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Leading Article: Political mavericks are the false idols of our celebrity era

ALAN CLARK's sudden death has prompted a rush of tributes to the "maverick" in politics. This untamed beast, we are told, enlivens the political scene, adding an enticing frisson of unpredictability to the domesticated herd of loyal voting fodder that packs the parliamentary benches on both sides of the aisle. Who would not prefer to hear the floridly expressed opinions, however wacky, of Tories such as Alan Clark and Julian Critchley, or Labour's Austin Mitchell and Tony Banks, rather than the well-mannered, carefully crafted, repetitious soundbites that come from the promotion-hungry new members of Parliament?

But we should resist the tendency to be swept away on a tide of sentimentality. Alan Clark may have been a fine military historian, but some of his maverick views were merely loathsome - praising the martial spirit of England's travelling football hooligans, for example, or advocating the shooting of 600 IRA members in a single night. For all the entertainment value politics provides, it is ultimately a serious matter. The employment, the health, the welfare and the hopes of millions of people depend on decisions taken at Westminster and in Whitehall.

This is not, of course, a plea for conformity. The House of Commons has often been well-served by far-seeing, out-of-favour members who have spoken against the current of opinion. A famous example is Winston Churchill's pre-war campaign for rearmament, which eventually led to his selection as wartime leader in place of Chamberlain. In our own times, the needling criticisms of perennial backbenchers such as Richard Shepherd, Tam Dalyell and Dennis Skinner - together with the ideological challenges of the likes of Keith Joseph and Tony Benn - have quickened the tempo of political debate, held the executive to account and uncovered abuses of power.

But there is an important difference between being, on the one hand, a thorn in the flesh of established opinion and, on the other, a self- serving show-off. Those interested in etymology will know that a maverick was originally a wild steer roaming the Texas plains, whom a Mr Maverick had the happy idea of branding and claiming for his own. Today's unbranded politicians have been captured by the media, puffed up with fawning interviews and set loose to roam the fertile fields of pop-culture celebrity. Their contribution, ultimately, is to belittle the business of politics by distracting attention from its gritty substance, and diverting it to the surface glitter of life in the limelight.

New Labour is often criticised for the pager-driven discipline of its young troops, but at least those pager messages speak for the people's choice of a government; the mavericks speak only for themselves. Democracy may need a little spice in the meat-and-potatoes of governing, but we must not mistake the garnish for the meal.