To that neat trio of Ps we should probably add perfidy. As ever the Labour Party, past and present, is doing its best to give us a master-class on all four of them. Yesterday Ed Balls complained that the latest leadership campaign has descended into “a Miliband soap opera”, whilst Lord Kinnock bemoaned the intrusion of personality into what should be the pure and high-minded pursuit of ideas during the self-same competition. And now Tony Blair has got a few things off his chest about the personal failings of one G Brown Esq., and in so doing has laid even bearer the debris from a previous leadership tussle.
So what do we want and expect from our politicians? (Not including the eschewing, as far as possible, of illegal warmongering.) On the one hand, we love to deplore the “politics of personality”, whilst on the other we are glued to every drip of poison and gossip from the likes of Blair and Mandelson. Perhaps to their list of Ps we should add our own H for hypocrisy. We profess ourselves stunned by the “dysfunction” evidenced by rows between leaders, but this is to imagine that a government is the same thing as a family. It doesn’t help of course that Blair should describe his initial relationship with Brown as being like two lovers rushing off to consummate their union, but our mistake is to confuse the Cabinet Room with the Big Brother House. Strange as it might seem, the purpose of government is not entertainment. Government is about delivering vision, and power is the means by which the delivery happens. How could it be otherwise? Ideas do not have power in and of themselves: rather they are the tools of powerful people. To set up an opposition between policy on the one hand and personality on the other, or to talk about policy and ideas as good, and personality as bad, is to indulge in an unreal dualism. Even in relatively small organisations such as where I work, personality and ideas are inseparable. It is utter naivety to suppose that, in the hot house of national politics, in some magical way the purity of political ideas can be kept virginally unblemished by the depredations of human frailty.
And do we really want politicians untouched by humanity, even when it’s as often the humanity of decadence as it is of heroism? I can imagine nothing more frightening than a politician committed only to ideas, but not interested in the human consequences. I’m all in favour of the politics of personality: what I’m against is the politics of empty celebrity.
The most remarkable thing about Tony Blair’s revelations today (other than that very few of them are actually revelations at all) is that we should be remotely surprised or shocked by them. As he himself said, and to this extent I agree with him entirely, all governments have always been like this. Powerful people with powerful jealousies as well as powerful motivations. In earlier times the public were insulated from them, but they existed nonetheless, and probably more so. Ironically, the knowledge that we have a voracious press, and a voracious public, almost certainly keeps modern politicians in check more than was the case for their predecessors. What we as the electorate need to do is to grow up. If we want to be privy to all the ins and outs of the duck’s arse that is political power-play, we should stop gasping in feigned horror when the seamy side is thus revealed.
Oh, and to return to Labour’s current leadership election – I want the new leader to be the biggest and most passionate personality. I can deal with passion: it’s arid self-control that I can do without.