An Apology for Politicians
By ALAN WATKINS
AFEw years ago, when I was working on another paper, I shared a room with a gifted sports writer. One of the things that im- pressed me about him was the contempt in which he held most of his journalistic subjects. Such-and-such a soccer player, he would say, would not talk to you unless he were paid; so-and-so, the well-known amateur cricketer, was in the game only for what he could get out of it; and as for football managers and boxing promoters, why, they were almost uniformly either incompetent or positively corrupt. Nor do I believe that this particular writer's attitude was an uncommon one. In my experience most sports journalists dislike the people about whom they have to write, and possibly with good reason. For an equally good reason, however, this atti- tude is rarely displayed in their stories or articles.
But with political journalists (and in this phrase I include lobby correspondents, gallery corre- spondents, leader-writers and people who com- pose occasional political articles) there is a tendency to reverse the process. There is a ten- dency, in other words, to attribute to politicians generally qualities of power-mania, cynicism, insincerity and self-seeking which they do not possess and which the journalists concerned know perfectly well they do not possess. Politi- cal journalists, on the whole, like and admire their subjects, though they may pretend not to. Let me hasten to say here that I believe this pre- tence is on most occasions a thoroughly healthy one. No doubt it is an excellent thing for poli- ticians to be roughly handled for most of the year. From time to time, however, it is a. good idea to stand back, put matters in perspective and give thanks, not for our political system (that has been done often enough), but for our politicians.
And there is a special reason for doing so at this particular time. The election received a bad press. It was, we were told, a great bore. The issues, it was said (I may have said so myself), were not put squarely before the electors. The howling pack was led by Sir William Haley, and everyone else joined in. Yet is there not some- thing unhealthy and febrile about this demand for 'exciting' elections in which `issues' are pre- sented to the people? It is true that for various reasons—most of which concerned personalities, not issues—the election of 1964 was a particularly exciting one. But looking quickly through the Nuffield studies of the five elections prior to 1964, one finds that the complaints made by the newspapers of the time and the authors of the studies almost exactly mirror the complaints made about the election of 1966. It was said, .first, that the election was not exciting and, secondly, that the state of the economy was not made the central issue.
On this occasion, however, the complaints seemed to take on a more virulent tone. At times, indeed, they seemed to be complaints about the activity of politics itself. How far the newspapers were reflecting a national mood of disenchantment with politics and politicians is arguable. Certainly most MPs to whom I spoke could detect no such mood: meetings, they said, were well attended and questioning was serious. However, it is also arguable that if such a mood does exist it is the job of journalists not to reflect but to counter it; and what follows is intended as a modest step in that direction. Let us begin with the charge that politicians are interested in power and nothing else. It is a charge which, though unoriginal enough, Mr Malcolm Muggeridge has made peculiarly his own. Most of the discussion, by Mr Muggeridge and others, has been muddled, for the reason that power has been considered as a glamorous but dangerous substance, instead of as a word which can apply to a variety of relationships. It was Mr Richard Crossman who observed in one of his essays that the average bus conductor had more power than the average back-bencher. The only difference between him and me is that he appeared to find this a matter both for surprise and for regret.
For, using 'power' to mean the ability directly to affect the lives of other people, it is quite obvious that there are all kinds of individuals who have more power even than ministers. Mr Crossman's bus conductor is not perhaps a very good example, because such power as he has is strictly lingted. But what of headmistresses or non-commissioned officer or minor bureaucrats? All of these have enormous and (more impor- tant) largely unsupervised power which can be, and often is, exercised in a thoroughly tyrannical fashion.
But, Mr Muggeridge may say, what he is talking about is 'political' power—a more potent, even noxious, beverage, so it seems. To test this view let us go right to the top, to Mr Harold Wilson himself. Now it is possible to say many unkind things about Mr Wilson : but what cannot be said about him is that he is power-crazed. He is deeply attached to office and • all that goes with it, which is slightly different. Indeed, as I complained in this column some months ago, the charge against Mr Wilson is that he does not make sufficient use of the power he has. After all, a Prime Minister who does not trust himself enough to dismiss Mr Fred Lee can hardly be said to have allowed power to go to his head.
