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An unheroic age: why do our politicians seem so diminished?

Are our politicians getting smaller, or is it that politics is not as big as it used to be?

Illustration: Michelle Thompson

When David Cameron reshuffled his cabinet this summer it reinforced the widely held impression that, compared to previous generations, we live in an age of political pygmies. What has happened to all the politicians of real stature – the ones we can admire even as we disagree with them?

The last of the “big beasts”, Kenneth Clarke, has finally been shuffled off the stage. William Hague, an adroit orator and serious man of letters, is also creeping towards the exit. The most intellectually ambitious member of the government, Michael Gove, finds himself shunted to the sidelines. In their place come some shiny new members of the class of 2010, of whom almost no one outside of professional politics has ever heard, and some long-standing party loyalists, whom almost no one has heard of either.

The optics are better – a few more women, some media-friendly faces, younger, fresher, more family-oriented. But no one could mistake Cameron’s new cabinet for the triumph of political substance over style.

The idea that the current generation of politicians lacks stature is not just a problem for the Tory benches: it may be even worse on the other side. When Harold Wilson resigned as prime minster and Labour leader in 1976, the candidates who lined up to replace him were Jim Callaghan, Michael Foot, Denis Healey, Roy Jenkins, Tony Benn and Tony Crosland – all politicians of genuine substance and experience, with an average age of 58. They included at least three major writers and intellectuals (Jenkins, Foot and Crosland; four, if you count Benn and his diaries), and all of them had a significant “hinterland” outside of politics, in the expression popularised by Healey. By contrast, when Gordon Brown resigned as Labour leader in 2010 the candidates who lined up to replace him were Ed Miliband, David Miliband, Ed Balls, Andy Burnham and Diane Abbott – all career politicians with little experience of professional life outside politics, and with an average age of 45. It is a more diverse list than that of ’76, but only because of Abbott, the candidate who came last. Without her, the average age of the four white, male, middle-class rivals was just 42. They are all serious men and serious politicians, of course, but it seems fair to say that John Campbell, the recent biographer of Roy Jenkins, is not going to be writing a life of Andy Burnham any time soon.

Are our politicians getting smaller, or is it that politics is not as big as it used to be? We need to be careful about assuming that the present era is unique in its view that the big beasts have all gone missing. During the 1920s and 1930s it was also commonplace to complain that politics had been taken over by placemen and apparatchiks at the expense of the politicians of true substance. After all, theirs was only a generation away from the age of Gladstone and Salisbury: who was Stanley Baldwin to compare with that?

The dominant political figure of the time, Lloyd George, had been frozen out by men he would once have had for breakfast. One of the running jokes in Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies, published in 1930, is that the bright young things can no longer remember who is prime minister because the various candidates are so hard to tell apart. Is it Sir James Brown or is it the Rt Hon Mr Outrage? And does it matter when both men are such glaring mediocrities? As Miss Runcible says when she wakes up one morning in 10 Downing Street, having no idea where she is, “Oh, dear, this really is all too bogus.”


Mavericks, managers and party machines

Yet the 1930s were hardly an age of small political issues, any more than ours is. Like now, it was a time of economic austerity at home and proliferating crises abroad. It was also an era of coalition politics, which tends to blur the lines between the parties while reinforcing the impression of a divide between the entire political class and the rest of us. (In Vile Bodies, the ex-king of Ruritania bemoans the fact that whenever he comes to England, “always there is a different Prime Minister and no one knows which is which”. He is told, “Oh, sir, that’s because of the Liberal Party.”)

Coalition politics and shifting allegiances facilitate the rise of the party managers – the politicians who know how to cobble a deal together and make it stick. It also creates space for mavericks and outsiders to rail against the entire system of compromise and fudge. Then, as now, some of the best-known political figures were on the fringes of the main parties, carving out a distinctive space for themselves with their disdain for the political operators. Where the 1930s had Winston Churchill and Oswald Mosley, we have Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. All subsequent contrarians have probably imagined themselves as Churchill: the naysayer who turned out to be the ultimate politician of substance. But Churchill is very much the exception, not the rule. Doubtless Johnson would like to envisage himself as Churchill to Farage’s Mosley, but Mosley represents the far likelier model for both: noise over substance, and a flash-in-the-pan rather than a game-changer. Waiting for Churchill is a futile political pastime.

Johnson illustrates another feature of eras of managerial politics: a smaller setting often provides the best backdrop for projecting a big political personality. Like Ken Livingstone before him, Johnson has used the London mayoralty, its very limited powers notwithstanding, as a platform for what passes as thinking outside the box. It is easier to convey the impression of a fresh vision when you are railing against political constraints than when you are trying to operate within them.

