Now that were
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 cant help thinking, as the latest grinning
wannabe struts his or her stuff: why would anyone want to put themselves
through that? Arent 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
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
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 MPs 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
This isnt 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 its in politics, in academia, or industry
- and generally its 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 isnt particularly
attractive, but at least with a politician if you dont like their
personality, or the job theyre 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 Westminsters glamour
boys and girls (I use the word in its broadest possible sense: Robin
Cook isnt 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 MPs mind, is the idea that they, too, might achieve
celebrity status. But who hasnt - in any field - wished that they
might not achieve public recognition? In any case, the politicians
celebrity isnt like that of a film star - unless youre the
Prime Minister in the first days of a new administration, the best youll
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 theyre
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 ones 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, somebodys got to do the
job. Its 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, were 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? Whats your name?
Arent you adorable?
© Oliver Moor 2001