From the audience at BBC1’s Question Time the other week, a man in a Max Miller jacket delivered himself of the opinion that “I look at people talking sometimes and I know that they’re lying, right? You can see that they’re lying. And talk about pulling the wool over your eyes, they try to do it. I’m glad I came here today to say that, because when I watch it on telly it’s like a film, d’you know what I mean? It’s not real. But I’m just saying – people want to be more truthful. If not, bring out lie detectors, d’you know what I mean?”
This barely coherent sentiment elicited a low rumble of approval in the hall, but none of the parliamentarians on the panel – Sir Menzies Campbell, Iain Duncan Smith and Harriet Harman – rose to the challenge, though they must have assumed, as I did, that this was the self-consciously sober version of the pub sentiment: “these politicians, they’re all fackin’ liars, d’you know what I mean?”
No doubt in his own dealings, Max Miller Man is veracity personified. But his aperÃ§u is one that many evidently recognise; or rather, one that many lazily embrace, because politicians are easy targets and scoring points off aunt sallies is a national sport. Ever since the 1950s, when television put public figures into our homes on a regular basis, the deference shown by previous generations to the elites – of class, power, wealth, achievement, fame, intellect – has melted away. Now, anyone who tiptoes into, strides into or is thrust into the limelight is riding for a fall from the off.
It’s flying in the face of fashion, conventional wisdom and even perhaps common sense, but I want to suggest that politicians as a class are poorly served by the commentariat and the court of public opinion. Of course I disagree politically with practically all of them, there being very few parliamentarians, now or in history, holding, voicing and maintaining genuinely radical and progressive views. If a chap sees the world in a way diametrically opposed to how I see it, then naturally it follows that he is a cad, a shyster or a fool. But MPs as a breed are not significantly less honourable, scrupulous or altruistic than, say, postal workers, composers, solicitors, cricketers, interior decorators, farmers, travel agents, firefighters or bookies; and rather more so, I venture, than journalists and press barons.
Inextricably mingled with that falling away of deference has been the ever-increasing scrutiny inflicted by the media on the minutiae of day-to-day – even minute-to-minute – politics. Tony Blair’s nose hair, Gordon Brown’s fingernails, David Cameron’s incipient bald patch, nothing is too insignificant or too personal to escape the discourtesy of commentators. There is an unarticulated consensus that every politician has the hide of a perissodactyl and hence cannot be embarrassed, crushed or wounded, however presumptuous or disobliging the assault.
Of course, compared with actually being a politician, the likes of Quentin Letts, Andrew Rawnsley, Richard Littlejohn, Will Self and Simon Hoggart have a laughably undemanding function, tossing off a few hundred words of scorn and prejudice every few days. Any jerk can stand on the sidelines and jeer, as we see every week on Have I Got News for You? Stanley Baldwin’s famous rejoinder, supplied by his cousin Rudyard Kipling, ought to have killed off for ever the readiness of newspapers to carry political comment: “What the proprietorship of these papers is aiming at is power, and power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot through the ages”. Eighty-one years later, the paper tarts are still there.
Consider the chasm between the accountability of political diarists and columnists and that of MPs. If Melanie Phillips’ latest passionately held conviction is totally at odds with what she wrote ten years ago, who cares? But politicians are expected to square the circle about every issue every day and woe betide any minister rash enough to suggest that he might have modulated his thinking, or that differing contexts might require nuanced responses. The coalition is on a hiding to nothing just at present because there has been some tinkering with policy detail. Their party opponents, naturally enough, cry “U-turn” but so does everyone else. Yet if ministers didn’t trim out tax and other adjustments that look more hindrance than help, the chasing press pack would howl that they don’t listen. So they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Of course, the real answer is to get policies right in the first place. But there are no medals for being wise after the event.
Consider another impossibility we have been tutored to demand of our politicians. This is that each of them echo, word for word, everything that everybody else in their own party ever says about anything. As soon as any individual falls short of this ridiculous litmus test, the commentariat whoop and holler like children on a sugar rush.
Oddly enough, here in the real world, intelligent people find that they may make congenial alliances even with other intelligent people with whom they discover profound and wide differences. This is not permitted in British politics: every member of a political party is expected to parrot every party line. In a more sophisticated democracy – Greece, say, or Israel – it is a given that if there are twenty people in a room, even though they all be members of the same political alliance, there will be twenty separate views about pretty much everything more significant than the weather. We might learn something from that.
