When anyone in politics talks of the enormous respect they have for someone else it usually means they don't actually like them. Thus even those who respected Peter Mandelson's obvious abilities didn't seem to like him that much. Robin Cook's intellect is another thing we all have to respect enormousl. But the rest of him? Who actively likes Robin Cook - apart from Gaynor, of course? Who likes Jeffrey Archer - or is that a rhetorical question? And did David Mellor get where he is today because he was a likeable kind of bloke?
In an interview this week another man who would be mayor of London, Trevor Phillips, was spoken of as someone who was respected but not liked. This didn't seem to bother him too much, and perhaps it shouldn't. After all, everyone says Mussolini got the trains to run on time; why shouldn't Trevor Phillips? "Have you ever seen Rudy Giuliani?" he asked at one point. "I don't think even Rudy Giuliani's wife likes him." His pitch was that being the mayor of a great city is not a popularity contest and the best person for the job is the person who gets things done.
Politics not a popularity contest? Well, what is it then? And please don't tell me it is a great battleground for ideas. If it was once, then politicians have spent a great deal of time and effort in turning it into a personality contest. The exception, as usual, was Margaret Thatcher, but then she was some kind of sociopath who didn't even care whether her own children liked her.
Yet up until now it has been very important that we liked Tony Blair as much as we respected him. I'd say that's changing. Two years and a war in, Tony is turning from likeable decent chap into a more distant leader respected for his toughness. The things that politicians do in order to be liked are so outside the realms of normal behaviour that it is very difficult to relate to them as people we might like at all: kissing available babies, accosting strangers in the street, getting engaged for the sake of a career, taking part in sporting events in which they have no interest.
One of the reasons that no one could be bothered to vote in the Euro elections was that there was nothing to like or not like about the people we were supposed to be voting for. You couldn't even hate them as you didn't have the faintest idea of who they were.
If politics is to be presented as simply the new management structure in which we choose the most effective bosses, then why all the spin-doctoring to try and persuade us that those who seek power are well-rounded individuals? Why don't we just accept that they are ambitious aliens with a very narrow set of interests which makes them good at their job but not necessarily someone we want to be friends with? It must be anathema to the modern politician that this likeability thing just won't go away. And it must be doubly annoying that the ones we do like are the most unspun of all. Slobby old Ken Clarke, wily old Ken Livingstone, randy old Alan Clark and prolier-than-thou Dennis Skinner. We prefer the shambolic Mo Mowlam and Clare Short to the speak-your-weight machines that constitute Blair's babes.
So politics is becoming more and more of a popularity contest. That's why Bill Clinton is still hanging on in there and Al Gore is frantically appearing in casual clothes with groups of farmers in Mississippi. Hillary Clinton, currently riding high on the wronged-wife platform, looks set to try for the Senate. Hillary was once respected and not liked, but post-Monica some retarded logic means that we all have to like her.
I'm afraid I have lost all respect for a woman who, having proclaimed herself a feminist, ends up trying to cash in on her new-found victim status as a means of buying political power. Hillary did try to be liked in a number of ways. She baked cookies. She talked down to whoever would listen to her. She stuck to women's issues, ie, children, and changed her hairstyle every month. None of this ever worked. If only some slimy wonk had whispered in her ear that the only way for her to endear herself to the American public would be to get her husband to cheat on her, then she and Bill could have come to this arrangement a long time ago. Or maybe they did.
What a peculiar choice New Yorkers will have now: a man whose own wife doesn't even like him or a woman who doesn't even like her own husband. Perhaps an arranged marriage between Rudy and Hillary would be the best thing for all concerned. Or perhaps we should stop trying to turn politics into a branch of show business and not try to like any of them. It is better surely to like Ronan from Boyzone, and think that he would be a nice person to hang out with, than expect Stephen Byers to be the life and soul of the party. Film stars should be loved, pop stars should be adored, artists and writers should be admired, but politicians are like traffic wardens, something we have to put up with.
I don't want them to try to persuade me that they understand ordinary people or even that they are ordinary people. Anyone who has been to the House of Commons cannot honestly believe that this bunch of sniping and alienated boozers with only one thing on their minds (no, not sex - a bigger office) are representative of the rest of us. These are people, for Christ's sake, who like meetings! I don't mind Trevor Phillips saying he doesn't care if we don't think he's cuddly. I'd rather he declared himself an efficient opportunist than pretended to be my best friend. If that makes him unpopular, then so be it. The day that we all start liking the powers that be is the day that democracy is well and truly over.