Even Abraham Lincoln saw red

Andrew Rawnsley's book has reduced what should be a debate about great issues into a gossip column.

If the published extracts are any guide, far too much fuss is being made about Andrew Rawnsley's book The End of the Party. Rawnsley himself - in an explanation that was difficult to distinguish from an apology - has tried to elevate its importance by asserting that the public has "a right to be acquainted" with what he claims are Gordon Brown's tantrums. That is exactly how tabloid newspapers justify exposing the irregular love lives of professional footballers. If Rawnsley was motivated by a sense of duty, it was to his bank balance and his ego, not to the nation.

But the book has one, no doubt unintentional significance. It illustrates the state to which politics in general, and political commentary in particular, has descended. Policies have become less important than personalities. Image has taken the place of ideas. Rawnsley is a paradigm figure from the age in which parliamentary reporting has been replaced by "sketch-writing" - an attempt to amuse rather than to inform. The End of the Party debases politics not because it diminishes the Prime Minister, but because it reduces what should be a debate about great issues into a gossip column.

All-flash Gordon

It is a full decade since I knew Brown well, and I have no idea whether or not, during the intervening years, he developed the bad habit of shouting at secretaries. If he did, it is a matter for regret, but not a reason to declare a national emergency. Abraham Lincoln was so prone to bouts of uncontrollable anger that some of his staff feared that he was dying of mercury poisoning. He won the civil war, emancipated the slaves and saved the Union.

There is no correlation between equitable temperament and statesmanship. Nor is the ability to run the country related to any of the other superficial virtues that are now regarded as essential to political success. That claim is not made in defence of the Prime Minister. It is a declaration of support for a higher view of politics than the fashionable notion that what matters in a party leader is a winning smile, the ability to counterfeit interest in pop music and a willingness to weep in public. Judged against those criteria, neither William Gladstone nor Clement Attlee would have risen above the rank of parliamentary secretary.

The two greatest prime ministers in our history would have been disasters on talk shows. Their manner was hardly "voter-friendly" - they saw no reason for it to be. They assumed that they would be judged by their policies and their performance, not by their personalities. They practised the politics of ideals and ideas.

The British public could still be roused by the call to support great causes today. But that would require the parties to offer a clear choice between rival ideologies. And the pursuit of the elusive middle ground has blunted the sharp edge of controversy. The result is low turnouts in elections and MPs held in ever lower esteem. The refusal to say "here I stand - I can do no other" has done more to damage to the reputation of politics and politicians than all the fraudulent and risible House of Commons expenses added together. Yet newspapers attribute the crisis of confidence in parliament to duck houses and bell-tower repairs, not the supine endorsement of the Iraq invasion.

Each Wednesday at noon, parliament puts on a display of how debased politics has become. It is laughingly called "Prime Minister's Questions". It was once used to press the government to reveal or justify its policies. Now it begins with the leader of the opposition mouthing carefully prepared insults about the Prime Minister's character and continues with backbenchers reading out party-political slogans written for them by the whips.

It may be naive to believe that, in the age of reality television, politics should still provide something more noble than the parliamentary equivalent of mud-wrestling. But unless politicians return to the conflict of ideas, democracy itself will be devalued, and the Andrew Rawnsleys of this world will make their money by suggesting that elections should be decided by which party leader the voters would most like to see evicted from a Westminster edition of I'm a Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here!.

Higher ground

Politicians themselves must take most of the blame for reducing politics from a conflict of ideas to a clash of skin-deep personalities. The parliamentary press corps, however, have accepted this debasement with the enthusiasm of men and women who find lobby journalism preferable to working. Retailing tittle-tattle about what one secretary of state said to another is far easier than mastering the intricacies of the Laffer curve and deciding whether or not higher marginal taxation rates increase or diminish revenue. Editors will argue that it is also more popular with the British public. That is because the Gresham's law of news coverage has made voters see politics as a talent show. During the next three months, the Labour Party must plant its electoral flag on higher ground.

Let us hope that the government has recognised at last the loss of identity that lies at the root of Labour's recent unpopularity. That is, in part, the result of putting opinion polls above principles. But it is also the consequence of the years when the superficialities of personality and presentation were thought to be enough to secure a parliamentary majority. Those days are over. Gordon Brown's conversation with Piers Morgan, surprisingly successful though that was, does not point the way to victory. A return to the politics of ideas does. That is also the foundation on which to build a new respect for politics and politicians. And - inconvenient though it may be for Rawnsley - it is necessary for the successful future of democracy.

Roy Hattersley was deputy leader of the Labour Party from 1983-92

This article first appeared in the 01 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The Dave Ultimatum