Jeremy Paxman is probably one of the people least qualified to write this book. He once famously defined his approach to interviewing politicians as, "Why is this lying bastard lying to me?" While that produced a certain watchability, it is not an approach which lends itself to an insightful analysis of "the political animal".
Of course, Paxman's early boast was a bit of a show, as was his languid rudeness. He is in fact quite sympathetic to some politicians as individuals. The book contains vignettes of Boris Johnson, Jack Straw and John Major in action with every appearance of Paxman quite liking, even mildly admiring, them.
In recent years, too, he has lost some of his menace. His treatment of Tony Blair in May was notably "soft" – and better for it. Paxo may have lost his stuffing, but by the end of the book it is obvious he has not altered his essentially sneering view of politicians. They may be perfectly pleasant lying bastards, even decent, well-meaning lying bastards, but ultimately Paxman finds them baffling because he simply cannot see the point of what they do.
Time and again in this amiable collection of anecdotes, he struggles to be fair to politicians: "Many have noble ideals and genuinely want to make the world a better place." But then he comes up against the impossibility of such a project, in the Paxman view. Partly for that reason, it would seem, he believes that the job of trying to make the world a better place must be deeply unpleasant.
At several points, he interrupts his anecdotage to wonder why on earth anyone would want to be a politician. Most of us do not, "and for very sensible reasons". These are primarily that the job is insecure, that it puts a strain on family life and it requires people to say things they do not believe.
This last, in keeping with the lying bastard thesis, is his most persistent theme. The trouble with a leader's conference speech is that "it is a tottering tower built on false opposites, the world reduced to binary choices". Most people, he argues, "do not like making the simple either/or choices to which all political decision-making is reduced: we recognise that life is more complicated than that".
Every now and again, Paxman hints that he realises that politics is all about choosing between imperfect options; that political parties are necessary to democracy by organising and simplifying those choices. But the idea that most politicians accept the compromises of democracy in order to try to achieve something in which they sincerely believe is lost in the easy sneer. "In a perfect world, of course, we wouldn't have politicians."
The more thoughtful Paxman is an excellent guide to a wide range of secondary sources and personal experience. The section on the Phaethon theory, that the childhood loss of a parent inspires unusual ambition, is suggestive. Of the 51 prime ministers from Walpole to Blair, 24 lost their fathers before they were 21.
The theory covers John Major, who was 12 when his father was broken by the failure of his business, and by extension Blair himself, 11 when his father was deprived of the power of speech by a stroke. Sadly, Paxman does not sustain this investigation into the psychology of ambition, lapsing into pointless accounts of the Oxford Union and how Alan Milburn's press secretary never replied to his calls.
This is an interesting book rather than an essential one. Paxman is an uneven stylist (three chapters begin with "And"; two with "And so") but a good collator of some of the best clips from the archive of British political history.
It might have been a better book if Paxman had, instead of trying and failing to be fair, launched an out-and-out attack on lying politicians. But he is too clever for that. He knows his proposals to restore faith in politics – cut the number of MPs by a third, reform Parliament's hours – are feeble. Yet he seems oblivious to the possibility that his own cynicism has contributed to the fact that "the general public is now ready – almost eager – to believe the worst of politicians".
John Rentoul's biography of Tony Blair is published by Time Warner paperbacks
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