A dentist at work. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images
Show Hide image

We wouldn’t go to an amateur dentist so why are we suspicious of professional politicians?

There's a fear that politicians are merely polishing the surface, allowing the decay to spread.

Last week’s programme for Archive on Four on Radio 4 – Read My Lips: Why Politicians Speak the Way They Do – was subtly provocative. In purporting to answer the question posed in its title, the discussion developed into a skilful defence of the professionalisation of politics. The three principal guests – Alastair Campbell (Tony Blair’s head of communications), Daniel Finkelstein (political adviser to William Hague before becoming a Times columnist) and Frank Luntz (a pollster and consultant) – have all worked professionally with politicians to improve their ability to communicate. The presenter, Jonathan Powell, was Blair’s chief of staff. Only the satirist Rory Bremner stood outside the profession.

The programme responded to the popular perception that the political class is paralysed by spin doctors, “out of touch”, and unable to connect naturally and authentically with voters. Not so, apparently. Finkel­stein argued that politicians “are much more in touch than they were”, possessing an “acuter understanding of what the electorate can follow”. Campbell believes that, in response to the 24-hour media, “politicians had to force themselves to become clearer, sharper, more focused and on-message”.

Luntz paid tribute to a technology known as “the worm” or “dials”. As a politician speaks in public, a focus group provides feedback in real time, instantly converted into a graph that captures the popularity of each phrase. “Up or down, second by second, like or dislike,” Luntz explained, “it is a precise way to measure any communication by politicians.” This is the political equivalent of the stats now flashed on screen during televised sport: distance covered, passes completed, yards advanced, tackles made.

But does this kind of approach capture what it means to be a good politician? Or do the obsession with quantification, and the risk aversion that follows, encase politicians in a linguistic and conceptual prison, rendering them passive and inauthentic, simply churning out soundbites to tickle their audience’s prejudices, like bored but savvy GCSE students writing exam scripts merely to elicit the necessary ticks?

Luntz takes the opposite position: the problem with modern politics is that it remains too amateurish, not too professional. “If politicians spent more time, more care, thinking about the language they use, they would have a longer shelf life.” What Luntz means, surely, is that if politicians spoke more carefully, they would have a longer shelf life if (and only if) their opponents did not follow suit. In a zero-sum game – which captures the business of winning elections but not the art of government – if two opposing parties simultaneously develop the same set of communication skills and tactical tools, it does not increase anyone’s shelf life. Two political machines – each of them increasingly sophisticated, cautious and precise in its tactical pursuit of the votes it might win (and only those votes) – essentially cancel each other out.

This model offers a partial explanation of the current political stalemate in this country. The parties are so effective at defensive ploys, undermining any positive but potentially risky move by their opponents, that everyone is, in effect, playing for a nil-nil draw, perhaps hoping to nick a result in the penalty shoot-out (the election campaign).

Rugby union perhaps offers a more apt parallel. I am now resigned to the fact that old-fashioned line-breaks, in which attacking players evade the first line of tacklers – the moment when the pitch opens up, speed enters the equation and this fan feels as if he has been injected intravenously with champagne – are very rarely possible in today’s game. Defences are too good. The professional evolution of rugby – the drift defence, the choke tackle, the defensive hit in contact – have conspired against the sport’s most ecstatic spectacle: freedom in space. The teams are probably “better”. But is the show? I’m not so sure.

In one crucial respect the analogy with sport, introduced by Alastair Campbell, does not apply to politics at all. The purpose of sport, strategically speaking, is so simple that the term strategy is almost a tautology for an older, simpler word: winning. So the professionalisation of sport, though sometimes counterproductive to the spectacle, has unarguably raised the overall standard of performance. Today’s teams, broadly speaking, would beat the teams of the past. Sport is straightforward: everyone knows what winning looks like.

In politics, the notion of winning is much less obvious. The concept of victory can be divided into two spheres, not quite separate but certainly importantly different. First, there is the business of winning elections; second, there is the question of governing well. Although you can’t do the latter without first achieving the former, you can certainly excel at winning elections without being equally good at running the country. Given that focus, attention and talent are always finite, the decision to concentrate on one goal inevitably leads to there being less energy to lavish elsewhere. When we talk about the professionalisation of politics, usually we mean the professionalisation of the political message. But has there been a corresponding evolution and advance in delivering political fundamentals?

Read My Lips referred to the idea that we like professionalism in dentistry, so why not in our politicians? To take on the metaphor, perhaps we feel reassured that dentists are professional in the good sense because human teeth fall out increasingly infrequently. We can test the professionalism of dentists empirically. In contrast, we wonder if politicians are merely focusing on whitening and polishing the surface, allowing underlying decay to spread. Perhaps it is too early to tell. But that is the fear. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 20 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Still hanging

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder