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

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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?

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