Politics is not a sport. You're supposed to want to do things

The big issues get lost when politicians see winning elections as an end in itself, not a means to an end

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The Independent Online

What will Chelsea do if they win the Premier League? What will Arsenal do if they win the FA Cup? What will Australia do if they win the cricket World Cup? Answer: nothing, nothing and nothing. The only thing you can do after you’ve won is try to win again. Winning is an end in itself.

Elections always made me laugh when I was chief sports writer of The Times. Suddenly all the people at the serious end of the paper turned into sports reporters. Who’s winning, who’s losing, blimey that was brilliant, and come on my lot, we’re by far the greatest political party the world has ever seen. Such larks!

These people always believed my job was trivial. So it was, even though I tried to deal with the trivialities in a fairly serious way. But come election time, reporters and politicians and pundits go mad with excitement, and address a mountain of deeply serious matters in an utterly trivial way. That’s because politics is a sport, and winning is an end in itself.

When David Cameron first set out in politics, his great vision of the future was … David Cameron as prime minister. And after that? To be prime minister again. This time without help from another team. To win, and then to win again. Isn’t that enough? Cameron is like Jose Mourinho with less money and fewer media skills.


“It’s my name on the wall.” The words of Cameron, privately to a friend. It’s a dead giveaway, because that’s all that matters. Being head boy. Doesn’t matter what you do when you get there so long as you get there.

So it’s all deeply dismaying if you happen to get your sporting kicks from actual sport, and believe that the job of a politician is trying to make the world a better place. Or at least trying to stop it getting worse.

Naive eh? I know. It’s absurd to expect a politician to think about stuff that matters. It’s like getting a football manager to give all his time to world peace and the cessation of the ecological holocaust. Nice idea, but there’s a cup tie coming up. There always is.

David Miliband, now out of domestic politics, was on the Today programme last week talking about Syria. His subtext was deeply revealing. And it was failure: the complete failure of the world’s politicians to have a plan for a conflict that has claimed 191,000 lives and created more than three million refugees. You look for stuff like leadership and vision, and you look in vain.

The big stuff seems to be beyond the scope of modern politicians. There are plenty of important issues that worry those of us with a vote but it’s no good asking a politician about them. They’re good at winning elections: dealing with national and international problems is a secondary skill. At best.

Most of us would agree that the future of the planet is a relevant subject for national and world leaders to engage with. Cameron dismisses such concerns as “green crap”. Apparently it doesn’t matter what kind of world we leave for our great-grandchildren, or how they’ll look back on us.

The National Health Service is important for itself and as a political issue. It’s mostly about money. The best way to save NHS money is to stop people getting ill. The annual bill for conditions connected with stress, depression and obesity is colossal. It’s been demonstrated a thousand times that access to the natural environment is a huge help in combating all these problems. But that’s a long-term issue and it’s not going to swing an election. So it’s no one’s great priority.

Five years. Why should a politician think about a longer stretch of time? A politician’s definition of long-term thinking is the year after the next election. The planet is not going to implode within five years or even five and bit: so its future is irrelevant. That’s why climate change has been given little more than polite platitudes ever since the subject came up 40-odd years ago. It’s something for the next bloke to worry about it.

Winston Churchill said that democracy was the worst form of government apart from all the others that have been tried. Admittedly in a democracy you are less likely to get slammed into jail without trial and then dropped from an aeroplane while your pre-pubescent daughter is handed over to the president – Paraguay tried that under Alfredo Stroessner – but there’s a price to pay for democracy and that price is short-termism. Another name for short-termism is trivialisation.

Perhaps we get the politicians we deserve. Perhaps we should expect politicians to answer – I mean answer, rather than dance around with brilliant dialectical skills – serious questions about serious issues. Maybe the root of the problem is the realisation that a few thousand ditherers who, by some geopolitical caprice, find themselves in a marginal constituency, are the masters of the nation’s fate.

The whole process lacks seriousness. Hardly anyone in politics would think of standing up for the long-term future of the planet. It’s so much easier to carry on as we are – that is to say, as if we had another couple of planets to spare. Anyway, if you ask a question of genuine importance you’ll only be told how badly the other lot are doing, and that you’ll have a lot less money to spend if they get into power.

When I was a boy I imagined that politics was full of people with ideals and dreams and visions: people who wanted to lead the rest of us towards a better time, doing things our children and our great-grandchildren would thank us for. But it doesn’t seem to be like that, does it?

Cheers, Brian, yes, it’s a very satisfying win. But we’re not getting ahead of ourselves, Brian. We’re just taking each match as it comes.

Yeah, right.