BITTER, BORING OR BEMUSED
Political pundits make careers out of highlighting the stupidities of politicians.
John Patten looks at some of theirs I NO LONGER much care what anyone writes about me, save for my dear wife in her diary and the Recording Angel in his. In the 24-hour hurly-burly of modern poli- tics, 'never explain, never complain' is still an excellent maxim — to which might be added 'never blame the media for misfor- tune'. And certainly, never blame political commentators.
For after 20 years of reading their writ- ings — we watch them as closely as they watch us — I have concluded that political Journalists have an honourable calling. I like their company and admire the speed and facility with which they turn their prose — in most cases. But my advice is that no one should undertake the job for long. If any political commentator wishes to do more than earn a fairly easy pound, and firmly wants to deserve the obituary notice, it is important for him to do something other than write about us in the transient way necessary to his trade. There are few women at it, save for the terrifyingly aus- tere Melanie Phillips of the Observer. Commentators are usually even more notoriously thin-skinned and upset by criti- cism than most of us, and that is saying a lot. To hear the sanctity with which they often endow 'my column', and the rever- ence with which they recall what they wrote on this or that, is just as bad as the worst of us dropping 'as I said at the Party Confer- ence' or 'in my speech in the House last week' hither and thither.
As I go about, I see very clearly that the higher reaches of the media certainly do influence public opinion in metropolitan London. However, cross the M25 and you move into a world of no comment about the commentators. What does hit the con- sciousness of the public are newspaper front pages; the powerful impact of the first few stories on the evening television news; and whatever the presenters of the Today programme have managed to extract from early morning politicians. In my expe- rience some people do indeed read on past the front pages of their newspapers. A fair number even read the leader columns. The cumulative effect of the musings of name- less editorial writers is far greater than any commentator can manage.
There is nothing wrong with high-class punditry. It is, though, degrading to the subject when most of the pundits form themselves into a politically correct clique that observes only its own narrow defini- tion of reality. Take the art world, for example; a group of modernist-leftists dominates, with only a handful of critics resisting in the shadowy samizdat, like The Spectator's Giles Auty or Brian Sewell of the Evening Standard. There is, of course, no test of their sense, except, perhaps, the prices that some of the works they praise reach (or fail to reach) in the sale-rooms.
For political commentators the situation is, or should be, very different. Political critics who fancy themselves as readers of Westminster's runes face a test every four or five years, at general elections. Yet the centre-left clique who dominated many newspapers in Thatcher's decade, and linger on into Major's, conduct their polit- cal discourse in a seeming vacuum. They may write with apparent sophistication but with little relation to reality. Journalists are always calling on politicians to do the decent thing and resign when they make a muddle. But while I can find a good num- ber of examples of decent resignations or retirements from front-line politics since 1979 — Peter Carrington, Humphrey Atkins and Richard Luce after the Falk- lands, Ian Gow on a point of principle over Ulster, or Norman Fowler 'to spend more time with my family' — I search in my memory but fail to find an occasion when one of Fleet Street's great men has felt that they would be honour-bound to resign from popular punditry because of their appalling track record in the prediction of events. Alan Clark, writing in his diary on 29 July 1984, was lucid on this: 'I some- times think the only reason I want to stay on is to prove all those wankers wrong. Not that journalists ever notice — still less admit — when they've made a mistake. They complain about this trait in politicians but in fact they're far worse. Like share tip- sters on the financial pages, they should be compelled to publish an annual audit.'
A golden rule for any would-be minister must be to plan for your retirement when you are at the top of your powers, if you have any sense; the same should go for those who observe us.. To any talented young man or woman the message must be `do it for not less than ten, but certainly not more than fifteen, years'. Then edit, write proper books, become something splendid like the head of an Oxford or Cambridge college, and certainly salt away your earn- ings before you end up bitter, boring or bemused. For most of the longest-writing of the political commentators seem to end up in one of these categories, with hon- ourable and notable exceptions. The exceptions include the demigods, like the extraordinary and marvellous Lord Deedes, or those who stride out through the Gentlemen's gate on to the pitch, whether the noble Lords McAlpine, Rees- Mogg and Wyatt or the Knights Bachelor Junor and Worsthorne, this last writing more splendidly than ever after his sabbatical editing a newspaper.
It is rather the Players who concern me. Just as nurses of the Napoleonic era warned their shivering charges of what would happen to them if Boney came across the Channel, so would-be commen- tators should be warned of what will hap- pen to them when they grow up if they end up like one-time luminaries such as Mr Hugo Young, Mr Joe Rogaly, or Mr Peter Kellner, to take the three most striking examples of each type.
When I was first longing to become a Member of Parliament 20 years ago, I plundered the pages in which Mr Young wrote. Balanced, original, wide-ranging and always saying something new: I learnt a lot from him. Where is he, two decades later? Tucked away in the Guardian, monotonously writing the same highly moralistic and utterly condemnatory prose about everything and everyone in sight; doubting every decision, moralising about every motive, above all else destructive of most that he sees. Not long ago he seized on the Chancellor of the Exchequer, accus- ing him of a 'pathological hatred of local authorities'. If Mr Clarke has a pathologi- cal hatred of anything — and I doubt it — I suspect local authorities would not be the object. On politicans in general, Mr Young wrote in November that 'suppression of the truth is the more common and prudent mendacity, but plain falsehood is not unknown'.
