Now, boys, that's not very nice

The left believes in altruism, equality, community and all-round cuddliness. Caroline Danielfinds ne

When John Major departed from 10 Downing Street he left behind more than just memories of snatched sandwiches over his desk and morning tea in the kitchen with Norma. He also left a bottle of champagne for Tony Blair with a note saying that he'd had seven great years in the old place, and that he was sure that Blair would have a great time there, too.

Now that seems like a nice thing to do. But then Major always came across as the sort of man your granny would knit a cardigan for. Honest John. Nice John. A good man, sadly fallen among Eurosceptics.

More surprising, at least to those on the left, has been the discovery that (say it quietly) Michael Portillo is also actually rather nice. So nice that many of his civil servants cried when he left office. Portillo's attempt to slip out discreetly from the Ministry of Defence was rumbled when a voice over the public address system said he was about to leave the building and hundreds of staff members turned up to say farewell.

Several Tory ministers were not so nice by all accounts (Michael Howard, for example, was not popular with his civil servants) and there are plenty of nice people on the left. Lord (Alf) Dubs of Battersea, a Labour minister in the Northern Ireland Office, is "the most indisputably nice person that I have ever met", according to Matthew Parris, the Times columnist and former Tory MP. "He's so nice I found him crying in the Lords because he had won the constituency raffle and he worried that people would think he had fixed it."

So Parris has proposed a "Dubs scale" of niceness. And he is clear that ideologues would score low. Indeed, both Arthur Scargill and Alfred Sherman, the former director of the Centre for Policy Studies, would probably score negative points. "The reason ideology goes with nastiness," argues Parris, "is that they look at the world through a theoretical structure. They don't like people very much so they need a structure."

Certainly, one would not usually want to go on a date with an ideologue. But more generally, is it people on the left or on the right who should scoop up more "Dubs" points?

I tried asking a cross-section of politicians. Teresa Gorman replied with a scrawled fax bearing the words: "Why ask me, you must be MAD!"

Most people on the left, I found, are noisily confident that they are nicest. And you would expect the left to be nicer. After all, the left has a more optimistic and flattering view of human nature, believing that people can change and be made less selfish, less greedy, cuddlier and generally more communally minded. The left is supposed to believe in equality, that people should be respected for what they are and what they have the potential to become. And the left is supposed to believe in collective action, rather than in every man for himself. Even the right sometimes acknowledges, implicitly, the left's greater niceness, when it says that the left has too rosy a view of human nature.

But in practice the left, particularly in power, doesn't always behave as nicely as its own rhetoric suggests it should. Take just a few examples from recent months. David Clark, widely regarded as one of the nicest cabinet ministers, was booted out. (As Parris says, "one of the problems with being a nice person is you don't realise how nasty everyone else is.") Gordon Brown has been accused of having "psychological problems" by a Blair aide. Last week, anonymous Treasury sources dismissed Peter Mandelson's plans for Post Office reform as "garbage" and "rubbish". Not very nice, and certainly not what you would call community-minded.

Members of Tory governments rubbished each other, too. Under Margaret Thatcher, John Biffen was famously described by Bernard Ingham as a "semi-detached" member of the government. Even nice John Major was caught out saying that some members of his cabinet were "bastards". But the poisonous atmosphere at the top of the Labour Party is widely regarded as worse than under the previous government.

It wasn't especially nice, either, that Robin Cook had 45 minutes to decide between his wife and his mistress, or that he publicly blamed his civil servants for the Sierra Leone affair.

Then there are all those special advisers. Some of them seem unable to meet government detractors with sophisticated point-by-point rebuttal. Instead, they adopt a style of brusque bullying to compensate for their youthful inadequacies in the fields of policy and personal relations. There is a naive view that your political influence is directly proportional to your ability to bully rather than persuade. A deep-seated political insecurity has bred this strutting self-importance in some of the advising classes.

