The Saturday Debate: The last thing we need is politicians who emote

by Stephen Tall on June 5, 2010

After an extended election break, we’re reviving our Saturday slot posing a view for debate:

The election campaign of 2010 will, above all, be remembered for the transformative effect of the television debates, and the breakthrough of Nick Clegg. They were, in the main, substantive discussions in which real policies – and real political differences – were openly debated. But they also re-inforced the impression that British politics is, above all, about personality; and in particular, that the quality politicians need above all is empathy, an ability to connect with the voters they seek to represent.

Empathy is a vital quality of leadership. It is one which is perhaps tipping the balance of opinion in the Labour party against David Miliband, who comes across as less of a listener than his brother and rival, Ed.

But empathy can all too easily tip over into something else: an overly emotional reaction which blinds politicians to sound reason. The moment a politician loses his rag – however understandably, however provoked, however gloriously – is the moment I feel my respect draining away.

I do not want a politician who knows only how to emote. I want a politician with cool, clear, concise judgement. Our leaders are faced with umpteen improbably tricky decisions before breakfast: they cannot afford to waste their energies as the mood takes them.

Perhaps the ultimate exemplar of the non-emoting politician happens also to be the world’s most powerful leader, President Obama. Yet he has come in for criticism in recent days from the Washington media for failing to show sufficient anger at BP, forcing Obama to declare himself somewhat falsely ‘furious’ (while reasonably pointing out he wasn’t hired to yell at people):

We can all think of politicians who’ve lost it in public … Michael Heseltine seizing the Commons mace, walking out of cabinet during the Westland crisis, or storming from the TV studios at the mere mention of the name Clive Ponting. Gordon Brown’s private furies, lashing out at colleagues and staff, were legion. And, yes it’s even been known for Lib Dems to lose their temper.

But public displays of anger isn’t what we should expect from, nor ask of, our politicians. All too often such emoting is merely a cover for inaction. And even if it’s genuine such anger rarely results in improved law-making.

Of course politicians need to be in touch with the views of the electors they represent. But, please, spare us the temper-tantrums, and just get on with the job of calm, sensible, rational government.

Agree? Disagree? Comment away …