John Humphrys - Are Our Politicians the Worst Ever?

December 17, 2021, 5:59 PM GMT+0

In Britain, trust in our politicians has hit the lowest level recorded. Only five percent of us think our political leaders act in the way they believe is best for the country rather than with their own interests in mind. Is this because we have the worst bunch of politicians ever running our affairs? Or is our cynicism about them our failure to understand what they can and cannot do and  an unwillingness to accept that they are fallible human beings just like the rest of us?

After the shenanigans of recent weeks which climaxed in a massive defeat for the Tories in the by-election it’s not hard to appreciate why trust in politicians is so low, even though that mistrust has been bumping along the bottom for quite a while now. As more and more evidence comes out of people at the top blatantly disregarding the rules they impose on the rest of us, or of breaking lobbying rules in order to feather their own nests, the impression grows that our politicians are in it for themselves rather than for the public service we elect them to exercise. It’s an impression that’s been growing over time.

The parliamentary expenses scandal of ten years ago, when MPs routinely expected the taxpayer to pay for cleaning the moats of their castles, servicing mortgages on dubious second-homes or just picking up the tab for the ordinary expenses of life, like toasters and fridges, fuelled the idea that they were treating us like a piggy-bank. Nor has the enthusiasm for some prime ministers to make a load of dosh after leaving office helped matters. Revelations of David Cameron’s involvement with Greensill Bank (which went bust) hasn’t exactly helped to improve the reputation of politicians and Tony Blair’s own reputation is, in some people’s minds, as much tarnished by his money-making since leaving Downing Street as by his decisions on Iraq while he was in power. 

So it’s not surprising that people lose trust in their political leaders and conclude we’ve got the worst bunch of cynical, self-serving politicians the country has ever had to endure. But is it true that they are all just in it for themselves? And what about politicians from an earlier age: were they really noble, selfless public servants to a fault?

On this second point it would seem there’s a certain misty-eyed retrospection going on. When we think of history we often conjure up the most attractive aspects of it rather than the full picture, warts and all. The prime ministers who come to mind tend to be the high-minded, morally virtuous ones like Gladstone or Attlee or those who, whatever their personal peccadilloes, saved their country from a terrible fate. Pitt, or Churchill, for instance. .  We tend not to think primarily of the real self-serving scoundrels, such as the first and the longest-serving prime minister, Robert Walpole. He overshadowed all his successor with his record of lying, double-dealing, sexual incontinence etc etc etc. You name it… he did it.

Lloyd George, to take a much more recent example, sailed very close to the wind in an insider-trading scandal and openly sold honours to finance his ‘personal’ political fund.

By historical standards, modern politicians may not be saints but nor are most of them villains either. In any case, anyone who wants to make a great deal of money would be barmy to enter politics rather than, say, go into the City, the Law or business. Even a trainee in a big bank can earn more than the basic MP’s salary. Plus an MP has the constituents to worry about.  The Tory MP Geoffrey Cox QC has been much criticised for making hundreds of thousands of pounds practising law while also serving as a member of parliament. But he was able to make that sort of money not because he was an MP: he was earning that level of income long before he was elected to parliament. The controversy about him is whether he was able to do his MP’s job properly too, not that he was using the MP role to make himself rich.

And there have been plenty of cases of people in high-earning careers who could have gone on making loads of dosh but gave it all up in order to pursue a much less well-remunerated political career. The Liberal Democrats’ David Laws, a minister in the coalition government, is one case and  Sajid Javid, the current health secretary is another. Nor is it the case that a little financial sacrifice during a political career is any guarantee of winning the jackpot afterwards. Tony Blair might have done so, but those lower down the political food chain often find themselves in real financial difficulties when they lose office. If you lose your seat in your mid-fifties, who is going to employ you? It’s perhaps not surprising that some of them end up in the lobbying world, making use of the contacts they had built up when they were in the House. But isn’t that what most people do when they fall on hard times – ask their friends for help?

In any case, it has become very much harder than it used to be for politicians to make lots of money. We now have Nolan rules on standards in public life and independent bodies controlling what MPs can earn and how.

So it’s hard to make the case that politicians go into the game because they want to line their pockets. What other ‘dishonourable’ motive, undermining our trust in them, might they have? An obvious answer is that they are just status-seekers, people who fancy themselves and want to strut about as big ‘I am’s. Well, it’s probably true that there is a higher proportion of narcissists, of people who like to preen themselves in front of the public mirror, in politics than in other careers for the simple reason that politics provides a public mirror. But it doesn’t mean they are all like that, or that a reflection of public approval is necessarily a bad thing. In my experience most politicians go into the business because they genuinely want to make the world a better place. If they win public recognition for doing so – you might call it ‘glory’ – then what’s so wrong with that? Maybe they have their eyes on a place in the history books but that is surely not ignoble if they to try to earn it by serving the public good.

