Why We Have the Politicians We Have
It has become the boring truism of British politics to suggest that the calibre of our political representatives has been in a precipitous decline for decades. This could not have been more tragically underscored than the Conservative Party’s failure to oust their own dishonest, discredited and, by now, embarrassing leader earlier this week.
To be fair to him, Boris Johnson, who was described by his former classmate on TRIGGERnometry as “a man who is not unduly constrained by principle”, is an outlier in the crowd of soulless automatons around him in that his inexplicable charisma compensates somewhat for his above-average ineptitude and unparalleled deceitfulness.
In my lifetime, a period I necessarily consider brief, we went from Thatcher & Lawson and Blair & Brown to today’s crop of incompetents, who are shockingly devoid of principles, backbone and any sort of moral consistency.
At the risk of being accused of spreading fake news by younger readers, even the Liberal Democrats used to have leaders of character and significance! Paddy Ashdown, who led the party until 1999, was a polyglot who spoke Mandarin at interpreter level – take it from a former translator, that’s impressive! Not only that, Ashdown was a Royal Marine who later joined the elite Special Boat Service, followed by a stint at MI6 before entering politics. Whether you agreed with him on policy or not, few could deny he was a force to be reckoned with. Even Charles Kennedy, his permanently-pickled replacement, was widely respected and taken seriously, and rightly so.
What is true of leaders is equally true of the rest for obvious reasons. The quality of those on the backbenches necessarily predicts the quality of those who lead their parties. Like a football club without an academy, a political party which fails to recruit, train and promote up-and-coming talent will start to struggle on the pitch before long.
It has become all too rare to see political leaders challenged by sane people from their own side on matters of principle. During the lockdown period, Steve Baker and David Davies did a good job of forcing the Government to slow down and eventually relent on their COVID extremism but, despite rumours of significant dissent, no minister of note spoke out, let alone resigned.
Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi, for example, publicly promised not to introduce vaccine passports which he described as “discriminatory”. What did he do when the Government decided to plough ahead with that very policy a few months later? Did he speak out, threaten to resign or, God forbid, actually resign? No. Instead, he explained that “vaccine passports go against everything he believes in” before pressing ahead with the policy anyway.
There was no Robin Cook moment because there are few Robin Cooks left in politics.
So how did we get here? In the words of V, the masked protagonist from V for Vendetta:
I am, of course, not accusing ordinary people – me and you – of inventing the 24-hour news cycle or the social media platforms that followed it. It is, undoubtedly, these two developments that have acted as a sieve which sorts the wheat from the chaff, promptly elevating the latter while sticking the former in the political waste basket. But it is ordinary people – me and you – who watch the never-ending news, discuss politics on social media and vote accordingly.
It is for this reason, I believe, that few Big Beasts now inhabit the political zoo of Westminster. I have met, talked and sparred with dozens of British politicians from across the political spectrum on a range of radio and TV programmes in recent years. They are all surprisingly nice. Some even have personalities, a fact they skillfully conceal while the mics are hot and the cameras are rolling. But, whichever side of the political spectrum they sit on, few are impressive.
A society which prioritises submissive adherence to political correctness and party loyalty over substance and character will inevitably produce a cadre of slippery apparatchiks whose primary skillset is following the flitterings of public opinion instead of actually leading.
At its core, leadership is first and foremost the ability to persuade individuals to cease acting in what they perceive to be their own self-interest for the good of the group. Consider what I believe to be the most pressing domestic challenge facing modern Britain: the housing crisis.
While the minutia of the planning laws, the perverse incentives of the construction industry and a multitude of other convenient sideshows are often cited as the reasons for this ever-growing problem, the reality is much simpler.
The reason politicians talk about the housing crisis is that they know it’s a problem. The reason they do nothing about it is that they believe that solving the problem is political suicide. And they’re almost certainly right.
Why? Because people who are already on the housing ladder like me benefit from continuing increases in the value of our assets. Or, to be more accurate, we think we benefit because it serves our selfish short-term interests.
And it’s not the job of individual homeowners with busy lives who face growing fuel costs and rising interest rates to think about what the lack of affordable housing for young people is doing to the marriage rate, the average age of a first time mother and the huge, unpredictable but likely terrible effects this will have on society.
It is the job of leaders to look at that big picture and to persuade us to understand that, yes, not every policy they will implement will benefit us personally right here right now, but that it will benefit us as a society, allowing us to keep the unspoken promise of a prosperous democracy: that our children and grandchildren will live better lives than we did.
That is the job of a leader, and we deliberately filter out anyone willing to do it.