Invitation to a beheading for the politicians of the next century

Why do we impose such conditions on politicians' lives that deter all but the most driven or unhinged?
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The Independent Culture
WHY ARE politicians, Clinton most dramatically among them, regarded with such contempt? In most opinion polls they vie with journalists for bottom place in public esteem. Journalists I can understand, but politicians? After all, there are only two ways of resolving conflict. One is through armed force and we see the grim consequences of that in Iraq. The other is through politicians with conflicting views manoeuvring, intriguing, manipulating and debating in order to win arguments.

I restate what Basil Fawlty would call "a statement of the bleedin' obvious" because there is a follow-up that should be as equally "bleedin' obvious": if practising the art of politics is a much better way of resolving disputes than military might, we need the best political leaders we can get. Pretty damned obvious isn't it? In which case, why do we impose conditions on the lives of political leaders that would deter all but the most driven or unhinged?

As we head towards the Millennium, a president of the United States has been impeached for an office fling. The British Foreign Secretary awaits nervously the publication of a book by his former wife, fearing that any revelations about his past private life will be splashed across every front page. His colleague, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, awaits with a similar trepidation the appearance of his biography written by a hostile journalist with a sharp instinct for news stories, having already been taunted for a trip to Rio de Janeiro and "outed" live on Newsnight. The former Secretary of State for Wales licks his wounds, his political career in ruins after an excursion on Clapham Common. The Minister for Agriculture recovers from the ordeal of making a public statement confessing that he is gay. Several junior ministers fear it will be their turn next. What century are we living in?

Aspiring young Americans watching the humiliation of Clinton, ageing visibly before our eyes, will surely think twice about entering politics. The argument that justifies his persecution at the hand of desperate Republicans is that impeachment has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with perjury. In which case, how was it that Clinton was ever asked in court about his sex life? What a bizarre legal system which allows such questions to be posed to a president when his infidelities had no relevance to the breaking of any law. That is just the legal dimension. For the rest of the time, a president is placed on a pedestal only to be forced to dance humiliatingly to the discordant tunes of Congress. Clinton, a better president than the farce in Washington and the ill-thought- out attacks on Iraq suggest, does not deserve this.

In Britain the humiliations of those we elect take a different, but equally perverse, form. Unlike American presidents, governments are given virtually untrammelled power. Mad policies such as the poll tax can reach the statute books without any great political tremors (the tremors come only once the mad policies take effect, by which time it is too late); entire tiers of government can be abolished at the whim of centralising prime ministers such as Margaret Thatcher; anti-terrorist legislation likely to have no practical effect on catching terrorists can be rushed through Parliament in two days, as happened last September; and a Commons debate on Iraq can be held without a vote being allowed at the end - but if a minister is caught on Clapham Common, there is uproar. And which business leader would accept an invitation to join the Government having seen Geoffrey Robinson, repeatedly, and Lord Simon, sporadically, being portrayed as crooks after taking unpaid, unglamorous junior ministerial posts?

The legislators should be given a hard time for bad legislation, not for their private lives. Maybe then Britain would get better politicians and better policies.

This is not to argue that politicians should be treated uncritically: far from it. This government with its large majority, intolerance of dissent and weak opposition needs to be subjected to the most intense scrutiny at all times, including when its expensive bombs (paid for by "the people's money") are heading for Iraq. The same applies in the US. Clinton's mendacity cried out to be exposed and punished. But some sense of proportion should also be retained. The lies have been exposed. Clinton has been punished and humiliated for months. Enough; he should be allowed to finish his term as the voters now wish and as they wanted when they re-elected him.

Of course some politicians merit the sneering cynicism with which they are viewed. There are bastards in politics as in any profession. But it is also true that many politicians could be earning infinitely more money in other jobs. At which point spare a thought, if you can face it so close to Christmas, for members of the Shadow Cabinet. I was not surprised to read the other day that John Redwood was contemplating leaving politics for a well-paid job elsewhere. Certainly his former adviser, Hywell Williams, told him to pack it in and make more money in the private sector after his leadership bid failed last year. I do not want to turn Redwood or Michael Howard into unlikely romantic heroes. Given the raw material, I would not succeed if I tried. Nor is there any need to shed a tear about their parlous financial states. But it should be noted that they are staying on in opposition, knowing almost certainly that they will not taste power again, heading towards retirement issuing unread press releases. In October 1997, I asked Redwood why he was staying on.

"There has to be an opposition. Someone's got to do it," he said.

They are doing their duty and - unlike Labour in the early 1980s when most of the Shadow Cabinet seemed to be having a ball as the party headed towards oblivion - they do not even look as if they are enjoying it. There were also many Labour frontbenchers who could have earnt much more elsewhere in the 1980s but stayed on in what many of them thought would be a forlorn attempt to revive their party.

With the media so vast and the opportunities in business so great, politics already faces immense competition for talent. Ken Livingstone observed after the Thatcherite assault on local government that anyone who wished to become a councillor should see a psychiatrist.

As a president faces a trial in the Senate and politicians in Britain live in fear of some infidelity or other being exposed, how many bright young things are going to opt for national politics in the new century? If the future crop of national politicians do not impress, we voters are largely to blame. We get the politicians we deserve. If we want better ones, we should never forget that the alternative to their manoeuvring is the resolution of dispute through battle. A rowdy debate in the Commons is an infinitely more pleasing spectacle than the rubble of a bombed building in Baghdad.