Alex Salmond has proved himself the master of this particular game. He stood out from the crowd of his fellow British politicians because he offered the possibility of a new kind of politics, and indeed polity, even if it might not be workable and popular in practice. The largest political figures of the current age are often the ones operating where the real power isn’t, which gives them the room they need to flex their muscles. Sometimes, when the pictures get smaller, the stars do get bigger.

The most significant difference between the present and the 1930s, however, relates not to its political personalities but to the institutions that underpin them. What has unquestionably shrunk in recent decades is the size, scope and reach of political parties. Baldwin might have been a relatively unassuming man but no one could have mistaken him for a political lightweight. He was the boss of a party that took a huge amount of managing: the Tory party in the 1930s was itself a large, fractious and powerful beast. Equally, to master the House of Commons, as Baldwin did, was no small task. It took enormous skill and experience, because the Commons had a clear sense of its own power to make and break governments. This was the compact that Max Weber identified as lying at the heart of modern democratic politics, if it was to work. The task of mastering mass political parties and powerful representative institutions was the guarantor of substantive leadership. The parties were formidable machines, which meant that no one could control them without possessing an equivalently formidable political skillset. Weber believed that it was impossible to rise to the top of a political system such as Britain’s without having the leadership qualities needed to transcend it. Without those qualities, the system would swallow you up.

It is this compact that has now been broken. Political parties are no longer the formidable machines they once were: they are thin, fragile, hollowed-out institutions, lacking in members (they are no longer in any meaningful sense “mass” parties) and often lacking a sense of purpose. They are shells of their former selves. While the same cannot exactly be said of the House of Commons it, too, lacks much of its past heft. Consequently, the skillset needed to manage these institutions is not what it once was, either: it, too, is narrower.

Our managerial politics lacks the element of institutional mastery that was a requirement of the previous age, because the institutions themselves are less substantial. This is what breeds an ever narrower political class, because connections within that class are now more important than the ability to co-ordinate large and often conflicting interests beyond it. Politicians start younger and rise quicker now that small networks carry more weight than broader coalitions. The incentive to acquire wider experience of both politics and the world is absent because it is no longer so necessary. Experience can be trumped by insider knowledge, which is easier to acquire.

Contrarians from Nigel Farage to Boris Johnson dream of measuring up to Churchill. Photo: H F Davis/Getty Images

“Not just a politician”: a retreat from the hinterlands

What has also been broken is the link between a career in politics and many of the professions and institutions that provided a training ground for political life. Trade unions, newspapers and the armed forces all once produced a steady supply of political recruits. Weber thought that these were among the best ways to learn something about politics before doing politics. He believed that varied experience of extra-political struggles was crucial in bringing substance to the political process.

But these institutions, too, are now greatly diminished in scale and scope. Public relations and breakfast television might have filled some of the gap, but it is not the same. Old-fashioned newspapers, like mass political parties, used to have to try to cover the waterfront; struggling to become a presenter on GMTV can be just as cut-throat, but it doesn’t offer the same variety of perspective. The one profession that still supplies a steady stream of politicians is the law, which has always had the greatest overlap with politics. For that reason it does not really answer the accusation that the outlook of the political class has narrowed: “He’s not just a politician – he’s a lawyer, too” is not the most resounding defence of any politician’s breadth of vision. None of the Labour leadership candidates in 1976 was a lawyer.

Just as politicians start younger, so also they seem to get out earlier. What appears to have gone missing are the politicians who move in and out of prominence in the context of a full-time political career, waiting for their chance to seize the moment. Clarke, to his credit, is hanging around because he wants to continue the fight over Europe into the next parliament and any possible referendum. But Hague will be gone, like Michael Portillo before him, seemingly burnt out by having done politics since he was a teenager. A lifetime of cosy BBC documentaries awaits. Labour’s two most experienced and popular politicians of the moment are Alistair Darling and Alan Johnson, both of whom have revealed an extensive hinterland since taking a step back from high office. Nevertheless, it’s hard to envisage a route back to the top for either of them. One of the reasons why no current politician can possibly be another Churchill is that Churchill did not reveal what he was made of until near the end of an epically long political life, after he had done everything else and failed at quite a lot of it. He did not seize his moment at the first opportunity (he failed at that, too). The other means by which Weber believed it was possible to learn how to do politics was to fail at it and to come back for more. Within a narrowed political class, with fewer entry and exit points, failure becomes less of an enabler and more like drink for an alcoholic: one is too many and a hundred is not enough.

