Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Election 2019
6 December 2019

What we want: grown-up, authentic politicians

So much of this election isn’t about politics at all. It’s about two tight-knit groups of (mostly male) professional public speakers and image managers.

By Rowan Williams

Please can we have politics back? I mean the process of arguing about how to manage society in a sustainable way, distributing risks sensibly, handling conflict without violence, checking imbalances, investing in how we pay attention to people’s experiences and needs. And in our present context, this would mean a huge recalibration of national debate around the central question of sustainable growth and pushing back against what may still turn out to be irreversible environmental degradation.

So much of this election isn’t about politics at all in this sense. It’s about two tight-knit groups of (mostly male) professional public speakers and image managers walking a tightrope strung between the handling of internal party quarrels and constructing of vastly inflated promises aimed at an electorate assumed to be terminally naive. I know which I’d rather see lose (the present government), but I’m not sure that I want to see anyone win in a way that reinforces the model we are currently stuck with.

Someone said recently that part of our problem was that we increasingly think of public debate in terms of fighting enemies, not responding to opponents. If an enemy wins, I’ve had it; if an opponent wins, I have more work to do. High-octane drama, detached from truth, perspective and humility, eggs us on to this gratifying, all-or-nothing mentality: the reality show with contestants voted off; the baying vicarious bloodsports of the internet.

This election is unlikely to solve much; not even the focal distraction of the past three years. Brexit is an illuminating symptom of political malaise, defended and resisted as if it were a real policy. In fact it is a near-vacuous word. It might have been possible to debate what precise problems would or would not be resolved through various ways of reworking our relations with Europe. As it is, we have an answer looking for a question – or rather, an “answer” that ignores the tangled variety of actual social questions and brilliantly succeeds in taking our eyes off the most pressing crises of the day. Yes, vote, but there is much more to do in turning up the volume on these crises. Start with the “Future Generations Pledge” backed by the Big Issue, which invites all parliamentary candidates to sign up to long-term commitments and to support a “Future Generations Bill” that would build into our law-making the promise to consider any new legislation’s impact on the next generation and the social and material environment (the Welsh Assembly already has such a code).

And perhaps we could start encouraging more adults in politics. Looking back to the postwar period, the real heroes are mostly the patient, shrewd and not very charismatic figures – Attlee, Hammarskjold, perhaps Nehru – who sat out the dramas and posturings of others and, sometimes at substantial risk, slowly changed what it was possible to hope for. If human nature doesn’t alter radically, there must be some people still capable of that kind of authentic politics. There are plenty of vacancies for applicants. 

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

This piece is part of our “What we want” series. Read the rest of the articles here

Content from our partners
How to create a responsible form of “buy now, pay later”
“Unions are helping improve conditions for drivers like me”
Transport is the core of levelling up