A high-risk, high-disappointment lifestyle

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE current string of sexual scandals is being viewed almost exclusively as something that threatens the Government. But I would have thought that what is really being compromised is public life.

Who will want to be an MP or become a public figure, when it is demonstrably such a high-risk occupation, if the end product of so much effort and ambition brings you heartbreak or tempts you into behaviour for which you will be vilified? Surely a lot of intelligent people, people who wish to keep hold of a satisfactory personal life, are going to conclude that it is much better to funnel energy into a rewarding career well out of the public eye.

I wonder whether Tim Yeo now wishes he had stayed in the City, where his division of favours between wife and mistress and fathering of a baby would have raised few eyebrows, rather than switching to politics and the judgement of Suffolk women. Similarly, the lurid manner of Stephen Milligan's death would have merited scant coverage, except in the local paper, if he had been an accountant from Guildford.

This image of politics as personally unfulfilling, something that can seriously wreck, even destroy your life, is an underlying theme in David Hare's current play The Absence of War. Most reviews and discussion have focused on its analysis of why Labour, and Neil Kinnock, lost the last election. But the fictional leader of the Labour Party, George Jones, is depicted with sympathy. He is portrayed as a man caught in a mad chase, devoid of a personal life, unable to speak his mind in public about the policies he cares for deeply. When at last he breaks free and speaks from the heart, he has lost the art.

A decent bachelor who lives for his party, his most relaxing and intimate moments are when his team feed him scrambled eggs for supper, and hand him clean shirts.

Politics has always been a high-risk, high-disappointment game, since real power comes to so few, and even icons like Margaret Thatcher are destined to fall. But surely Labour's four election defeats have combined with Mrs Thatcher's long, right-wing grip on power to create an entire generation of seriously disappointed, even embittered politicians. You have only to think of the way in which Ken Livingstone, shorn of the real job of running the GLC, has become so ineffective, or of Bryan Gould's decision to move out of politics, back to New Zealand.

There is an additional problem. As far as I can tell, no consensus exists about where the line is drawn between what is legitimately private and what is in the public domain for people such as MPs. Of course, public figures have a right to a private life, but the current whispering about who is gay perfectly illustrates the confusion - which has not been helped by John Major's 'back to basics' campaign.

I really don't see why sexual orientation matters one iota, provided all MPs - Mr Yeo take note - strive to live in an orderly manner in every aspect of their lives. No one expects saints, just a reasonable attempt at standards.

We have not yet moved to the Washington model of politics, according to which candidates for the highest offices are subjected to such a detailed and open interrogation of their affairs that they are driven away: when Admiral Bobby Ray Inman turned down the post of defense secretary last month, he cited his reluctance to be drawn into a trial by hostile media.

Many people in the late 20th century, myself included, inevitably lead messy lives. Even those with claims to emotional clean sheets may well have paid a builder, a garage, a cleaner or an unemployed baby-sitter cash-in-hand for services rendered.

That sensible MP, Emma Nicholson, spoke with wisdom on the Milligan affair: she said that when ambitious and striving people work 20 hours a day with odd timetables, late nights and distant constituencies, you foster problems, whether they be broken marriages or lonely, broken lives. If British politics is to keep its allure, one simple reform would be to change Westminster's hours to 10am to 6pm, four days a week (leaving the fifth day for constituency work) and raise MPs' pay to the equivalent of, say, family doctors. It would make it a more sensible profession - a little bit closer to the life of an accountant in Guildford.