Andreas Whittam Smith: Politicians deserve public disdain – they have earned it

We see them as bluffers whose luck holds for a period. Unfortunately, for some years now, our political system has propelled a stream of incompetents into high office
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The Independent Online

Politicians find themselves enveloped in public disapproval. One new MP told a colleague that the hardest part of the job was coping with the disdain of the public. A cabinet minister had remarked: "Out there, they think we are self-serving shits." Why is this? And is it an unavoidable consequence of our system of parliamentary democracy?

In this context, it is worth analysing three recent cases of ineptitude. Take Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat, who is Secretary of State for Business. In December, two young women, undercover reporters from The Daily Telegraph, who were falsely passing themselves off as constituents, set up a meeting with him. Although Mr Cable had never met them before, he nonetheless chatted merrily away. He told them that "if they" (his cabinet colleagues) "push me too far then I can walk out and bring the Government down and they know that". But this indiscretion was nothing compared with his remarks about Rupert Murdoch, whose plans for News International to take over the whole of BSkyB he was about to judge. "I have declared war on Mr Murdoch", he said, "and I think we are going to win."

This is so breathtakingly incompetent that it opens up a chasm under our feet – did we really elect such a fool to Parliament, and is he really a cabinet minister?

Then there is the Prime Minister's trip to the Middle East in February to sell arms. Just at the moment when thousands of demonstrators in Tunisia and Egypt had braved police and army bullets to call for democratic reforms and succeeded in toppling their authoritarian rulers, Mr Cameron arrives in the region accompanied by eight of Britain's defence manufacturers. How sensitive is that? The Prime Minister obviously has no feel for the pro-democracy movement in the Arab world, one of the most important events since the fall of Communism. Moreover, his astonishing clumsiness raised the question of whether his undoubted intellectual gifts had distracted us from noticing a lack of emotional intelligence. Remember what Tony Blair said of Gordon Brown in his memoirs? "Political calculation, yes. Political feelings, no. Analytical intelligence, absolutely. Emotional intelligence, zero." Is Mr Cameron the "heir to Brown" rather than the "heir to Blair"?

Turn to Nick Clegg, with his ready supply of pratfalls. The other day, speaking on internships, he said that "unfair, informal internships can rig the market in favour of those who already have opportunities". He added the laudable aspiration: "We want a fair job market based on merit, not networks. It should be about what you know, not who you know." Except it turns out that family friends secured Mr Clegg his first two jobs.

Moreover, the Liberal Democrat party had to admit that it itself employs interns on a basis now criticised by its leader. It hurriedly brought in new guidelines to "put our own house in order". Who can say what is Mr Clegg's problem? Is it a lack of self-awareness, an addiction to telling other people how to run their lives, or is it hypocrisy? Whatever, the result is unimpressive.

In response to these admittedly trivial incidents, it would often be said, "Ah well, that's politicians", as if they lived on a different planet where our rules don't apply. So recast one of them in terms to which the rest of us can relate. Suppose that Mr Cable had been the head of research and development for a large public company and, speaking to someone he had never met before, he had said: "If my fellow directors push me too far, then I can walk out and bring the company down and they know that," and his remarks had leaked into the press and the share price had tumbled. What would the consequences have been? He would have been immediately dismissed and considered unemployable thereafter.

This transposition helps to explain why politicians are treated with disdain. We instinctively believe that if they weren't MPs or ministers and lived in our world, they wouldn't do very well. We see them as bluffers whose luck holds for a period. It is not just poor Mr Cable. Most people probably think George Osborne, the Chancellor, is playing a chancer's game with the economy and the spending cuts and, likewise, Andrew Lansley, Health Secretary, with the NHS.

Unfortunately, for some years now our political system has propelled a stream of incompetents into high office. Note what Chris Mullin, the former Labour MP, said of John Prescott in his recently published diaries when he was one of the great man's junior ministers. "4 January 2000. The JP of the new millennium is unchanged. Still interfering in every pettifogging little decision. Nothing too trivial to command his attention... except, of course, the big picture."

The primary reason for the poor quality of government ministers is that, in our system of government, they are selected exclusively from members of the majority party in Parliament, a small pool of just 300 or so people who have mastered political marketing and self-promotion – and not much else. As a result, only rarely will the secretaries of state have the attributes required for running their departments, which are complex organisations. Mr Cable was an economist before entering politics. Mr Cameron worked in the Conservative Party's research department and then in public relations. Mr Clegg was a European civil servant.

Yet we, who complain so bitterly about the quality of our elected representatives, control the entrance gate into the Palace of Westminster. Every one of the 650 MPs we affect to despise must come before us and seek our support at successive general elections. We could, if we wished, insist that our candidates had done something worthwhile with their lives before being elected to Parliament.

I tried to follow this principle at the general election last May. I used local knowledge, I studied the candidates' leaflets, I scrutinised their websites and I watched their videos with only one end in mind: to choose the person most likely to raise the quality of the House of Commons regardless of party. It wasn't easy because the candidates revealed very little about themselves. But this is where the job of getting a better House of Commons and better governments has to start. Only then might we stop thinking of MPs as "self-serving shits".