Monday 9 October 2006
Bruce Anderson: It's surprising more ministers don't crack
Alastair Campbell did more than anyone to create and incite 24/7 political journalism
Sir Robert Wade-Gery, a Fellow of All Souls, is generally reckoned to be one of the ablest diplomats of his generation. His powers of industry are equal to his power of mind. Yet there was a moment when he was glad of some respite. He served for three years in the Central Policy Review Staff, part of Ted Heath's intellectual furniture in Number 10. After that, Sir Robert was sent to the Embassy in Madrid as Minister (second-in-command). Though his post was no sinecure, it allowed him to rebuild intellectual capital after the rigours of Downing Street.
This highlights a problem. There are no diplomatic ministerial posts available to provide hard-driven government ministers with some relief. For them, the grind is relentless: more so than under any other political system. They not only have to devote themselves to ministerial duties, which often means meetings all day and papers all night. There is the constituency, and the knowledge that if your Liberal opponent can invent the least excuse to do so, you will be accused of neglect: of being too high and mighty to bother with the people who pay you. Nor would it do you any good to protest that, computed on the basis of hours worked, your salary is about the same as a charlady's.
Then there is the piranha-pool of Parliament, an especial burden for British ministers. John Major used to say that some European heads of government would have to ask directions to find the way to their parliaments. As soon as he had slogged his way through a European meeting, Mr Major had to work out what to say next day to a hostile House of Commons.
There is also the press, always ready to give a minister the doubt, not the benefit. Finally, there are the needs of flesh, blood and family life. As a result, one need is neglected: sleep. We put our ministers under inhuman pressure. It is surprising that so few of them crack. Over the past couple of days, David Blunkett and Alastair Campbell have both complained that they almost broke under the strain. Admittedly, the stories are slightly different. Alastair Campbell was not technically a minister. In practice, however, he was competing with Gordon Brown for the role of Tony Blair's real deputy prime minister.
Since he left Number 10, Alastair has taken to making high-minded complaints about the pressure of 24/7 journalism and the dreadful damage this does to sensitive, thoughtful advisers such as himself. It is possible to withhold one's sympathy. Mr Campbell did more than anyone to create and incite 24/7 political journalism. If the beast which he fed now bites him, he knows whom to blame. Alastair deploring relentless coverage; next, he will be telling us that he disapproves of spin. He is the most conspicuous public hypocrite since the ageing Malcolm Muggeridge started to denounce sex.
That brings us to David Blunkett. Here, it is easier to sympathise. After all, as has been observed, whichever organ governs male sexual desire, it is not the brain. Yet even so: Kimberly Fortier? Mr Blunkett may be blind. Has he no ears?
One also suspects that David Blunkett would not have been so promiscuous in advertising his embarrassments unless he had a book to sell. He may have decided that the best cure for a broken heart is a large advance.
But all this comedy must not be allowed to obscure the serious point. If we insist on putting our politicians through so much stress, the quality of government will suffer. A friend of mine volunteered to help in Number 10 during the 1992 election. By the end, very senior people were asking him to think things through for them. They would ruefully acknowledge that their brains were no longer working. Admittedly, that was a general election, with an additional overload. But Britain has not been well-governed in recent years. Policies have not been properly thought out. Sense of direction has crumbled under the pressure of events. Immense sums of money have been wasted. Tiredness must take some of the responsibility.
Lack of sleep is not only a hazard in government. After the Falklands War, studies revealed that problems had been caused because some quite senior officers were suffering from sleep deprivation. Of course, soldiers must learn to do without sleep and go on functioning. But if a man who has been up for 30 hours, simply because he thinks that real brigadiers do not need sleep, is hit by a crisis which really will require him to be alert for the next 30 hours, the difficulties begin.
Young officers are taught to ensure that the men get their heads down whenever possible, even if only for four hours. In combat zones, the grunts defy the most uncomfortable conditions in order to have a kip, because they never know where the next one is coming from. Their brigadiers need to be reminded that Montgomery conserved his hours of sleep to retain clarity of mind. It was alright for Shakespeare's Henry V to be too keyed up for sleep on the eve of his one-day battle at Agincourt. That would not have done at Alamein.
As always with Shakespeare, it is impossible to know whether he was speaking from experience or intuitive sympathy. But no one has written more perceptively about the paradox of insomnia among the great. The wretched of the earth sleep soundly in their hovels. In their palaces, Brutus, Macbeth, Henry IV, are condemned to watch the moon's slow expurgation of the sky. Their misdeeds bar the route to repose. "Glamis hath murdered sleep ... Macbeth shall sleep no more." Shakespeare could have aroused pity for Alastair Campbell.
Yet even the removal of Messrs Campbell and Blunkett from government, desirable though it be, will not resolve the difficulty of asking politicians to bear more than man can. Indeed, there is no answer, for there will always be fresh levies. In Bournemouth last week, I was with a female journalist when David Cameron went by. "Poor David," said she; he looked anything but. "What are you talking about?" I asked. "Think what it's going to do to him. Think how it will age him. Look at photos of Blair 10 years ago, and Blair now".
This is further evidence of the almost universal expectation among the press corps that Mr Cameron will become Prime Minister. For once, that is not the issue. The point is that even if someone were to show David Cameron a Dorian Gray picture of himself after 10 years in Downing Street, he would not be deterred. Nor would many other young hopefuls.
So there is still no reason to believe in a revival of Gordon Brown's fortunes. Age cannot wither him, but custom has already staled. There will be fresher alternatives; young politicians who believe that it will never happen to them. They are wrong. It will. As a result, the process of government will continue to suffer.
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