What is it we want from our politicians?

by Stephen Tall on September 1, 2006

‘We get the politicians we deserve,’ has become something of a cliché, used to wrap-up meandering discussions about the ‘democratic deficit’, or to deflate the puffed-up ignorance of radio phone-in callers bemoaning that ‘all politicians are the same, only in it for themselves’. But clichés only become clichés because enough people believe them to be statements of truth – so is it fair?

The key question is this: what is it we want from our politicians? Some voters undoubtedly look for political heroes, messianic figures blessed with a Midas touch, who can exert change at the flick of a Parliamentary wand. Those who have such expectations find themselves frequently, and unsurprisingly, disappointed.

Any leader who attempts to project an aura of super-human capability, of indefatigable wisdom, is doomed to fail. Indeed, Tony Blair’s greatest failure as Prime Minister has been his foolhardy attempt to feign an omniscience denied to the rest of us. Those members of the public who trusted his judgement on Iraq and now see quite how disastrous has been his blunder will never forgive him his unblinking certainty.

A leader who scales the heights alone – and then finds he can only look down on his people – is one who will fall hard from grace. It is why Mr Cameron, keen as mustard to tread in Mr Blair’s footsteps, would be well-advised to step very carefully. Otherwise he will become just another Midas transformed into a Canute.

We should not expect our leaders to be endowed with talismanic powers. A good leader does not stride out in front, bellowing ‘I’m the only one who knows the way, so keep up at the back.’

True leaders work with their people as a team, ensuring challenges are openly acknowledged in a supportive environment; enabling the individuals within the team to address the changes needed in their own behaviour and attitudes; and pacing carefully the collective rate of change required to engineer progress without burn-out.

But do our political systems – does our media, do we the public – allow our politicians the space in which to become good leaders? Are we prepared to take on the responsibility which comes with being active citizens rather than supine subjects? Or are we happier in our comfort zone of disappointment, holding politicians accountable to impossibly high standards, and then uttering impotent outrage at their inevitable downfall?

The Wall Street Journal last week selected Anthony Trollope’s The Prime Minister, written 130 years ago, as the best political novel ever written. It tells the tale of a reluctant Premier, Plantagenet Palliser, who feels compelled to take on the highest office in the land because no-one else will: “on looking back on what he had done, and indeed on looking forward into his future intentions, he could not see why he, of all men, should be Prime Minister.” (That Trollope is John Major’s favourite author perhaps tells its own, doubtless sub-conscious, story.)

Palliser achieves little because there is little he wants to achieve. Mediocrity triumphs when good people refuse to get their hands dirty. And yet who can blame good people for disdaining power if their reward is to have their lives made unliveable?

Charles Anglin was, until last May, a Liberal Democrat councillor in Lambeth. During his re-election campaign, the South London Press decided to print choice extracts – de-contextualised to maximise their embarrassment-value – from his profile on Gaydar, the gay dating website. As a gay man, out since he was 16, there was never any suggestion that Mr Anglin had acted hypocritically – it was simply that, as a public figure, he was ‘fair game’. Reflecting on the experience in his blog, he observes:

… this isn’t just about what happened to me – it’s about what kind of politicians we want as a society. How often have we heard the complaint that politicians are aloof and separate, that one of the causes of political disaffection is that they lead lives completely divorced from the experiences of the electorate? Now we are told that it is only those people who conform to an imagined ideal of behaviour who are fit to hold office. Surely we can’t have it both ways?

There are, of course, exceptions, politicians allowed to display all-too-human frailties; and the more publicly they exhibit them the more they are venerated. Revelations surrounding Charles Kennedy’s alcoholism re-surfaced this week with the serialisation in The Times of Greg Hurst’s biography. A year ago such exposures would have forced his resignation; now they appear to add rosy-cheeked lustre to his man-of-the-people charm.

And scarcely a week escapes without Ken Livingstone abusing his position to put our civic discourse through his gaffe-mangle, whether likening a Jewish reporter to a Nazi concentration camp guard, or accusing Trevor Phillips of being on the verge of joining the BNP. Yet his popularity endures, despite, or perhaps because, he appears permanently to live in a tact-vacuum.

Such exceptions are society’s bit of political rough. They serve to demonstrate how tolerant we can be, how much we can love a colourful character. For the 99% of politicians who lack the vivacious personality of a Charlie or Ken such misdemeanours would leave their career in tatters.

We need to cut our politicians some slack – recognising they should be free to live their lives in common with those they represent. In return, politicians need to get real – their job is not to act as miracle-workers, but to enable us to make the best of our own lives as we wish to live them. That way, we’ll not only get the politicians we deserve; we might just end up with the society we deserve as well.