Steve Richards: Why do we hate and destroy those we have elected to represent us?

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The Independent Online

Why is it that we take pleasure in destroying those we elect? The Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, is being kicked about at the moment. Before her, the Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly, was fighting for her political life as cameras and journalists followed her around the clock. Her career was "hanging by a thread" because of what was happening at a single school in Norfolk. Over the years other ministers, or more likely former ministers, have had the political blood beaten out of them.

In each case this is what happens. An accusation is made. The minister denies the accusation. After a few days the story moves on to whether the minister can survive the pressure of being relentlessly in the media spotlight. The original accusations are obscured, but the problems of dealing with normal ministerial activities become overwhelming.

So as I write this column Sky News leads its hourly bulletin with a question in relation to Ms Jowell: "How much more can she take?" The headline ignores that what she is taking is questions such as that one. This is the equivalent of torturers pausing from their sadistic duties and asking innocently over a cup of tea how much longer their victims can survive.

Every few years we elect politicians and then treat them as if they are a bunch of crooks, relishing in their discomfort, casually seeking to destroy their careers. Whatever the flaws of the current Government, I know it to be well-intentioned.

Similarly John Major was a leader with an almost innocent integrity, yet he became associated fatally and unfairly with "sleaze". His exhausted cabinet colleagues, weary with power, were in most cases also decent-minded. Yet ask people what they remember about the Major years and "sleaze" would be up there at the top. If David Cameron were to make it, he would also face the fashionable starting assumption that he and his colleagues are up to no good.

Astutely, Mr Cameron shows restraint in the current frenzy. New Labour is suffering partly from the overblown accusations they made about sleaze under Mr Major. It was in such defiantly mischievous spirit that New Labour revised the ministerial code to insist that even the appearance of sleaze would be an offence. This has made the code an absurdity. The appearance of guilt is confirmation of guilt. Yet no sensible changes will be made. In the current mad climate the politicians would be accused of helping themselves like crooks changing the laws.

So why do we see the worst in elected politicians, well beyond healthy scepticism? Part of the answer is obvious. The agenda-setting right-wing newspapers never forgave Mr Major for not being Margaret Thatcher, and fume that Labour has won three elections in a row. But there is more to it than that. After all, this is a Government that is tottering precariously on several fronts. There is plenty of ammunition for its opponents without a need for ministerial scalps.

A therapist is best placed to make an authoritative judgement. I can only assume that the self-hate of some in the media is being transferred to elected politicians. The famously disdainful political interviewers are probably deeply troubled and angry individuals. They are intelligent enough to recognise that they are vastly overpaid compared with the politicians who seek to improve lives. In their stylised contempt they are expressing the disdain they feel for themselves.

Perhaps other highly paid executives are aware on one deeply suppressed level that they are in non-jobs, their lives lacking meaning or fulfilment. They transfer their suppressed guilt and frustration on to political leaders who work around the clock.

In order for the transference to work, the politicians cease to be human beings, but monsters with messianic powers. So one interpretation of recent events invites us to believe the following: Alastair Campbell told Ms Jowell to leave her husband in order to save her career. Without a moment's thought Ms Jowell agreed. This interpretation suggests casually that she does not give a damn about the feelings of her children or her long-term relationship with her husband. She was willing to destroy them all in order to spend another year or so as Culture Secretary. It also places Mr Campbell in the role of the mightiest devil of the lot, not only instructing Ms Jowell to dump her family, but guaranteeing that as a result she would keep her place in the Cabinet for years to come.

This is all nonsense. When Mr Campbell faced the trauma of David Kelly's suicide in the summer of 2003, he and his family escaped from the media spotlight for a few days by staying at Ms Jowell's home. It would not be surprising, therefore, if in her crisis she turned to Mr Campbell. We are dealing here with flawed human beings caught in a nightmare. But it is harder for transference to work unless they are regarded as stone-like figures driven by greed and ambition alone.

Voters also make their own transference. Private lives are shaped by hopes and sometimes hopes betrayed. With this Government more than others they feel let down. The feeling goes back to the heady atmosphere in 1997 when the country went through a period of collective madness. This was especially the case in the late summer when in their primitive mourning for Diana, Princess of Wales voters turned to Tony Blair for guidance and spiritual leadership. Although he had been elected on the most cautious and incremental manifesto a party had ever placed before voters, the country expected a revolution that would transform their lives. The transformation that was never promised did not come.

Celebrities and footballers on vast incomes fill the vacuum by being sources of aspiration and optimism. They are idolised, even though allegations persist about corruption, especially in football. In contrast, politicians are bashed around, the explanation for emptiness and lack of fulfilment in our lives. In Ms Jowell's case the familiar sequence is reaching the final stage, where defiance risks becoming self-indulgent and damaging to the Government. Several Blairite MPs and ministers told me yesterday that the affair will continue to damage the Government and that she will have to go.

Yesterday she answered questions in the Commons in relation to her departmental responsibilities. Briefly she was back in the real world, and had some genuinely important issues to address. Had she let the BBC take her for a ride? What about the plans for more casinos? Here are questions that probe legitimately her performance as a minister. In their complexity they must have come as a relief.

The corridors are crowded with wounded former ministers from both parties who were not corrupt and yet were forced out. Bring on the therapists. It must be something to do with us that we hate those we elect.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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