I am perfectly ready, however, to redefine a lust for power as a desire for political office. Even so, I find that few MPs or ministers went into politics simply to hold office, however exalted. A minority had some idea of 'doing good' or 'putting their ideas into practice' in some unspecified kind of way. More wanted status—a different matter from power. But the majority wished to lead a more exciting and in- teresting life than they had hitherto led; though whether these expectations were fulfilled is another matter entirely. All in all, the propensity to tell other people how to order their lives is low in politicians—lower than it is, for example, in schoolmasters or ministers of religion.
Does this answer the point made by Mr Mug- geridge and those who think like him? Probably
not. For their real objection, I suspect, is not to politicians, but to government as such. In which case it would surely be more straightforward of them to profess anarchism or, at the very least, that kind of Lockean liberalism whose principal present-day exponent is Professor Milton Friedman.
To move on, however, from power to the charge that politicians are vain. Mr Hugh Mas- singham once wrote that they were vainer than
peacocks, far worse than actors or actresses. I confess I have rarely found them so. Not only
are politicians, in my experience, less vain than actors or actresses; more, they are less vain than the majority of journalists, who (as Mr Chris- topher Booker noted in these columns some months ago) will turn into lifelong enemies at the merest hint of criticism, whether of their work or more occasionally of the papers by which they are employed. For my part, I neN er cease to wonder at the amount of criticism, much of it unfair, with which politicians are prepared to put up and emerge smiling at the end. Even more to the point, possibly, I never cease to wonder at the number of back-benchers who go on being civil to journalists when, year after year, they receive not a mention in those journa- lists' columns.
There •are, it is true, exce.ptions to this. A Labour MP once approached a friend of mine who was then writing a column for a Sunday
newspaper. 'In the past,' said the MP, `you're been good enough to put various questions to
me, which I've done my best to answer."Yes, indeed,' replied my friend, 'thank you very much.' `In that case,' said the MP, 'can you tell why it
is that my name never appears in your column).
A year or so later I telephoned this same MP about a story I was thinking of writing. We talked, but no story. materialised. Subsequently
I saw him outside a compositing -committee meeting at a Labour party conference. I inquired about what had been going on inside the meet- ing. I'm not going to talk to you,' he replied, `because the last time I did you didn't print a word I said.' But this kind of behaviour is, as say, surprisingly rare. Indeed, the MP to whom I am referring is probably unique in this respect.
But, above all, British •politicians are an extra- ordinarily frank body of men. Is 'frank' quite the right word? Probably not. Politicians tell as many lies as other people, perhaps a few more. Where they differ from the majority is in being exceptionally candid about their likes and dis- likes of others. They are, in short, extremely indiscreet about their colleagues and their politi- cal opponents. Ask an ordinary middle-class citizen about his employer and you will receive a pack of evasions and half-truths; ask an
ordinary back-bench Labour MP about Mr Wil- son and you will be given an earful of cheery scandal and abuse; and similarly with any Con- servative MP on Mr Edward Heath.
Much of this gossip, admittedly, is dictated by malice. Much of it, however, is not. Whatever
the motive, the important thing to remember is
that Members are rarely swayed by considera- tions of enlightened self-interest or cool self- love. If they were thus swayed, they would not be so indiscreet. Moreover, back-benchers do not change when they become ministers. If anything they become even more open in their conversa- tion. But why in that case (I can already hear Mr' David Butler asking) does not more 'flees
emerge? The short answer is that news is a finite substance and that politics is generally a dull business. The marvel is that politicians con- trive to remain as entertaining and indiscreet as they are. And one wonders why Mr MuggeridS, of all people. does not approve of them.