Whether this is bitterness, cynicism or paranoia I do not know. None aims the first stone lower and with more relish than Mr Young. He is so fixed on stereotypical and laughable commentators' autopilot that on 3 March he even sank into Dave Spart journalism, writing of 'whistleblow- ers' and of dishonourable Whitehall leakers in the same category as my splendid Per- manent Secretary, Sir Tim Lankester. Mr Young can no longer tell the difference between a junior official cravenly stuffing a brown paper envelope and sending it to the Guardian, and a distinguished public ser- vant fulfilling the historic Whitehall task which faces an accounting officer as he sees it, one of the most important parts of any top civil servant's job. Observing events seems to madden Mr Young's powers of observation. There is no longer any point to him, save as an awful warning to new entrants.
There is no need to go on at such length about Mr Joe Rogaly of the Financial Times, who now simply writes the same sort of thing again and again in a very tedious sub-pastiche of the Economist style. Years at it have made him a bore. He has a gift for stating the obvious (`erecting a façade of unity is not the only purpose this year's conference is supposed to serve,' he wrote just before the Tories met in Blackpool last year), and his idea of a joke is scarcely original. Attacking William Waldegrave for his supposed reticence before the Scott Inquiry, Mr Rogaly came up with the extraordinarily predictable 'tell us another, Mr Minister for Open Government'.
Mr Peter Kellner, presently the resident lefty of the Sunday Times, who writes statis- tically bemused accounts of political statis- tics, has a track record of prediction that is simply laughable. Like many others, he was taken in by the opinion polls before the last election. 'Unless the Conservatives achieve an unprecedented late surge in support,' he wrote on the Sunday before that election, hedging it nicely, 'they seem destined to lose their Commons majority on Thursday.' Also that day he wrote that 'the final cam- paign survey of our voters' panel shows all signs of victory slipping further from the Tories' grasp'. In putting his faith in the polls rather than in his own judgment he did, perhaps, have an excuse. The Observer the same day asked him, and a number of other pundits, for their guess as to the out- come. Here Mr Kellner had to put himself on the line: 'Hung parliament. Tories biggest number of seats. Kinnock PM. Sec- ond election in 18 months.'
Even Mr Kellner looks impressive, though, compared with Edward Pearce, who writes about politics in those two homes of lost causes the Guardian and the New Statesman. Luckily, Mr Pearce devotes some of his attention to world matters, so his opportunities to get us wrong are limit- ed. Having predicted Dukakis would win the 1988 presidential election, he then got George Bush so wrong that he thought he would never attack Saddam Hussein. He thought the coup against Gorbachev in 1991 would succeed; and, predictably, he thought Mr Kinnock would win the last election.
Like all the other pundits — though not The Spectator's, of course — who told us categorically that Labour would win the last election, Mr Kellner and Mr Pearce are still drawing their salaries. There are those who seem to survive without going down the route, however, of Patten's gen- eral rule of cyclical artery-hardening amongst political commentators. I have mentioned Sir Peregrine Worsthorne, but most notable is Mr Simon Jenkins of the Times, who very sensibly, whenever he feels his writing is going off or becoming repeti- tive, takes a sabbatical and edits a newspa- `Left at the charity shop, past the charity shop, second right after the charity shop . . per, first the Evening Standard and latterly the Times. He is going through a splendid renaissance at the moment, observing acutely and immensely readably (and before any of you feels he must be a run- ning dog of mine, I have felt his lash over the years in his column and it has fallen once in 1994 already).
Above all else, he has another life, which seems to me to be important in stopping Hugo Young-ish bitterness and repetition from taking over — he is a good and pene- trating architectural writer and a notable historian of London. Mr Jenkins was referred to memorably in my hearing by Sir Christopher Bland as the 'General Secre- tary of the Establishment's Militant Ten- dency'; perhaps that role gives him the zip and vim that make him so readable, along with Mr Peter Riddell of the same paper, whose Reithian standards leave him the most unbiased of all political columnists and editors today, apart from Mr Andrew Man of the Independent, who writes good books as well.
What about that young red-head, Simon Heifer, of this newspaper, and now also taking Lord Rothermere's shilling in the Daily Mail? He should look carefully at how that other and older red-head, Paul Johnson, has ended up, and contemplate if he wishes to go that way. Mr Johnson has written so well on Christianity and other matters, he might have left political jour- nalism for pure scholarship long ago. But my friend Mr Hafer is labouring away at the life of Carlyle, so perhaps he will be saved. In any event, he is one of those rare pundits prepared to say he is wrong, as he did recently over prematurely writing off Mr Heseltine as a minister. I look forward to a similar recantation soon over my friend Mr Major as Prime Minister.
Fond though I am of measuring perfor- mance, I won't attempt to rank these and other luminaries nor provide some league table. Equally it is important for any reader of The Spectator who is thinking of setting off down the same track as I was two decades ago to differentiate clearly between political commentators good and bad, and political editors and writers stricto sensu who say it as it really is day by day so perceptively, whether Mr Peter Dobbie of the Mail on Sunday, Mr Andy Grice of the Sunday Times, Mr George Jones of the Daily Telegraph, Mr Robin Oakley of the BBC, or Miss Sarah Baxter of the New Statesman, among many others. My message to would-be commentators is: think carefully before you start. Or, if you have started, think carefully about how to get out of it all before the passing years bring with them the overwhelming wave of boredom and bitterness which closes in over the heads of too many political com- mentators too soon. Get out when the going is good.
John Patten is Secretary of State for Education.