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28 August 2000

We get the politicians we deserve


By Kirsty Milne

A friend confides that he gave up smoking dope when he went into politics, for fear the News of the World would search through his dustbins for discarded roaches.

Perhaps it was not such a sacrifice. But it illustrates the extent to which British politics has turned into one continuous episode of Big Brother. That house in east London is a palace of freedom compared to the prison in which our elected representatives are confined. Which other profession requires its members to possess the morals of a monk, the probity of an accountant and the orthodoxy of a Dalek?

Ministers are subject to a CCTV-style scrutiny that ranges from their children’s behaviour to their holiday destinations. In Scotland, Donald Dewar’s coalition Cabinet is reeling from the ferocity of the press. Wendy Alexander, the minister responsible for repealing Section 28, endured tabloid attacks and innuendo on a par with those used about Nasty Nick.

The starting point seems to be that anyone who stands for election is automatically suspect. A Martian leafing through newspapers would swiftly learn that politicians are extravagant, easily corrupted, addicted to secret deals and afflicted by “gaffes”.

Politicians do need to be scrutinised, but the press encourage crude and muddled notions of accountability. Every administrative disaster brings ritual howls for a purgative resignation. The Scottish Education Minister, Sam Galbraith, is under siege because this year’s school exam results went badly wrong. It does not seem to occur to anyone that it might be preferable to let him stay, suffer and sort things out.

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This kind of response encourages megalomania on the part of politicians and infantilism on the part of voters. Ministers are not responsible for everything. Pygmies in the face of global capitalism, they cannot be blamed for every factory closure. Yet an innocent observer might have concluded that the decision to close Longbridge was entirely the fault of the Trade Secretary, Stephen Byers. In Scotland, media ownership receives far less attention than a puny government that is somehow expected to slash fuel prices and solve the heroin problem.

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If politicians’ public powers cannot bear this scrutiny, nor can their private lives. Few, however ego-driven, want to see their souls and sexual partners spilled all over the front page, yet elected office is treated as a branch of showbiz.

Does “the public” want all this? The public is both more tolerant and more exacting than the press – more tolerant towards Steve Norris’s affairs or Euan Blair’s drunkenness or Harriet Harman’s choice of school for her son; more exacting about the state of the National Health Service or the London Underground.

The pity of it is that politicians are not, on the whole, bad people. They may have overcharged egos and exhibitionist tendencies, a shorter-than-average attention span and a better-than-average memory for names. But many face the returning officer for admirable reasons: feeling angry at injustice, wanting to help others, hoping to change society.

Some parliamentarians are careerists and some, by the law of averages, are likely to be corrupt. But the mildly complacent and the bone idle are outnumbered by well-meaning, hard-working people. They do not shine because that takes flair and independence, qualities they have long since suppressed or relegated to their private lives.

Voters love authenticity and candour – they like Clare Short and Kenneth Clarke – but they get politicians with cosmetically altered personalities. To meet Gordon Brown or Stephen Byers is a shock, so different are their public from their private faces.

Journalists blame this on the iron grip of party machines. Yet the party machines have an iron grip precisely because of the feeding frenzy that ensues when politicians say what they really think (Clare Short on cannabis, Mo Mowlam on royalty). So the politicians, ringed by the merciless media, grow pachyderm hides of blandness.

This self-suppression has unintended effects. The media get impatient with the boring “clones” they have created. Politics is theatre; it needs characters – which is why, in Tony Blair’s first administration, the spotlight has slid on to unelected advisers. They can afford to be original and colourful because they do not expect to be put through the wringer. They may choose a backroom role because of a past that cannot bear investigation or a private life that must stay private.

But far from being, as Clare Short called them, “the people who live in the dark”, aides and spin-doctors get as much publicity as the most practised politician. Alastair Campbell boasts a biography long before most members of the Cabinet. Charlie Whelan’s chutzpah has made him more famous than the average junior minister. John Rafferty, Dewar’s erstwhile chief of staff, fashioned a narrative about the new devolved government with a verve that his masters could not match – then fell foul of the reality that it did not always reflect their intentions.

The political class knows it is at risk of dying from pernicious anaemia. The search for new blood is growing desperate. Blair hauls in every passing businessman, then sees them come to grief over shares or trusts or income tax.

I spend much time criticising politicians in print, calling for more imaginative ideas or dynamic leadership. But I would never urge a friend, however talented or motivated, to stand for parliament. The life is intolerable, and not because of the workload or the hours. It is intolerable because the media have made it so. We get precisely the politicians we deserve.

Kirsty Milne is a columnist for the Scotsman