These are some of the reasons why our politicians seem to lack stature when compared to those who went before. Yet it seems absurd to say that they are therefore bound to be lesser human beings. They still have to be smart, ruthless, adaptable and adept at a wide variety of tasks. The skillset has narrowed in many ways, but in others it has broadened. Present-day politicians require the stamina to survive a remorseless, 24-hour news cycle. They don’t have to control mass-membership political parties, but they do have to master the full panoply of modern communications technologies, most of which are primed to trip them up.

Modern news management is not as appealing to outsiders as grand oratory, but it is just as demanding for the people who have to practise it. Politicians need to be as tough as they have ever been, and in some respects even tougher. One reason the political class has narrowed is that professional politics is less fun than it used to be. It’s a lot more like hard work.


Falling standards or outdated expectations?

The present round of complaints about falling political standards is a bit like the regular lament about declining educational standards. It has become traditional around this time of year for employers to complain that, whatever the story of endlessly rising exam results (which Michael Gove, for all his efforts, has barely put a dent in), highly qualified school-leavers and graduates are often barely competent in many basic tasks. They lack the breadth and vision of earlier generations, who were educated in the round.

In fact, most of the evidence suggests that young people are smarter, broader-minded and better informed than they have ever been. With the informational resources available to them, it is hard to imagine how they could be otherwise. But, as their world has expanded, the tests to which we subject them have narrowed. Exams are more formulaic and more prosaic than they used to be, which makes them easier to pass for anyone who wants to put in the effort required.

Politics is the same. Our politicians have a wider and better-informed view of the world than any previous generation. With the resources available to them, how could it be otherwise? But the tests we require of them – electoral, presentational, managerial – are increasingly narrow. The reason we remain so attached to those tests is that we fear that without them we will lose what few reliable standards of accountability and authority remain. As in education, the challenge in politics is to find ways to test for aptitudes that better reflect the variety of 21st-century experience, without appearing to allow the candidates to set their own standards. No one has worked out how to do it yet.

At the same time, we must be careful what we wish for. It is worth remembering that the stellar cast list of Labour leadership candidates in 1976 contained many remarkable men, but no ultimately successful politicians. The Parliamentary Labour Party chose perhaps the least stellar of them – Callaghan – to be its leader, and it almost certainly chose wisely. He had the most limited hinterland, but he was the shrewdest politician and he made a pretty successful prime minster, at least for a time. Yet even he was seen off by Margaret Thatcher, who famously had almost no hinterland at all (that was what provoked Healey to coin the phrase). Intellectual breadth and literary ability are no guarantor of anything in politics – Barack Obama is proof of that. There are alternative role models out there: it would be hard, for instance, to accuse Vladimir Putin or Narendra Modi of lacking political heft. In a time of managerial politics, it can be tempting to look with envy at the decisiveness of the political strongmen as they throw their weight around. But the experience of the 1930s should be sufficient to warn against succumbing to that temptation.

In this respect, our age may be no different from any other. The most successful democratic politicians are rarely the most impressive human beings. They are often simply the ones with the greatest staying power, or the ones who happened to find themselves in the right place at the right time. It’s true that Roy Jenkins was a very impressive home secretary in the late 1960s, and Ken Clarke was likewise a strikingly adept chancellor in the mid-1990s, but this may have had as much to do with propitious circumstances as with any great political skills: it is possible that many different politicians could have made a success of those jobs at those times. The two most successful leaders in contemporary western politics are Angela Merkel and Stephen Harper, neither of whom is famous for having an extensive hinterland (Merkel likes football, Harper likes ice hockey). Both have been subject to widespread disdain for their perceived lack of broader political vision, but both have ridden out the mockery.

As Baldwin knew, if you are still standing when the others have fallen away, you are more than halfway to winning the battle of ideas. On that basis it would be rash to claim that there are no politicians of substance among the current generation. Who knows which of them will still be standing in ten or 15 years’ time? It could be George Osborne, it could be Miliband, though it’s unlikely to be both. (It is also unlikely to be Cameron, if only because he appears to lack that kind of staying power.) Whether it’s Osborne or Miliband, neither of them could then be said to lack substance. They would have passed the one political test that always matters. 

David Runciman is a professor of politics and a fellow of Trinity Hall, Cambridge. He is the author of “The Confidence Trap: a History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present”, published by Princeton University Press (£19.95)

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in “Juncture”, the journal of the Institute for Public Policy Research

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The cult of Boris

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Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.


The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.


The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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