NS Essay - "We are witnessing the death of the political personality"

The great problem of our age is not too much presentation - Churchill did soundbites - but the loss

The social historians of the future will describe our age as the "Period of Personality". A time when magazines dispensing banal and mostly bogus titbits about the lives of people known to us only as pixels on a screen sold by the truckload. When television stars out-earned titans of industry. And when a bodybuilder-turned-action hero became the elected leader of the world's fifth-largest economy. The personality cults may have gone the way of the Iron Curtain; personality culture is alive and well.

Arnold Schwarzenegger's triumph in California appears to be the ultimate triumph of the "politics of personality", in which policies, ideologies and programmes are replaced by a star rating system whereby a winning smile counts for more than a welfare plan. It is the final Pop Idolisation of politics.

But the accusation of "personality politics" misses a deeper loss in public life. It is true that people with a profile earned in extra-political activities can often parachute glamorously into the political arena. But history shows that they rarely amount to very much; think of Sebastian Coe, Glenda Jackson or Martin Bell. Being famous for running, acting or reporting translates only with great difficulty into political capital. (Yes, Ronald Reagan was an actor, but he became a politician long before he became a governor.)

It is certainly true that politics has become presentational. Peter Mandelson's intervention in the backstairs leadership tussle between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown came when he urged the party to adopt the person who would "play best at the box office", by whom he meant Blair. In this sense, Schwarzenegger was simply reversing the order of events, getting the box office in before the political kind. But this criticism, too, is only half right. After all, some of the greatest political leaders have wowed audiences with oratory and targeted messaging: Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, Joan of Arc. What was "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat", if not a perfect soundbite?

The problem is not that politics has been taken over by soap stars, nor that presentation has become predominant. The problem is that the decline of conviction politics has meant the demise of the conviction politician. The hole in the heart of political life is the absence of politicians with larger-than-life characters shaped from the material of their politics - the Thatchers, Castles or Croslands, people whose energy and power sprang from their deep-rooted political passion. In the era of so-called personality politics, we are witnessing the death of the political personality.

There may be bright, well-meaning people in parliament. And there are characters, to be sure. Boris Johnson, with his wild hair and brilliant conversation, is one: but ask someone what he stands for politically, and the chances are they will be nonplussed. Indeed, he himself appears aware that he is catholic in his views, stating that he is: "free market, tolerant, broadly libertarian, inclined to see the merit of traditions, anti-regulation, pro-immigrant, pro-standing on your own two feet, pro-alcohol, pro-hunting, pro-motorist and ready to defend to the death the right of Glenn Hoddle to believe in reincarnation".

Still, senior ministers complain of the lack of talent among the younger MPs. And on the Conservative side, it is hard to dispute the claim - in part, perhaps, a product of the party's collective loss of marbles in the early 1990s. But this refrain has been heard around every cabinet table as in every boardroom: "You just can't get the staff." At least on the government side, there is plenty of Generation X brainpower. David Miliband, Yvette Cooper, Douglas Alexander, Ruth Kelly, Hilary Benn and David Lammy are some of the more obvious examples. Ed Balls, Brown's right-hand man, dubbed the "assistant chancellor" by mandarins, is seat-hunting. These are all highly intelligent, progressive, thoughtful, hard-working politicians. But their bellies appear devoid of fire. They are by admission reformers rather than radicals. They are technocratic politicians for a technocratic age. Top-rank civil servants get on well with them because they are so similar. Benn's description of himself as a Benn rather than a Bennite makes the point perfectly.

Hugo Young lamented that politics no longer attracted the "risk-takers, and people of bold, category-shifting vision: people who can live at the edge of the possible: ruthless as well as decent people, adventurous as well as honest. People with the brains to be inventive and the guts to be unpopular."

In the current political arena, a person meeting Young's description would be lucky to get a seat. Category-shifting vision won't get you far if the hot topic is whether foundation hospitals should be able to borrow money or not. Living at the edge of the possible is not career-enhancing in a world in which the Prime Minister says that "what counts is what works". The space for the likes of Ian McCartney, who said that if you cut him in half he'd say "Labour" all the way through, is shrinking.

The new routes into politics may offer fewer opportunities for the formation of political personality. The fast track from think-tank, the media or policy unit to the green benches has many advantages in terms of getting the political careers of bright people moving quickly. But there is a loss here, too. The slog around constituencies, years as a councillor and a slow struggle upwards through the party were the crucibles in which political ideas were shaped, tested.

