Philip Hensher: The indignity of political ambition

Most of us could not open a fête and rib the ladies about the damson jam competition
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The Independent Online

There are quite a few things guaranteed to make you feel that time is passing with indecent haste. In my experience, the first one is the famous observation of how young policeman suddenly look - and that happened before I was even 30. The next was the faint alarm when, after an accident, you saw how very juvenile the doctor was who had been assigned to your care in hospital.

There are quite a few things guaranteed to make you feel that time is passing with indecent haste. In my experience, the first one is the famous observation of how young policeman suddenly look - and that happened before I was even 30. The next was the faint alarm when, after an accident, you saw how very juvenile the doctor was who had been assigned to your care in hospital.

But the most bizarre ones, surely, are offered by politics. It's not so much the observation that, suddenly, not just members of Parliament are younger than you; but privy councillors and even Cabinet ministers, younger by quite a significant margin, too. Prepared by policemen and doctors, that just seems like another version of a familiar shock.

No, the real Anno Domini feelings are stirred up when, looking through the paper after a general election, you notice a familiar name, not thought of for years. Frankly, I find it absolutely bizarre that people I knew at university and remember working their way through the tiny factions of student politics have been translated to a higher sphere. Unfairly, it just makes me laugh to think that some of them, no doubt very estimable people, have acquired the votes of tens of thousands of people, and now bear the unwaveringly trustful hopes of the whole of the Upper Bumstead constituency into the halls of the Mother of Parliaments. Incredible, when you think of what they used to be like.

Actually, with a bit of retrospective wisdom, in some cases it's not hard to see that they were always going to head for some impressive success in life. Boris Johnson, for instance, who was a contemporary of mine was famous from one end of Oxford to the other, even then. You could tell he was going to make his mark on the world in some way.

There are at least three people from my old college who are now MPs, and, frankly, it amazes me. Matthew Taylor has been a Liberal Democrat MP for so long now that the amazement has worn off.

Michael Gove, like Boris, was always going to be someone; he was just instantly conspicuous and authoritative, very amusing company, as if always hovering on the verge of making some very saucy remark. All the same, even though one knows his merits, I do find it a lot harder to think of Michael as a new member of Her Majesty's Opposition; I always think of his turning up at university on his first day wearing an astonishingly robust tweed suit, which even in that era of Young Fogeyism was unusual dress for an 18-year-old undergraduate. I suppose at that moment, one ought to have been able to identify a glittering career in the making, but we were too busy trying not to fall out of the window laughing.

It's the other new entrant to Parliament from my old college, though, which really makes me wonder about politicians, and makes me convinced that I could never in a million years have entered politics. It is so very awful a story of publicity-grubbing, in my view, that the perpetrator's identity deserves not to be revealed. Rag Week, in Oxford in the early 1980s, was something very few people got involved with - it was universally regarded as "infra dig". Occasionally a group of second-years would promise to wear their underpants outside their trousers for an afternoon, but most people just looked away.

It was a total amazement then, when someone who had only just arrived volunteered a solitary stunt. To the college's astonishment, the lad had offered to do something never heard of in the long history of the Junior Common Room's limp indifference to Rag Week and all its works. He would sit, my memory tells me, in November - can this be right? - in a bath of cold baked beans in the Porter's Lodge for some immense length of time.

The whole thing was so awful that, as far as I remember, no-one ever talked about it at the time or subsequently. I never met the man - it is sort of hard to begin an acquaintance with someone when the first time you see them, they are blue with cold, up to their navel in Mr Heinz's finest, raising money for some cause but really just trying to become famous. And I wouldn't have thought that his name had stuck in my memory, until the election lists at the weekend proved me wrong.

It just goes to show that most of us could never, ever contemplate becoming politicians. We just couldn't face the loss of dignity; the obligation to wander round asking near-strangers if they would consider voting for you as Milk Monitor, Class Captain, Head Boy, JCR President, President of the Union, Candidate in the Conservative Interest, and so on, endlessly.

Let's face it, we couldn't even think of doing what many aspiring politicians do. If sitting in a bath of cold baked beans were the only way possible to raise money for the most important cause in the world, I doubt if I could bring myself to do it. Most of us could not open a fête and rib the ladies about the damson jam competition; most of us would burst out laughing if we were seriously required to repeat some of the rubbish which the Whips hand out before Question Time; hardly any of us could steel ourselves to give an interview to The Sun in which we boasted about our sexual prowess, even if it was in aid of being returned as Prime Minister. We just couldn't do it.

Thank you, in a way, to those who can; thank you even more to those who manage to do the job without compromising their dignity.

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