Because British politicians are under continuous pressure to subscribe to orthodoxy, the concept of “collective responsibility” is highly significant for cabinets and shadow cabinets alike. The effect of this constraint is that front-benchers – and, by association, loyal party supporters – are obliged to subscribe vociferously and regularly to policies and (more uncomfortably) statements to which they may be, at best, indifferent. This frequently requires the deployment of a talent that is rarely mastered, that of persuasive circumlocution. This talent is also called upon when some aggressive interviewer demands a yes/no answer to a question that lends itself to no such bald simple-mindedness. Politics, m’lud, is a subtle business, and monosyllabic, unstructured answers are usually no answer at all. Columnists and opinion-makers are never called upon to jump through this kind of hoop. It would be instructive to see them required to do so.
I suggest that we are setting the bar impossibly high for our politicians, individuals who, with few exceptions, have chosen to submit themselves to a role that offers relatively modest and certainly unpredictable personal rewards. It is always possible that day-to-day political manoeuvrings at Westminster are quite as corrupt as in Chicago or Kiev or Palermo, though I beg to doubt it.
It is in the nature of becoming a legislator that you are going to find yourself encountering, socially or in the way of business, billionaires and other highly powerful people. As an MP, even as a minister in a cabinet proverbially of millionaires like the present one, you may well find yourself at a reception where your personal wealth cannot hold a candle to that of fellow guests like Bob Diamond, JK Rowling, David Beckham, Damien Hurst and Richard Desmond. They know that quite as well as you do. Aware that they could buy you several times over, they may not be about to extend to you the condescension that your status as a legislator might be thought to merit. This is a pretty uncomfortable tightrope to walk.
It is hardly to be wondered at if, in the big-willie world of power and dealing and high finance, mere politicians feel in some degree inadequate. What is very surprising is that many more of them are not corrupted than the small number that gets found out. And what is so dismally revealing is the lack of ambition, the petty degree of corruption that does get uncovered. When The Daily Telegraph began its long and deeply relished dance-of-the-seventy-veils that was the great MPs’ expenses scandal, you could picture the Barclay twins, to whom falls the not terribly onerous task of owning The Telegraph, scoffing at the pathetic level of graft that their reporters uncovered – flat-screen tellies and duck houses indeed! – as they read the revelations on their island of Brecqhou where they enjoy their wealth untroubled by the tax man because they get away with being registered in Monaco.
Another proprietor whose organ routinely disdains politicians of all colours is Lord Rothermere, inheritor of the Daily Mail titles. Rothermere lives in practice on a fine estate in Wiltshire but, for tax evasion purposes, is a citizen of Paris. Thus do Baldwin’s harlots continue to wield power without responsibility while enjoying wealth without contributing to the public purse.
Something else about politicos that is routinely derided is their custom – a requirement of party managers – to shine a flattering light on every manifestation of their efforts. I have news for you: this instinct is not peculiar to MPs. Talking up is as old as language itself. But commentators would have you believe that this gambit was born in the Blair era, when it gained a powerfully evocative name: spin.
Well, you know, we all employ spin. The still-extant ancestor of the aforementioned Question Time is Radio 4’s Any Questions?, chaired these many years by Jonathan, the younger brother of the television programme’s host David Dimbleby. In recent years, Dimbleby Minor has taken to referring to the lunchtime repeat of his vehicle as “the Saturday broadcast”, but for many seasons before that, he was content to account the repeat as “the Saturday edition” as if, in some mysterious manner, it differed from the original live transmission on a Friday evening. This, boys and girls, is pure spin. Indeed, “the Saturday broadcast” is not significantly less a piece of spin than “the Saturday edition”. We all, constantly and in our daily lives, attempt (often unconsciously) to put the best ‘ er ‘ spin on everything we say and do. And why not?
But be fair: spinning is not lying. And giving a comprehensive answer, even if it inclines to the tortuous, is not lying. And avoiding a candid declaration that you feel a lot more sanguine about some of your party’s policies than others is not lying. A politician may twist and turn and temporize, but if she tells a lie to parliament she will surely sacrifice her career. Max Miller Man would do well to remember that.Tags: Domestic (UK)
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This post was written by W Stephen Gilbert