Ambition is a hideous thing, second only to tribal loyalty in the global ranking of destructive human instincts, and never more so than in the case of the politician. I am thinking here less of Chris Bryant than may meet the eye, although he stands as a useful paradigm of how the naked ambition to generate August headlines can take a calamitous wrong turn along Beware-What-You-Wish-For Boulevard.
A decent, clever and thoughtful man, and a highly entertaining archivist of Westminster pond life in this newspaper, Mr Bryant should be comforted that his immigration über-fiasco of recent days will be forgotten soon enough. In 30 years – 40 at the outside – the malevolent giggling at his humiliation will fade. In a century, no one will remember the first thing about it.
Yet those for whom I invite your sympathy today are the men and women who have already done what Mr Bryant might be stretching even a politician’s talent for wishful thinking by picturing himself one day achieving. I am speaking of those who have reached the Cabinet.
Such unsettlingly peculiar folk will inevitably have been consumed by their dream of apparent power for an exceedingly long time. For some, as with Michael Heseltine, this classic symptom of an undiagnosed but pathological mental illness stretches back as far as the university debating society. Others will have developed it later, as local councillors and party activists, or, more commonly in this technocratic era, as special advisers and inner sanctum greasers/apparatchiks.
Whenever the illness first took hold, they must have spent untold thousands of hours, over countless years, scheming, manoeuvring, bad-mouthing their rivals, eating bad food and drinking repulsive wine, ingratiating themselves with pompous blowhards, and talking a staggering amount of imprisonably arrant cobblers in pursuit of, first, a parliamentary seat, then a junior ministerial post, and finally advancement to the Cabinet.
So imagine their ecstasy when the call finally comes from Downing Street, and they scurry along to No 10 to be offered the red box and chauffeured car by a beaming Prime Minister. And then, within the first week, the heady thrill of ambition-realised still rampaging through the bloodstream like a turbo-charged amphetamine, a civil servant sidles over looking slightly embarrassed and murmurs, “So sorry to trouble you, Secretary of State, but we’ve had a call from Clarence House. I should have warned you that this would happen, but the Prince of Wales would like you to pop over tomorrow afternoon for a word about the Organic Biscuits (Shortbread, Oat Meal and Chocolate-Chip Cookies) green paper. Apparently, he’s rather perturbed.”
At that moment of brutal deflation, every ounce of excitement and self-satisfaction drains away, to be replaced by a dull, throbbing appreciation of the truth of an old saw: it is, indeed, better to travel than to arrive. All the years of sucking up to constituency dullards over the warm Jacob’s Creek and Twiglets, and then sitting through hallucination-inducing tedious Commons debates in the hope of being called by the Speaker to parrot the party line and earn a few brownie points with the whips ... and after all that misery, how has your ambition seen fit to reward you? With an imperious summons to attend a prince in a royal chamber, as if you were a glorified footman, to be subjected to the ravings of HRH The Nutter On The Bus.
The alleged political influence of Prince Charles is in the news again. Parliament is to examine Prince Charles’s contentious and arguably unconstitutional efforts to browbeat ministers in private audiences and with letters one pictures adorned with mad squiggles in the margins and crazed underlinings in turquoise ink; and to consider, too, his right (never exercised, so far as anyone is aware) to veto any law that might affect his commercial interests.
Does any of this matter a jot? In one sense, it is impossible to know. This being Britain, that shining beacon of obsessive secrecy, the content of the letters and meetings is closely guarded. But you can hazard a guess as to how this particular mystery play tends to pan out ... the Prince making long, impassioned pleas about the things he cares about, and the ministers soothingly assuring him how seriously they take his strictures before ignoring every word.
If the Government rushes through emergency legislation mandating the serving of his beloved mutton in school canteens, or orders the controlled detonation of the carbuncular South Bank complex, or promotes any other of his mishugas (sometimes only the Yiddish, in this case for an eccentric obsession, will do), we will have to reconsider. In the meantime, it is a low-risk assumption that deferential humouring is the extent of ministerial indulgence.
Whether it matters in theory that the sovereign and her heirs have even a façade of influence over the political process is another matter. Some believe, of course, that the very existence of the throne is a regressive and infantilising anti-democratic force. Gazing enviously across the North Sea at the democracies we lefties revere as the most civilised and progressive on earth – Sweden, Holland, Denmark and Norway – and noting that they have retained their monarchies, I can’t quite see how that argument works. Besides, to paraphrase a thought put in Thomas Cromwell’s mouth by Hilary Mantel in Wolf Hall, anyone who imagines that the real power resides in monarchs and leaders is misguided. It lies in the counting houses of Antwerp or Florence, or, to be more modern about it, in Wall Street and the boardrooms of multinationals and internet powerhouses.
The notion that Prince Charles and an environment secretary can change the world, separately or together, is patently absurd. If they wish to share the delusion that they are agents of change over a cup of Darjeeling and a Duchy Originals all-butter shortbread – the one falsely imagining the other is listening intently; the other mistakenly believing himself to be sacrificing a terminally drab hour on a mission of mercy before returning to the crucial business of governing – what possible harm is being done? It keeps the Prince off the streets, or from metaphorically bothering innocent passengers on the top deck of the bus with his insight.
On that basis, we should regard this quaintly anachronistic oddity not as a sinister affront to what passes for democracy, but as a harmless and mildly beneficial form of mutual therapy. Every so often, Charles – far less petulant these days, and becoming almost endearing as he approaches his grandfatherly dotage – gets to assuage his frustrations at the endless wait for a job by spending a little time feeling useful and relevant. The Cabinet minister, fidgeting with boredom at the anguished princely hectoring, is reminded that if the craving for the semblance of power is a dangerous disorder, the supposed cure of realising that ambition has some very unpleasant side effects of its own. And if that doesn’t make Chris Bryant feel a bit better in the midst of his political out-of-body experience, as he watches his career floating towards the blinding celestial light like a dying rat, then nothing will.Reuse content