Howard Jacobson: How a leader can come along who seems to speak for a nation's hurt

This is not a good time to imagine mourning a single politician, let alone a cadre of them

Related Topics

Watching pictures of mourners lining the streets of Warsaw in their thousands, throwing tulips and roses on to the coffins of what the newspapers have been calling their "political elite", I find myself wondering whether, under similar circumstances, we would do the same.

I accept that we can do public emotion with the best of them these days. The death of Diana proved that. And many a fatally mistreated baby has proved it since.

We too now weep openly, burn candles, strew flowers, gorge greedily on sadness. But if the object of our sorrow were not a fairy princess or a battered child, or even Michael Jackson who in a manner of speaking was both, how would we behave? I don't mean to be black-hearted, but would we lament our political elite if it went down in a foreign field – Gordon Brown, Peter Mandelson, Harriet Harman, Two Jags Prescott, you name them? Or our political elite to be, maybe – David Cameron, George Osborne and whoever else they've got? Would we line the streets and sob by candelight? Maybe we would if so many died and were the tragedy anywhere near as cruel in its irony as this one: the country's best crashing in a Russian plane on Russian soil, on the way to remembering Stalin's brutal murder of Poland's best on Russian soil in 1940. It's hard to think of a comparable British commemoration that could go comparably wrong. But then why is that? Have we been too often at the other end of brutality? Has geography protected us, by and large, from anything like the Katyn forest massacre? We've lost millions in two great wars, and our national memory is scarred by the casualties on the Somme, by the fall of Singapore, by Dunkirk. But these are wounds of another order. They wouldn't, I think, re-open if our elite went down on the way to paying homage to those who'd died there.

We don't have a Chopin to help us mourn, that's part of the difference. We have Elgar, but he celebrates our deep rural complacency, occasionally throwing in a little patriotic pomp and circumstance to check we're awake, but he doesn't write the music of our souls. Do we even have souls as a people?

I know nothing of the actualities of Polish politics, but I think I grasp sufficient of its emotionalism to understand how a leader might come along who seems to speak for the nation's hurt. How far the politicians who died on their pilgrimage to Katyn were in reality speaking for that hurt, I don't know. But it could be that where your national sense of self is a throb of anguish never to be assuaged, the illusion that your leaders feel as you feel is as good as the reality. To our credit and our discredit, we have no such hunger. You get the Chopin you deserve and we got Elgar. We are alternately a contented and a satiric people. When it comes to politics – which for the most part we resent as a distraction – it's important to our identity to believe we are led by fools, and for the most part the fools who lead us don't let us down.

So is the question not about how close our political elite is to our hearts, but whether we can be said to have a political elite at all?

This is not, of course, a good time to be imagining mourning a single politician, let alone a cadre of them. "Entire Cabinet feared lost" – would that press our buttons? Would we care as we cared when an entire football team went down? Elections bring out the worst in politicians. I don't mean the bare-faced lying, I can take the bare-faced lying, I mean the gibberish delivered on the insolent assumption that we won't notice it's gibberish. I'm not saying that our parties are the same as one another; they are definitely not the same as one another when it comes to what they'll do, but they are criminally the same as one another when it comes to the gibberish they speak in telling us what they'll do.

If ever our politicians don't look or sound like an elite it's when they're on the hustings or dodging questions from Mr Humphrys and Mr Paxman. But when do they look or sound like an elite? Answer: they don't. The system somehow does not permit it. Let them leave politics, either on a high note or a low, and it's surprising how impressive many of them then turn out to be. But in the act of being politicians they lack whatever those qualities are that distinguish the exceptional from the ordinary – high intelligence, gravitas, idealism, seriousness, sonority, the consciousness of lofty purpose. Qualities of leadership and example without which a country will feel, as Poland feels, the poorer. But more than that, our politicians of all persuasions lack the wherewithal to touch the national nerve; the capacity to ennoble our collective understanding of ourselves.

Coincidentally, for British viewers at least, last week's episode of Mad Men, the American drama series about Madison Avenue in the early Sixties, dealt with the assassination of John F Kennedy. I'm not as entirely won over to Mad Men as some people are, but it can be excellent and this episode was superlative. "There is no private life," George Eliot wrote in Felix Holt, the Radical, "which has not been determined by a wider public life." That has become a cliché for generations of novelists since, but Mad Men probed the way the death of Kennedy – the television event as much as the thing itself – bore on the private lives of its characters with a subtlety that any novelist would envy. The shooting ended marriages which were tottering, it shattered confidences which were already fragile, it excused and pardoned, it confused, it dispirited, but above all it broke the hearts of people who didn't know their hearts could break. It didn't reunite the nation, but it set nerves jangling in a unison that felt like solidarity. This presumably is how it feels to live in Poland at the moment.

We mourn the great men we lose to accident and assassination until the inevitable sordid revelations about their private lives shrink them back into their human proportions. That's as it should be. Heroes come at a cost to our sanity. Cynicism protects us against the dangers of hero-worship, and few people, I am proud to say, are more cynical than us. But while I wish no tragedy on our leaders, whoever they next turn out to be, wouldn't it be nice to feel a national outpouring of something other than scorn, just once in a while?

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Key Accounts Administrator - Fixed Term

£13500 - £14500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting new opportunity has...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Business Development Manager - Business Services-£70,000 OTE

£35000 - £45000 per annum + OTE £70,000 + car + pension: h2 Recruit Ltd: A wel...

Recruitment Genius: Service Receptionist / Warranty Administrator

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Due to expansion the Largest Independent Motor...

Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - OOP, Javascript, HTML, CSS, SQL

£39000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - OOP, Javascript, HTML,...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The scene in Tesco in Edmonton, north London  

Black Friday is a reminder that shops want your money, no matter how human they appear in their Christmas adverts

Jessica Brown Jessica Brown
File: David Cameron offers a toast during a State Dinner in his honour March 14, 2012  

I saw the immigration lies a mile off - and now nobody can deny it

Nigel Farage
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game