E Jane Dickson: Bring back the political stiff upper lip

It’s hard to imagine Harold Macmillan bursting out crying over Suez
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The Independent Online

If extraterrestrials are so smart, how come they picked the wrong Tory? Had the UFO which reportedly hovered over former Conservative Party leader Michael Howard's country house turned up in Notting Hill, David Cameron would have been out there, coffee mug in hand, canvassing for the little green vote and explaining how inter-planetary relations are very much at the heart of the Conservative manifesto.

Aliens, traditional companions of choice for those who feel they are not getting enough attention from humans, might just have tipped it for Dave, who is fast running out of demographic groups to identify with. We've had Family Man Dave, "Green Dave", "Some of My Best Friends Are Gay Dave" and this week voters made the acquaintance of "Ocky Dave" who likes nothing better than a game of darts and a can of Guinness on a Saturday night.

Is it coincidence that Dave dusted down his old arrows in the same week that Gordon "Six Pints" Brown recalled his true grit on the rugby field? It would save time and embarrassment if Cameron and Brown could settle their "man of the people" stand-off once and for all. Why not just put ferrets down their trousers in a televised debate and see who yelps first?

Electioneering antics are nothing new. It is said that Andrew Jackson, seventh President of the United States, lost popular support when he passed a dirty-faced baby to his aide to kiss. Few politicians since have repeated his mistake. Recently, however, the determination of statesmen to "show their human side" has got out of hand.

I'm sure I wasn't the only Labour supporter watching through splayed fingers as Gordon Brown bared his workshopped soul to Piers Morgan. To be fair, Brown looked like he'd rather pull out his own fingernails than share details of his romance with his wife. (The PR savvy Sarah followed through the next day with tales of her "surprisingly romantic" husband.) Pressed harder by his squirming inquisitor, the PM spoke of the death of his daughter and the illness of his son with sober restraint, but this didn't stop the money shot of the Prime Minister "welling up" flying round the world's networks.

Grief for a lost child is something most of us cannot guess at. Nor does our guessing help. Beyond a crude "prick him and he bleeds" response, it is hard to know what was served by Brown's public baptism by tears. It's a weirdly sadistic society that needs to see a man cry before it will trust him, yet public tears are what we now expect – and exact – from our politicians. Alastair Campbell had, as it were, primed the pump for the Brown interview, with his emotional defence of Blair, stung to hot tears by the suggestion that the Government might not have told the whole truth about Iraq.

Emotionalism is not the same as emotion and even the genuine article has limited use in politics. Blair, unlike Brown, is a natural at the touchy feely stuff. I don't doubt that he felt he was doing the right thing in going into Iraq. But feeling was not enough – there was the important matter of legality – and it turned out to be wrong. Yet such is the modern belief in the primacy of emotion over almost every other faculty that we are prepared to overlook any shortcomings as long as the emotion is right there on the surface.

It rather makes you long for the return of the stuffed shirt. Clement Attlee dismantled the British empire in India without feeling the need for tearful apology; it's hard to imagine Harold Macmillan bursting out crying over Suez. There are other, better ways for politicians to show their humanity – humane policies would be a start – yet policy, in modern electioneering, runs an increasingly poor second to "personality". When a politician of unbending principle comes along, we don't know what to do with them. Clare Short, until very recently, was scarcely viewed by New Labour as an ornament to the party, but at least she understood the difference between "character" and "personality". And unlike Peter Hain and the rest of them now beating their breasts over their "honest mistake" on the war in Iraq, Short understood that while anyone can do what feels right at the time, it takes real character not to do what feels wrong. "The best lack all conviction," said W B Yeats, "while the worst are full of passionate intensity." He was writing in the aftermath of the Great War but his words stand as a bitter reproach to the politics of emotion.

Perhaps it's true and we get the politicians we deserve. We pick our elected representatives as if were picking guests for a fantasy dinner party. Above all, we want them to be sympathetic, we want them to be "people like us" and we forget that nobody, not even David Cameron, can be all things to all people. Sympathy, the only kind that's any use to a politician, depends precisely on the capacity to feel for those who neither share their circumstances nor identify with their every emotion. The rest is ventriloquism and it's an old, cheap trick.