Following MPs on Twitter is not something I could honestly recommend to any normal human (if the phrase “#labourdoorstep” provokes an involuntary shudder, you’ll know what I mean). From time to time, however, it does give you an insight into the kind of joyless prickery that our elected representatives have to handle with endless grace.
A case in point: Kirsty Blackman, the SNP’s deputy leader at Westminster, appears to be a loyal, hardworking, entirely unobjectionable MP. The 32-year-old was first elected to represent Aberdeen North in 2015. She has two young children, Rebecca and Harris, and the Commons clerks once censured her for bringing Rebecca into a committee hearing. (The children live with her partner in Aberdeen most of the time, but Scottish schools break up before the Westminster summer recess, knackering her childcare arrangements.)
On 15 September, Blackman sent the following tweet: “Speaking at a rally at the Bank of England today about the impact of austerity and the marginalisation of the most vulnerable by the UK government.” Surely no one could argue with that: giving up a day off to speak about an important cause? Bzzt. Lose five points, do not get a retweet. Someone calling himself “the Black Saltire” had a question. Why wasn’t Kirsty Blackman making a speech in Aberdeen? The implication being: wasn’t Aberdeen good enough for Miss La-di-da? “This is the first time I have taken part in a Saturday event in London…” she explained. “This weekend I arranged, in my own personal time, to meet some friends in London. I ditched them for a couple of hours this afternoon to take part in this rally. The last Saturday I had the day off was 11th of August.”
Honestly, would you have responded as pleasantly as that? Personally, I’d have been tempted to tell the bloke to use his black saltire as a black suppository.
The exchange stuck with me because a few hours later, the Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson revealed that she didn’t want to be prime minister. “I value my relationship and my mental health too much for it,” she told the Sunday Times. “I will not be a candidate.” She had self-harmed as a teenager, she revealed, and suffered severe depression as a university student. On the verge of becoming the first British political leader to take maternity leave, she had taken a long, hard look at the job of running the country and thought: No thanks.
The response to Davidson’s interview was overwhelmingly positive, although inevitably, some chippiness crept in. (Why wasn’t she afraid of being first minister, asked someone. Aren’t Scottish politics important enough to ruin your relationship and mental health, eh?) I suspect, though, that most people saw her point. It’s traditional to complain that the current generation of politicians are the worst ever, total pygmies, couldn’t find their arse with both hands, etc. But there have been shifts in public life which make this more likely to be true today. Yes, the salary is decent, but it comes with family-unfriendly hours and bucketloads of unpaid overtime. Politics as a profession was only really sustainable with a wife who was also a secretary, and most partners (male and female) don’t fancy that deal in 2018. Anyone talented enough to be an MP will have objectively better options.
And the scrutiny is not just bracing, but colonoscopic, as former Tory spin doctor Carrie Symonds found out when she was linked to Boris Johnson and reporters trawled through her Instagram to reveal the shocking news that a 30-something woman once went a party dressed as Britney Spears. (I’m outing myself right now as having done the same. White shirt, skirt, tie: it’s the laziest fancy dress costume since Oz from Buffy just put on a sticker that read “God”.)
It should alarm us that, even while we pore over politics, other sources of power in society are much better shielded. CEOs have phalanxes of PRs, and are quick to resort to libel threats. Politicians have a few overworked SpAds and the presumption they don’t sue. And so the executives leading the outsourcing giant Carillion when it collapsed remain unknown – despite being described as “delusional” and “fantasists” by a Commons committee – while the PPS for Paperclips gets done over for accidentally saying “mothers” on BBC Breakfast when she meant “primary caregivers”.
Then add in social media, which gives a megaphone to the Piety Police, the kind of people who would have revelled in being an inquisitor or Stasi informant. For most politicians, I suspect the mimsy time-policing of Mr Oh I See Aberdeen Isn’t Good Enough is more soul-destroying than abuse or even casual threats. Comments such as that aren’t just a formless howl of anger, but aim to implant a grisly little worm of self-doubt in the listener. You aren’t a good person. Everyone despises you. Ironically, the people who are most likely to be hurt by this accusation are good people. The psychopathically confident blusterers won’t care.
Magnify all these factors a hundredfold for leaders. No wonder the job doesn’t appeal to Ruth Davidson; she’s far too normal. Only a chancer, messiah or masochist would want to be prime minister now. (Treat yourself by mentally dividing past and present leaders into these categories.)
Theresa May has to manage her party and guide the country, while her hands are tied by the “will of the people”, which is held to be fixed and immutable. We’ve given her plenty of responsibility but surprisingly little power. (Unlike dictators, she doesn’t even get a gold toilet.) Politicians are a soft target, and their job – solving problems – is far harder than pointing them out: it’s why op-ed columnists usually make terrible ministers. So here’s something no politician can say, but feels very true to me. The problem isn’t just them. It’s us.