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Salt - Or Scum - Of The Earth?
Oliver Moor

Now that we’re in the middle of election season, politicians are in our face like never before. Everywhere one looks, there seem to be bods in suits wandering around kissing babies, drinking pints, planting trees and driving tanks in an attempt to get us to give them our support. These people appear to have a screw loose. One can’t help thinking, as the latest grinning wannabe struts his or her stuff: why would anyone want to put themselves through that? Aren’t politicians ridiculous? You want me to trust you? Trust? You?

Election time is, of course, the worst time to have to make a judgement about politicians. The stunts, the handshaking, the backslapping - it looks phoney, and gives a significant boost to the image of politicians as that of egomaniacs out for themselves. But is this unfair? Are politicians really all ‘self-serving scum’, as some would have us believe? Or is there, underlying the posturing and electioneering, a decency to be found at the core of every would-be Member of Parliament?

The truth is, of course, that politicians are not by any means whiter-than-white. A few are genuinely corrupt. The Jonathan Aitken affair, the Neil Hamilton case, and numerous others give our elected representatives a bad name. But to say that all of them are morally bankrupt is perhaps wide of the mark. Many politicians do go into politics motivated by their principles. And, although many make mistakes - and very grave mistakes - along the way, there are many who do contribute to the national debate - and some who make a genuine difference to the way our country is both run and perceived internationally.

Certainly, particularly in the generations before the current crop of Westminster hopefuls, the sorts of people who entered politics were particularly idealistic, or at least felt that they could help the country achieve greater success. A couple of the big names who will be standing down at this election are particularly notable. Tony Benn and Ted Heath have always been respected for their decency, even if they have been loathed politically by both their natural opposition and by members of their own party. Both entered politics with a desire to improve things for Britain. Both achieved political success, Heath becoming Prime Minister, and Benn Minister for Trade and Industry. Both then returned to the back benches, from where they have spoken passionately on occasion on issues that they genuinely believe in, often in defiance of their own parties.

Trust me, it was this big, honest...

What do we mean by self-serving, in any case? One aspect of the charge could be that politicians want to get rich quick. Well, an MP’s salary of £48,371 is unimpressive compared to what even a middle-rank IT consultant would make, let alone what a top lawyer or company director could expect to glean. One would be better off as an civil servant. Nobody goes into politics to get wealthy. Yes - there have been a few who have taken the odd freebie - but those who have been caught have paid a high price. In the current climate, when political sleaze is a such a major issue, the penalties for the smallest misdemeanour are severe. Financial misdeeds are particularly damaging, and party machines move rapidly to expel wrongdoers, such as Peter Mandelson, who left Government immediately after the affair of his dubious mortgage application became known.

Perhaps there are some who go into Westminster seeking “power” - in other words, the ability to control others. Those who do so would be seriously deluded. Backbench MPs (in other words the vast majority of them) have no real power. A bobby on the beat has more authority than an MP. Pulled into line by the increasingly efficient, and increasingly ferocious, party whips, backbenchers are expected to - and usually do - vote with their party. The power-crazed are better suited to, say, the headmastership of a minor public school, or perhaps a middle-rank army career.

This isn’t to say that there are not some huge and unpleasant egos in the House, or that people are not ambitious or wish to get promoted. Of course they do. But what on earth is wrong with that? People like being promoted - whether it’s in politics, in academia, or industry - and generally it’s considered a good thing. OK, so it can involve “saying the right thing to the right people” or “having contacts in the right places”; but we can hardly condemn them for making the most of their contacts (hell, as a writer I certainly plan on making the most of mine.) Having a big ego isn’t particularly attractive, but at least with a politician if you don’t like their personality, or the job they’re doing, you can get rid of them. How much worse to have a big ego running around in, say, a great public corporation like the BBC: someone like John Birt, for example, who, as popular opinion has it, could go in and wreck the place without any chance of being voted out.

The number of politicians who could, in any case, be thought truly self-serving is pretty small. Those who could tend to be Westminster’s glamour boys and girls (I use the word in its broadest possible sense: Robin Cook isn’t exactly Errol Flynn). There are, of course, positions which attract high levels of public exposure, and it may be that, at the back of any MP’s mind, is the idea that they, too, might achieve celebrity status. But who hasn’t - in any field - wished that they might not achieve public recognition? In any case, the politician’s celebrity isn’t like that of a film star - unless you’re the Prime Minister in the first days of a new administration, the best you’ll get is grudging respect. Even simple recognition is unlikely. Unless an MP is a high profile Cabinet Minister or former Minister (Jack Straw, perhaps, or John Major), a celebrity from another profession (Sebastian Coe or Glenda Jackson), or an incredibly long-standing and particularly curmudgeonly backbencher (Dennis Skinner), the chances of their name being known -- even in their own constituency -- is pretty minimal. The chances of being recognised in the street (assuming they’re not wearing a rosette) is about zero.

People are often attracted to politics from other fields. Those other fields - often lucrative careers such as business or law - are areas in which a very similar amount of fame could be gained, where the power available is far higher, where the respect is greater, and where the money is much better. So why would anyone bother with politics? These days it is hard to imagine why anybody would want to go into it at all. The money is poor, the respect from the general public is minimal, and the hours are long. The reasons are there, however. The ability to change outdated or redundant legislation is certainly one. The chance to improve the lot for one’s own community is another (and it is in this area that most backbench MPs achieve the most.) And finally, of course, there's the simple fact that, in a democracy, somebody’s got to do the job. It’s a shame that so many ridiculous hoops have to be gone through to get to do it. But to paraphrase Churchill, “democracy is the worst form of government - apart from all the other forms”. So while we have a democracy, we’re just going to have put up with the showboating - and try not to let it influence our judgement too much. In the main, MPs are a decent crowd. They really are. Trust me on this. Hey - is that a baby I see over there? What’s your name? Aren’t you adorable?

© Oliver Moor 2001

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