This apprenticeship may be more important in an era when other prompts to politicisation are diminishing. Tony Benn, although from a political family anyway, saw fascists marching in the East End and turned sharp left for life. Jeremy Paxman, in The Political Animal, quotes George Brown, the Labour foreign secretary from the 1960s, remembering "helping to overturn trams run by blacklegs at the Elephant and Castle" during the General Strike.

These examples demonstrate how the death of the political personality can be seen as a sign of success. With few major political conflicts, a broad free-market consensus and no clash of ideological swords, the job of politician has become much closer to that of a senior manager. In these circumstances, fire and brimstone would be destabilising. If the big political differences have dissolved - if we are, in this sense, at something like the end of history - then perhaps politics should become a career rather than a crusade. Technical problems need technocratic politicians.

If this argument holds, Margaret Thatcher was made necessary by the economic messes of the 1970s, the imbalance of union and business power and the crumbling of the Keynesian project. And Thatcher was a quintessential political personality. She once said that her inner conviction was akin to that of Chatham, the 18th-century prime minister, who said: "I know that I can save this country and no one else can." One of her best-known phrases may well have been adapted from Robert Nozick, who wrote - spot the difference - that "there is no social entity . . . There are only individual people, different individual people with their own individual lives." None the less, this belief in individualism was part of the very core of her personality - with dramatic, and mostly disastrous, consequences for the rest of us.

But if the dangers of strong political personalities are clear, their absence is more threatening still. The view that there is no need for category-shifting vision is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Politicians remain carefully within the centrist tramlines. Being a "safe pair of hands" is the ultimate accolade. Deeper thinking about the future shape of society is dismissed as "utopian". So those with a more radical vision look elsewhere - to the media, NGOs, single-issue movements, business or even religion. Naomi Klein would not have flourished as a new Labour politician. As Andrew Samuels writes in Politics on the Couch: "Politics has left its home base and gone out into the world to redefine itself and find other and new places to settle. Political energy is not the same as political power."

In the absence of transformative intent, the danger is that political office becomes an end in itself, with smart politicians elevated to positions attracting a high profile but little sense of purpose: the democratic equivalent of David Blaine. And this is a diminution of politics. Power needs to be sought by those who wish to wield that power for clear goals. It is no weakness of politicians to be ambitious, quite the opposite. But "love of power, if it is to be beneficent, must be bound up with some end other than power", Bertrand Russell warned. "In politics, for example, one man wishes to see certain measures enacted, and is thus led to take part in public affairs, while another man, wishing only for personal success, adopts whatever programme seems most likely to lead to this result."

The combination of the emphatic shift to the political centre ground and the relentless focus on presentation - for which the media are at least half to blame - lays the ground for precisely the hollowing out of politics against which Russell cautions. His test is that, for the ethical seeker of power, "the desire for some other end must be so strong that power is unsatisfying unless it ministers to that end". Politics is a tool rather than a stage. The tragedy of Bill Clinton is that even though he was a brilliant campaigner with a sharp mind and engaging character, he was not in this sense an authentic political personality.

The acquisition of political power is being decoupled from the development of political personality. Strong personalities are defined as much by their flaws as their strengths; but flaws land politicians in trouble these days. The scrutiny of branded politicians is such that they are required to tick all the boxes of the "rounded person" - whether accurately or not. Hence Blair's image - now historical - as an ordinary dad, a "Galaxy man" with a guitar and jeans. Politicians trade less on their differences with the rest of us than their similarities. They are better versions of us - better looking, better educated, more articulate, cleverer - but not so much as to be threatening, and in other ways just like the person next door. Michael Portillo now seems to have got this message. The weakness of Gordon Brown may be that he is one of the few genuine political personalities around. He is intense, fiercely determined and obsessive. He does not carry his politics lightly. He doesn't "do" politics - he is politics.

Nobody wants to open the door to demagogues. And nothing is worse than politicians faking it - witness Iain Duncan Smith's plastic personality on display at the Tory conference. But politics that have been purged of personality, sanitised for the centre ground, will not do. It enfeebles our public culture to hobble the development of flawed great people because of a self-fulfilling insistence on the incremental nature of politics. Henry James wrote that "Ideas are, in truth, forces. Infinite, too, is the power of personality. A union of the two always makes history." Where are our history-makers now?