All in all, then, it seems hard to stack up the case that ours are the worst load of politicians in our history or that they are just narrowly bent on their own self-interest, measured by money, status or both. So why is our trust in them so low?

One answer is that our scrutiny of them is far more intense than it used to be. Twenty-four hour news, social media and all the rest keep them in the spotlight almost permanently. Privacy and a personal life are almost entirely denied them so they are vulnerable to much more public criticism than their forebears were. We may flatter ourselves that we are much more tolerant of sexual freedom than we used to be – no one is bothered any more that an MP might be gay, say – but we are also much more keen to ‘read all about it’ when MPs get into tangles. In the past, Lloyd George could lead an essentially bigamist’s life pretty confident that the press, even if they knew about it, wouldn’t report it. And the prime minister Harold Macmillan’s wife could carry on a long affair with a Tory MP (who was also leading a double life in the gay underworld round the East end gang-leader and murderer, Ronnie Kray) confident it would be hushed up. No current politician could be so relaxed.

But alongside this greater exposure to publicity, potentially undermining our trust in politicians, there has also been a huge change in the role of politicians which also affects our trust in them. There was a time when MPs got elected and then largely disappeared from public view until the next election. Their role was simply to go to Westminster and help run the government, using their own judgment bearing in mind what they took to be the views of their constituents and those of their party. That was it: they could otherwise ignore their constituencies and anything going on in it. Indeed one nineteenth-century MP never visited his constituency except at election times (and then only fleetingly) and when, after several decades of ‘service’, his grateful constituents clubbed together to put up a statue of him, he declined to attend its unveiling.

Things are very different now. Indeed it’s almost all been put into reverse. Their first role, as many MPs see it, is to be in their constituencies rather than in Westminster, dealing with their constituents’ problems at their surgeries. It’s a role encouraged by their parties as the safest way for them to retain their seats. And, for the same reason, they need to achieve as high a profile as they can. Now more than ever that means on social media where they are obliged constantly to tweet their views on each and every subject, however banal those views might be. It’s all a long way from the world of Clement Attlee who is said never, in his long parliamentary career, to have held a single surgery for his constituents to bring their own problems to him, and of whom it was famously said that he would never use one word when none would do. Is it just possible that such reticence bred greater trust than the shrill, angry opinionation that passes for debate on social media?

It may be too that trust has fallen because we do not appreciate the nature of the job that politicians do. It is a job that they cannot properly do if they try to behave as though they were Simon Pure. As Harold Macmillan once put it: ‘if it’s morality you want, go and ask the bishops’. His point is that the practice of politics obliges them to be economical with the actualite (as Alan Clark put it).

Expressed in the grandest terms, ‘statecraft’ requires doing things governments can’t always be fully open about. Put rather less grandly, democratic politics is about building coalitions, each element of which needs coaxing differently in order to be brought on board, and often the promises that are made are contradictory. That’s one of the reasons for a programme like Today. But there is no point in being fastidious or sanctimonious about all this. Without such coalitions power cannot be achieved, and without power nothing can happen. Tony Blair and Boris Johnson have been the recent geniuses at creating such coalitions but it is not surprising that trust declines when such coalitions fall apart, as ultimately they always do. As the old adage has it: the central question of democratic politics is not whether someone is going to end up cheated, it’s who is going to be cheated?

Of course politicians cover the necessarily rather squalid aspects of their work by calling each other honourable and right honourable members, terms that can jar with a public who often see a palpable lack of honour. One of the reasons trust may have fallen is that ‘honour’ seems not to be what it was. There was a time when ministers would resign when something happened under their watch even if they were not directly responsible for it. But Lord Carrington, foreign secretary when Argentina invaded the Falklands, is probably the last example of it – and that was in 1982, nearly forty years ago. Now ministers seem to cling on to office, though there have been ‘honourable’ ministerial resignations when ministers simply disagreed with their government’s policies.

Perhaps the main reason we have been losing trust in politicians is that we expect them to live to higher standards than the rest of us. And then they don’t. But that may be because they are no different from us. I’ve known hundreds of them and they have almost all seemed to me to be the same fallible creatures we all are. A touch vain, maybe, certainly interested in their own careers and their own futures, but still primarily keen on doing the best they can in a bearpit that is cut-throat and cynical.

How, then, can we rebuild trust in politicians? There can’t be any doubt – certainly, Conservative MPs don’t seem to doubt it – that Boris Johnson has been disastrous for maintaining trust just as he was sensational at winning them elections. If he is to be replaced, maybe his party needs to find someone dull, dependable and serious – a John Major-type figure, perhaps.

But it could be that the rebuilding of trust in politicians depends more on us than on them. Perhaps we need to be more understanding of the nature of the job they do, the dodginess and shiftiness that is necessarily part of it. Perhaps we should accept that, in the end, politicians are people just like you and me.

What’s your view? Let us know.

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