personality:

What do you make of it, though? Eton would claim to be a place where moral character is imparted. You might therefore put it to his credit that he's been in a place where character is taken very seriously and regarded very highly.

Damn those BBC pinko lefties and their hatred of public schools, eh? Long live Eton College!

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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The struggles of Huma Abedin

On the behind-the-scenes story of Hillary Clinton’s closest aide.

In a dreary campaign, it was a moment that shone: Hillary Clinton, on the road to the caucus in Iowa, stopping at a Mexican fast-food restaurant to eat and somehow passing unrecognised. Americans of all political persuasions gleefully speculated over what her order – a chicken burrito bowl with guacamole – revealed about her frame of mind, while supporters gloated that the grainy security-camera footage seemed to show Clinton with her wallet out, paying for her own lunch. Here was not the former first lady, senator and secretary of state, known to people all over the world. This was someone’s unassuming grandmother, getting some food with her colleagues.

It might be unheard of for Clinton to go unrecognised but, for the woman next to her at the till, blending into the background is part of the job. Huma Abedin, often referred to as Clinton’s “shadow” by the US media, is now the vice-chair of her presidential campaign. She was Clinton’s deputy chief of staff at the state department and has been a personal aide since the late 1990s.

Abedin first met Clinton in 1996 when she was 19 and an intern at the White House, assigned to the first lady’s office. She was born in Michigan in 1976 to an Indian father and a Pakistani mother. When Abedin was two, they moved from the US to Saudi Arabia. She returned when she was 18 to study at George Washington University in Washington, DC. Her father was an Islamic scholar who specialised in interfaith reconciliation – he died when she was 17 – and her mother is a professor of sociology.

While the role of “political body woman” may once have been a kind of modern maid, there to provide a close physical presence and to juggle the luggage and logistics, this is no longer the case. During almost 20 years at Clinton’s side, Abedin has advised her boss on everything from how to set up a fax machine – “Just pick up the phone and hang it up. And leave it hung up” – to policy on the Middle East. When thousands of Clinton’s emails were made public (because she had used a private, rather than a government, server for official communication), we glimpsed just how close they are. In an email from 2009, Clinton tells her aide: “Just knock on the door to the bedroom if it’s closed.”

Abedin shares something else with Clinton, outside of their professional ties. They are both political wives who have weathered their husbands’ scandals. In what felt like a Lewinsky affair for the digital age, in 2011, Abedin’s congressman husband, Anthony Weiner, resigned from office after it emerged that he had shared pictures of his genitals with strangers on social media. A second similar scandal then destroyed his attempt to be elected mayor of New York in 2013. In an ironic twist, it was Bill Clinton who officiated at Abedin’s and Weiner’s wedding in 2010. At the time, Hillary is reported to have said: “I have one daughter. But if I had a second daughter, it would [be] Huma.” Like her boss, Abedin stood by her husband and now Weiner is a house husband, caring for their four-year-old son, Jordan, while his wife is on the road.

Ellie Foreman-Peck

A documentary filmed during Weiner’s abortive mayoral campaign has just been released in the US. Weiner shows Abedin at her husband’s side, curtailing his more chaotic tendencies, always flawless with her red lipstick in place. Speaking to the New York Observer in 2007, three years before their marriage, Weiner said of his future wife: “This notion that Senator Clinton is a cool customer – I mean, I don’t dispute it, but the coolest customer in that whole operation is Huma . . . In fact, I think there’s some dispute as to whether Huma’s actually human.” In the film, watching her preternatural calm under extraordinary pressure, you can see what he means.

In recent months, Abedin’s role has changed. She is still to be found at Clinton’s side – as the burrito photo showed – but she is gradually taking a more visible role in the organisation overall, as they pivot away from the primaries to focus on the national race. She meets with potential donors and endorsers on Clinton’s behalf and sets strategy. When a running mate is chosen, you can be sure that Abedin will have had her say on who it is. There’s a grim symmetry to the way politics looks in the US now: on one side, the Republican candidate Donald Trump is calling for a ban on Muslims entering the country; on the other, the presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton relies ever more on her long-time Muslim-American staffer.

Years before Trump, notable Republicans were trying to make unpleasant capital out of Abedin’s background. In 2012, Tea Party supporters alleged that she was linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and its attempt to gain access “to top Obama officials”. In her rare interviews, Abedin has spoken of how hurtful these baseless statements were to her family – her mother still lives in Saudi Arabia. Later, the senator and former Republican presidential candidate John McCain spoke up for her, saying that Abedin represented “what is best about America”.

Whether senior figures in his party would do the same now remains to be seen.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad