Thomas Sutcliffe: The politics of failure

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The Independent Online

If only it was as easy to lose in politics as it is in sport. It isn't much fun in either field, naturally, but the singular humiliation of political failure needs acknowledgement if we're to understand how fiercely (and sometimes violently) politicians strive to keep it at bay. In sport you can come third and justifiably celebrate, as more than one British bronze medallist has done in the last few days. You can even come 23rd, as Paula Radcliffe did in the marathon, and still be praised for your courage and tenacity.

But come second in a serious political contest and there are no laurels and very little respect. Barack Obama makes the point in The Audacity Of Hope, describing how a corporate supporter of Al Gore in the 2000 election had found himself, six months after the last chad dropped, being asked to back a television venture Gore was putting together.

Obama imagines Gore musing over his changed fortunes: "... how after a lifetime of work he could have lost it all because of a butterfly ballot that didn't align, while his friend the executive, sitting across from him with the condescending smile, could afford to come in second in his business year after year, maybe see his company's stock tumble ... and yet still be considered successful".

No wonder that Musharraf should have clung so doggedly to his tarnished office – and attempt so haplessly to spin his failure as a kind of triumph. No wonder too that Robert Mugabe, who has worse to fear from defeat than personal humiliation or legal process, should resist his fall with every power at his disposal, however bitter the consequences for Zimbabwe's citizens. They understand perfectly well that there is no dignified exit.

That all political lives end in failure is now a truism – Enoch Powell having framed the truth in a form neat enough to encourage others to repeat it. Almost nobody quotes Powell's line in full, though – excising from it an important qualification: "All political lives," he wrote, "unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure" (my italics). Not quite as quotably pithy that – or as satisfyingly absolute. But it does at least acknowledge that there is actually a way out of the bind.

Later this year a leader held in contempt by most of his citizens, an object of moral revulsion to his opponents and disappointment to many of his supporters, will leave office – and will do so with full valedictory ceremony and a confident expectation of a degree of continuing pomp. President Bush doesn't have much choice, given the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution – but he can at least count himself lucky to have one of the few politicians' jobs in which the "happy juncture" is written into the contract. You don't have to fail to lose the American Presidency ... you just have to succeed twice.

Given Musharraf and Mugabe's attitudes to constitutional niceties, I don't suppose term limits would have done a lot of good in their cases. But one can surely say that American democracy would be worse off without them – and that a retirement from high office that comes without stigma might have its advantages for many different political systems. It goes against the grain of voter vindictiveness – but silver medals for politicians might have their uses.

Gold standard

Judging from the photographic coverage of the award ceremonies, a surprising number of Olympic athletes – including the tennis player Rafael Nadal, right – feel compelled to bite their medals shortly after receiving them. It is possible that they really are being compelled to – because the assembled press photographers will not let them go until they have delivered this cliché of incredulous triumph. Or maybe they just do it because they have seen other athletes doing it and think it is now the done thing – thus effectively guaranteeing the ritual's survival.

But there must have been a time when it would have been regarded as undignified to check the composition of your medal in this way, like a saloon-bar old-timer ensuring he hasn't been palmed off with a wooden nickel. And there must, it follows, be someone who cheekily did it for the first time – unaware that his or her passing B-movie joke would harden into one of the obligatory ceremonies of victory – along with puckering up to trophies and wasting champagne rather than drinking it.

I have to say I long for someone to move the trope along a little – maintaining the beaming smile up until the moment the teeth meet the metal, but then letting their face darken before shouting furiously: "Hang on one gol'durned minute, this ain't gold at all! It's just gold coloured!"

Why trigger-happy teachers love Texas

Members of the school board in Harrold, Texas, have just decided to allow teachers to "pack heat" in the classroom. They are letting staff carry guns on the grounds that the school is 25 minutes from the nearest sheriff and is thus particularly vulnerable to any armed maniac wanting to get himself on to the school shooting honour board.

Gun-control enthusiasts are understandably appalled at the idea, as are teaching unions. I agree with them by instinct, but I am struck by a niggle of doubt. After all, if you were sitting in a seedy motel room, checking the Yellow Pages for targets of opportunity, you would probably pass on the school where you know for a fact that they will shoot back. Then I realise what the next step is: a Supreme Court appeal by a 14-year-old Harrold student arguing that it is unconstitutional that he should be left defenceless against the day that one of his teachers runs amok with their school-board supplied gun.

The Harrold move only delusively makes sense because the larger picture is so irrational. The niggle swiftly passes.

* The final hurdle of any holiday – the moment when you learn whether you've been burgled while you're away – was successfully cleared in our case, but the braced wariness with which I approached our front door prompted me to log on to the Metropolitan Police's new crime mapping test site, now available in a beta version, pictured left.

I was (absurdly) pleased to discover that my particular sub-ward forms an appealing blue island of "Below Average" crime, flanked by two orange blobs of "Above Average" crime, one of which appears to start about 70 yards down the road.

The smugness disappeared immediately when I clicked up to ward level to discover that my address now fell squarely into an "Above Average" crime area, and had to be adjusted again when I looked at borough level and discovered that we were just "Average".

I'm not sure whether to be gratified that we're bucking the trend at the parish level, or worried that burglars will check out the site and decide that we represent an uncropped field, ripe for the picking.