Adam Ash

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Friday, December 01, 2006

The universal loathing of politicians

The truth game
Politics has always had a more squalid side, but are the wheels about to come off the democratic wagon?
By Brian Walden/BBC News

In the 1920's New York City had a mayor named Jimmy Walker. Jimmy didn't waste too much time worrying about the problems of New York. What he liked was drinking in speakeasies and betting on horses.

Such pleasures cost money, but fortunately Jimmy was very corrupt and had cash boxes stashed away all over town. It was the Roaring Twenties and, despite his little failings, New Yorkers loved their debonair mayor.

A song was written about him the refrain of which ran: "When you hear the pop of a cork, you've found his honour, the Mayor of New York."


But nothing lasts and Walker's corruption became flagrant and known to everybody. On top of that, having acquired a showgirl mistress, he announced he was thinking of getting a divorce.

The carefree Jimmy still believed he could win a third term as mayor in 1932 and asked the opinion of one of his cronies, who gave him the bad news: "Jimmy, most people think you should be impeached and in the Catholic wards you're running second to Judas Iscariot."

As you can see politics has always had a squalid side, but even remembering the shining example of Jimmy Walker rarely has the reputation of politicians been lower than it is now. I'm often told the mere mention of politics puts people off.

Sometimes, for the sheer hell of it, I ask why? The answer is always the same. "Politicians say one thing, but do another. They're all alike - lavish with promises, but useless at delivery."

This dislike of politicians is generously distributed across the entire spectrum, because it doesn't have anything to do with ideology.

The historic struggle between capitalism and socialism seems, in Britain, part of a forgotten past. But the distaste for politicians runs deep.

In the United States and Britain most voters seem to have an aversion to voting for anybody. American voters have always been sluggish, still they had earlier this month the most important mid-term elections for many years.


It wasn't a brief campaign (it never is in the States) and it dominated American news coverage for weeks. At the end of this savage, expensive battle for the hearts and minds of the American people three out of five eligible voters didn't bother to vote. Nobody was surprised, because that's as good as it gets.

British commentators, like me, used to swank about our high turnouts in elections. Not anymore we don't. Britain does a bit better than America, but the abstention level is close to an historic high. And that's for general elections. The turnout for local elections doesn't bear thinking about.

This is not the worst of it. This week I've seen some private opinion polls in which the public was asked its views on the "issues" - as my old friend Tony Benn would put it. I shan't trouble you with the "issues" because they're not the point. The point is that about 50% of the voters "don't know" whether any political party would be any good at tackling anything. I've got an ugly suspicion that "don't know" is often standing in for "don't care."

Now there are many features of life I find more attractive than politics, but unless we can stop loathing it quite so much the wheels are going to come off the democratic wagon.

I suspect the word itself is part of the problem. Say "politics" and into the mind's eye comes a vision of men and women who want you to elect them to a cushy job. You trot out in the pouring rain to the polling station and make a mark on a piece of paper, which is their passport to a privileged position that carries with it a good salary and expenses, plus a pension likely to be bigger than the one you'll get. You're electing them to look after your interests, but they seem to be looking after their own pretty well.

That's one definition of politics. Here's another. The essence of politics is persuading others to do what you believe is right, or in your interests. Such a persuasive gift often goes hand in hand with emotional intelligence, which is the capacity to sense what other people are feeling and thinking and to know how to use that knowledge.


Put like that it's clear that political skill is needed in any executive job in business, or in the public services. It doesn't stop there. The Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Chief Rabbi all need to have the skill of persuasion and the emotional intelligence to sense what others feel and think.

The key to getting any organisation to work well is persuasion. So why are politicians so collectively disliked? Mainly because you don't go down to the polling station to elect the Pope.

You may disagree with his views on abortion, but however strongly you recoil from him for holding an opinion you regard as wrong, you don't feel a sense of personal betrayal. You do with politicians. I've felt it myself. You put them in to do what you wanted and they haven't, so you feel cheated.

I don't underestimate the extent to which politicians contribute to their own unpopularity.

But one of the reasons for this is they're allowed no scope for that vital human safety-valve - ambivalence. All the time they're supposed to be sure they're right, whereas a well-rounded life involves regular self-questioning and uncertainty.

If politicians dared risk an entirely honest dialogue with us it would be riddled with our mutual doubts, uncertainties and contradictions. Certainly when I was an MP, ambivalence was actively discouraged.

I read an article the other day whose writer was horrified by the death penalty. He opposed it for anybody however vile, but he wanted Saddam Hussein hanged. He knew it was a contradiction, but it's what he felt. Our political culture doesn't extend the same indulgence to politicians.


Somehow the interaction of a suspicious public and a political class frightened by admissions has produced the sort of absurdity we've seen recently with Tony Blair and Iraq. Practically everybody knows that Iraq has turned out to be, in Sir David Frost's words, "pretty much of a disaster." But when the Prime Minister says "it has" we're supposed to be shocked.

That's because we've been conditioned to believe that on this subject he's bound to tell lies. Downing Street was so disconcerted it put out a statement saying Blair had made "a straightforward slip of the tongue". Or as a chief whip once told me: "Don't you ever admit we're wrong."

I'm not saying political fashion is going to change radically in the near future, but my mind turns to a figure from our past. Stanley Baldwin was the dominant Tory prime minister between the wars, though practically nobody talks about him these days. Baldwin was a shrewd, kindly man who loved the House of Commons. He loved it so much he got into the habit of thinking aloud when he addressed it.

During Baldwin's time the Commons possessed speakers of the calibre of David Lloyd-George, Winston Churchill and Nye Bevan. Perhaps reacting against these superb orators, Baldwin's style was ruminative and meandering.

He quietly chewed the cud with the House of Commons, reflecting on his options and every so often letting slip a startling revelation. Baldwin didn't always tell the truth, but he told enough of it to be universally trusted. Just the sort of thing we could do with today.

Oh by the way, Baldwin's greatest days coincided with Mayor Jimmy Walker's heyday in New York. Then as now, politics goes as high, or crawls as low, as one chooses. In the words of one of Jimmy Walker's favourite songs "It ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it."


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