Earlier this month, even before any of us had heard about Parisian hotel bills and cheques from department store proprietors, a Mori poll showed that public respect for MPs and ministers was at rock bottom. Of various British institutions and professions, only top businessmen exceed them in unpopularity. Granted, as a breed politicians seem glib, complacent, self-important. But surely they haven't always been so? And why do the exceptions to this stereotype rarely make it to office?
Perhaps the most alarming feature of the current sleaze saga is that we seem at a loss to understand it. John Major clearly doesn't want to: he will hope that a resignation or two, and a decently obscure select committee inquiry, will bury the issue. Labour's pitch is to call for a tightening of rules (on members' interests, for example) but to place the blame with the Tories' long hold on power. A Blair-led government, in other words, would signal a new dawn.
Yet politicians are in trouble throughout the developed world. In the US the word has become a form of expletive. Mavericks such as Ross Perot are backed precisely because they are untainted by the political estabishment. The evidence suggests that, far from there being a few rotten apples in a barrel, the malaise may well be systemic - a feature, in some way, of mass democracy.
In the early 1970s a famous experiment asked Californian high- school students to pretend to be prisoners and warders. The experiment had to be cut short because they role-played too well: the 'guards' became tyrants, the prisoners suffered psychosomatic rashes, rages, tears and mental breakdown. Other well-known experiments in group psychology have shown people inflicting 'fatal' electric shocks on others because a figure in authority told them to do so, and disbelieving the evidence of their own eyes if a group of their peers tells them something different.
Such studies indicate that personality is a flimsy and malleable thing, a prisoner of peer groups, organisations, professional 'ethos'. The idea of politicians as prisoners may sound faintly implausible - yet consider a recent and prominent case, one of the great classics of modern political psychology.
In the late 1980s the British public had a ringside seat at a curious but very public metamorphosis. Does anyone remember the Margaret Thatcher of the 1970s - a squeaky Somerville chemist with flyaway hair? In the years after 1979 this turned itself into something rich and strange: a husky, groomed, glowing presence, basking in a permanent adrenalin high and displaying a disoncerting use of the royal 'we'. What had caused this distension of personality? And why does the deprivation of power seem to have drained her of substance?
Just over a century ago the historian James Bryce wrote a book that became a minor classic. It was called The American Commonwealth and its publication in 1888 came at a time when Tammany Hall was all too real and respect for politicians in the United States had vanished. Bryce's book caught this mood exactly. He headed one of his chapters 'Why The Best Men Do Not Go Into Politics'.
Public corruption in the US in the late 19th century was linked to political atrophy: a succession of poor presidents, the blocking of all reform. It was also rooted in fundamental failures: the rigidity of the two-party system, the untrammelled power of congressional leaders. As the historian Hugh Brogan has written, wholesale reform was needed - but no one had time to consider it. Everyone in politics was too busy trying to win the next election.
Since Bryce's time, however, democracy, in the US and elsewhere, has changed enormously. Universal suffrage, and blanket media coverage, have turned it into a mass spectator sport. In the last decade or two, power has become centralised and concentrated, vanishing upwards in the direction of Westminster, Whitehall and Brussels. To understand how people function in such mass settings, we have new intellectual disciplines: sociology, ecology, systems theory, evolutionary theory. We also have bureaucracy theory, which tells us that the tendency of large organisations is ineluctably towards specialisation.
SUCH DISCIPLINES help to explain the strange case of Margaret Thatcher's vanishing personality: the political system granted her too much power and deference for her own good. But individuals are not merely the creatures of their environment: they complement and reinforce it. Autocrats are generally surrounded by yes-men.
Totalitarian regimes, operating a form of behavioural eugenics, create new breeds of people: apparatchiks, nomenklatura, Stasi. And theories of how organisations work suggest that beyond a certain point a form of positive feedback sets in: some traits are encouraged, others ignored. Once the 'wrong' people get hold of an organisation, they rarely let it go.
Politicians are no exception to these laws. They are becoming a kind of separate hieratic caste: distinctiveness is fading fast, replaced by commercial branding techniques. The last prime minister meriting the description of amateur was Lord Home of the Hirsel, 30 years ago. The likes of David Mellor or William Hague were chairing party associations, addressing conferences, at the age of 15 or 16. Cabinet government has grown; the payroll vote in the Commons remains all-enveloping. Party organisations have become monoliths, party divisions unbreachable. These facts are well known, as is the term 'elective dictatorship', yet their impact on the kind of politicians we produce has been largely ignored.
Suppose you are contemplating a career in politics. There are rewards, of course: consultancies, directorships, large dollops of free or subsidised foreign travel, celebrity and the income that flows from it. But to stand a chance of influencing events, you will have to shrink your outlook on the world to the small patch of foreground shared by the two main parties.
You will have to accept abnormal working conditions, a dislocated social life. You will have to concentrate much of your time on trying to please those who offer the chance of advancement, most notably the party whips. You must, for example, volunteer for the political equivalent of fagging - the office of parliamentary private secretary. You must, above all, stop thinking for yourself and listening to others: mastery of the party line is required, coupled if possible with a decent turn in adversarial invective.
Not suprisingly, women, particularly those with children, are notable for their absence: woman- friendly working conditions remain a dream. But men have families, too. Within a month of John Major becoming prime minister he was worrying to Woman's Own about the impact on his family, but added: 'I don't know what to do about it other than give up public life.' Tony Blair has said something similar: his greatest hesitation about taking on the Labour leadership was that 'I wouldn't get the time with my kids as they were growing up'.
What sort of people flourish in such an environment? Almost certainly the wrong people. The Greeks disliked professionalism, feared ambition and thought that those most equipped for power were those who wanted it least.
Until the 18th century, the most compelling model of leadership was the individual for whom it was a duty rather than a pleasure - a Cincinnatus or a George Washington, returning to their farms when the hour of emergency was over. Last year a survey of MPs showed how things have changed: 71 per cent were diagnosed as Type A personalities (aggressive, competitive, confrontational). Small wonder the culture of ministerial resignation has all but vanished. These people do not find power a burden. They want it, badly.
But do we want them? A system that penalises normality and independent-mindedness, rewarding careerism and ambition, is not healthy, nor does it work particularly well. Shouldn't we be encouraging politicians to have Type B traits, such as co-operativeness and mutuality? Shouldn't we be trying to reclaim politics for the amateur, the ordinary and the honourable?
MODERN politics has a revolutionary feel to it. A specialised and unrepresentative elite slowly gains power through transparently inequitable means - the five-yearly first-past-the-post electoral ballot - and abuses it for its own benefit. The common people feel dispossessed, impotent. Reform is gridlocked. Manifestos for comprehensive constitutional reform are drawn up.
There will be no revolution. But there must be change. The Greeks recognised the dangers of careerism and devised various antidotes: rotation of office, election by lot. In the US, the disgust with politics noted by Bryce led to the rise of progressivism, a new era of reform, the near-collapse of the two-party system and the election of the most morally upright president of the century, Woodrow Wilson. In Britain a century later, we can be sure of one thing: those who profit from our present system will be least inclined to change it.
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