Washed-up oakum pickers: Too tedious to attract the brightest and best, politics can now only tinker at the margins

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IN THE MIDST of the swirling, scandalous vortex of what William Waldegrave has called 'eccentric events', Lord Archer has intervened. He has complained that the best and the brightest will not go into politics if every slip in their private lives turns into a resigning matter.

What is the point of pursuing a career that can be destroyed in an instant by any ill-judged liaison on the hustings when the race was on and the blood was up? Politics will be impoverished by such moral selection; it will become a game played only by the bloodless and the boringly pure in heart.

On the face of it, this is a fair point. Presumably we want the most competent people to fill the most important posts, and they are hardly likely to be seduced by a job description that includes a vow of poverty, chastity and obedience. Certainly politics offers the trappings of power and a gratifyingly high profile. But is it worth the long years of worrying that the Sun may buy up that figure from the past, or rake up some petty dishonesty? Probably not.

The Archer argument, however, misses a number of points. For a start, the best and the brightest have not been been going into politics for some time. I know politicians and I know journalists and writers. There is no comparison. The brilliance of the latter category shines far brighter than that of the former. Indeed, a large part of John Major's problem is that the power vacuum created by his administration has been occupied by a press that is more clever and quick-witted than his own Cabinet.

The truth is that the best - in journalism, the law, business - have declined the political option not because of fear of scandal but because it is badly paid and boring. Just how boring has not yet been fully appreciated, because we are still living in the throes of great, dynamic processes - the collapse of Communism, Thatcherism - and in the midst of the slow but historically dramatic movement towards European union.

These big, exciting processes still, to some extent, conceal the reality of contemporary politics. That reality consists almost entirely of the unremittingly tedious business of drawing lines.

Drawing lines is all there is left to do once the big, systemic arguments - notably communism versus capitalism - have gone and the international stage has been taken over by superpowers or supranational blocs. National leaders and their cabinets are thrown back on the day-to-day management of the mixed economy.

There is almost nothing of any resonance that can be said about this process. You make lists, wade through volumes of figures, listen to special interests; and then you draw a line that divides what we can do from what we can't. Glenda Jackson or Dennis Skinner would have to do this as surely as Peter Lilley or Michael Portillo, and the result would be much the same. Certainly the line might be in a very slightly different place under a Labour government, but, in reality, with 46 per cent of the economy already under government control and a deficit of pounds 50bn, there is no significant room for manoeuvre. All that is left for politicians to do is meddle at the margins and pretend it is big news.

Margaret Thatcher's achievement was to overlay this grim business with the politics of the crusade. She identified a range of dragons to be slain, from Galtieri to the Gas Board, and everybody had a great time watching them die.

The clear impression - illusion, if you prefer - was that there was a higher cause, and that the political establishment was a mere servant of this cause. Individual immorality, incompetence or dishonesty was beside the point. Her programme was not presented as a set of policies, but rather as a force of nature. She would have brushed aside Tim Yeo and stepped blithely over the body of David Mellor.

None of this was quite true: the Westland scandal could have brought her down and, as subsequent history revealed, the Thatcher cause was not self-sustaining, but heavily dependent on her presence and personality. Yet she gave a flavour to politics, a real sense for left and right that there was something to be done and, for political aspirants on both sides, that there was a fight worth fighting.

Mr Major had to carry two burdens. First, he did not have the global confrontation to give meaning to his politics. Second, he was not Margaret Thatcher. This left him with the underlying political reality: life was going to be an unbelievably boring process of departmental grubbing and financial scraping. Far from the drama of grasping the helm of the ship of state, politics was more akin to picking oakum.

And if, like Mr Major, you begin to show signs of not being the best of oakum pickers, then it becomes even worse. People start to draw attention to the humbleness of your task, its lack of poetry and vision, and to your pathetic irrelevance before the great forces of the sea.

This, of course, is where 'back to basics' comes in. It was a post- Thatcherite attempt to conceal the boredom of politics from the electorate. The dragons to be slain this time were identified as the forces of dissolution and decay.

Still at work in society were the disruptive ideologies of the Sixties and the morale-sapping subversions of the trendies and the permissive. Government, having used up the rhetorical energy derived from the Good Housekeeping / Sound Money / Britain Great Again crusade, was now to invigorate itself with an intimately interventionist moral drive, an explicit piece of psycho-social engineering.

This could have worked at the purely practical level. Welfare spending has to be contained somehow, and encouraging a climate in which people are not inclined to become dependent is reasonable. In education, it is not seriously disputed by right or left that a new rigour is urgently required, and inevitably that rigour has to be accompanied by the assertion of certain values. All of that could be achieved without really straying from the basic oakum-picking brief of the modern politician.

But clearly that was not enough for the Downing Street team. It wished to partake of the higher rhetoric of moral absolutes. It wished to advertise the fact that Mr Major was not just another functionary, another politician meddling at the margin of the real world. It wished to promote his personality and his culture as A Good Thing.

His nostalgia for a cosy, cricketing England, his everyday concerns, his flamboyantly ordinary demeanour were enlisted as elements in an explicitly moral position. He stood for straightforward, homely values, for honest hard work and simple good behaviour.

What the team failed to realise was that this was not just a smart bit of image manipulation. It was unwittingly taking on a fundamental change in the status of the modern politician. It was saying that, in spite of appearances to the contrary, politicians were not just managers, they were also visionaries, keepers of the faith and so on.

This new faith and this vision are grand and ambitious, but they are not grand and global; rather, they are small and local. But this, the team assumed, was in keeping with the times. There could be as much poetry and inspirational rhetoric about families and schools as there had once been about Argentina and Arthur Scargill.

The parallel with the Royal Family is striking. The royals also tried to assert their significance by redefining themselves. They did this by adopting a post-imperial role of symbolic family, an intimate, local role that precisely prefigures the cosiness of 'back to basics'. Mr Major wanted to be a real, moral politician and the Windsors wanted to be a real, emblematic family.

They both made the same mistake. They failed to realise that neither royalty nor politicians could still rely on a ring of deference that would conceal their lapses from their own rhetorical ideals. Westminster and the Palace are now utterly penetrated by a publicity machine that is too competitive and too ruthless to be relied upon for discretion. As a result, if either wants to take a moral stand, it had better mean it and had better ensure that minor royals and junior ministers mean it, too.

The truth is that good, solid, impenetrable hypocrisy is needed to keep either show on the road, a consensual hypocrisy which agrees that the value of the message is more important than the inevitable frailty of the messenger.

Such hypocrisy may well be a very good thing indeed. Without it, politicians are destined to face the unavoidable truth: that they are neither the brightest nor the best, and that somebody has to pick the bloody oakum.