The Blairites in particular can come across as a touch too self-savouring. Some remain scarred by the bunker mentality of opposition and have resorted to a kind of introverted tribalism. They are bonded together by a meritocratic cliquishness fused from the years together in opposition, and the knowledge that they got to the top of the political tree by dint of their own hard work. They are terribly nice to their own, and loyal to each other, but they can adopt an off-handedness towards people whom they don't think are "on side". They may write speeches about the "giving age" and about building a "decent society", but that decency doesn't always start at home.

These people inherit from Thatcherism a certain kind of meritocratic sniffiness. Meritocracy militates against niceness. It's hard to empathise with those who failed, if you believe they failed because they didn't make the best use of their opportunities. As John Gray, professor of European thought at the London School of Economics, puts it, "the circumstances which make people nasty is a feeling of unchallengeable power", and the Blairites have it, for now.

But there's something else about people on the left which earns them negative Dubs points. Because they believe that society can change, they dash about trying to tweak the status quo by dreaming up clever improving schemes, rather like a photographer changing the backdrop in the hope of showing off his clients in their best light. They believe in a "project". Until that "project" is over, they can't relax and lighten up.

This attitude of mind is caught in a poem by Bertolt Brecht, called "To Those Who Come After", in which he wrote: "We, who wanted to prepare the ground for friendliness, could not ourselves be friendly."

Sitting next to a prominent young (but getting older) new Labourite at a round-table discussion on Europe, I rose to leave early to celebrate my birthday. The sober (occasionally) man pulled my sleeve and whispered earnestly, with no trace of a smile: "I bet Margaret Thatcher never got on in the world by leaving political functions early to celebrate her birthday."

Yet according to Ian Christie, deputy director of Demos: "One purpose of socialism ought to be to allow more people to sit around in cafes having fun with each other. Instead, the left often has a sense that they are doing more important things than the right, that they shouldn't hang around being funny but need to be earnest and active. Yet social cohesion can be promoted by laughter and companionship."

It is not just companionship that gets lost in the mix. A sense of courtesy can, too.This in part is a remnant of class warriordom. "The left still retains the idea that manners and ritual conventions are a badge of servitude," thinks Laurie Taylor, NS columnist.

"There's a feeling on the left that you're in a tremendous hurry and don't have the time for these little courtesies," observes Rick Nye, the nice director of the Social Market Foundation.

In contrast, as the philosopher Roger Scruton points out, "in the British context manners have always been part of being a Conservative".

None of this means that the right as a whole deserves more Dubs points. Right-wingers may be more civil but, as Andrew Puddephatt, the director of Charter 88, claims, they "have an ease and grace which comes with the assurance of power. You realise that the charm and politeness is often a kind of condescension and is a superficial kind of niceness."

John Gray also thinks it wrong to be romantic about the old patrician Tories. "They could be tolerant and open-minded but this was founded on a view of hierarchy and inequality, and emerged from a feeling of unchallengeable social power."

And the right is certainly not very nice to foreigners. "A lot of Tory ministers seemed to think it was funny to be rude to foreigners," says Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform. "At an Ecofin council meeting the German delegate arrived late and Norman Lamont looked at his watch and quipped, 'I thought the Germans were supposed to be punctual'. He thought it was very funny to be rude."

So both the left and the right are not as nice as they should be. But is niceness really such a political asset anyway?

In the 1987 party political broadcast on ITV for the Liberal/ Social Democrat Alliance, Sir David Steel lamented that "to listen to some people in politics you'd think that 'nice' was a four-letter word". And look what happened to him. Back in the 1920s, something similar happened to Sir Austen Chamberlain, a Tory leader of whom it was said that "he always played the game and always lost it".

George Walden, the former Tory MP, thinks "it's often niceness that causes all the trouble. Niceness is a killer really. Niceness settles for mediocrity. Michael Foot was a grossly self-indulgent politician but he was a nice bloke."

And Steven Lukes, a twin-hatted professor of moral philosophy at Sienna, Italy, and of sociology at New York University, thinks that "the left is supposed to be critical of the existing order of things. An essential tool in their armoury has to be satire. Too much niceness blunts the edge of satire, so the left had better not be very nice. It's not necessarily a political virtue, being nice."