December 05, 2007

Political Experience

Simon Heffer isn't happy. Well Simon Heffer is almost never happy- as any regular UK readers will know, Simon Heffer's very existance is premised upon his unhappiness with the modern world and everything in it. Today his unhappiness is focused upon our political classes- and his article took my attention for it crystallised something. We often talk about the ways that politics is different now from how it was 'then' though we never define the 'then'. Of course in some part we are wrong in our definition of 'then'- career politicians aren't an invention of the modern age- the younger Pitt, Gladstone, Peel, Liverpool, they were all career politicians. But there are differences- and I wonder whether in one way we do make a chronic mistake.

At the moment in the UK, politicians seem to have a shorter and shorter lifespan. Maybe this is an illusion created by my own youth- but I can think of no politician now who was in the front rank in 1990, twenty years ago, bar the Prime Minister and Margerat Beckett. There are almost no senior figures in the conservative party who were senior in 1997- indeed should the Tory party take office at the next election they won't have anyone bar William Hague who served in John Major's cabinet. Labour in 1997 were in a similar position- only Jack Cunningham and Margerat Beckett had been around in 1979. This lack of ministerial experience means that the Labour government and probably the next Tory government spent lots of their time trying to work out how the system worked before they could start actually doing things.

That's not a good thing. It has something to do I think with Heffer's critique of politicians today. If ministers seem callow, it is often because they are. Partly that is the responsibility of the electorate- we have grown used to electing parties in very long chunks going back to the thirties (1931-45, 1951-64, 1979-97, 1997 till now). Unlike in the US as well there aren't alternative routes to political office- Condi Rice might become an advisor in the UK but would never attain the foreign secretaryship, Gordon Brown's attempts to change that haven't really succeeded. There is something systemic about the way that the British system creates governments and political careers very swiftly from a sole group of people- MPs in Parliament. That prioritises certain skills though and its worth thinking lastly about what skills our politicians cultivate.

It is silly to say that our politicians aren't bright. Tony Blair, David Milliband, David Cameron and William Hague are all bright and interesting men- none of them are thick. However all of them might be described as shallow- they are all bright and used to working quickly to come to opinions. But there is this lingering doubt- take George Osbourne the shadow chancellor. Osbourne is effectively holding his first really big job- and his second could be to take charge of the nation's finances. Its not that Osbourne is a bad guy- but that he is only in his mid thirties- his career could easily be over by the time he is in his mid forties. That worries me too- thinking of the names discarded over the last few years- from Portillo to Blair, Dorrell to Forsyth- political careers seem to start and end young. They don't last long- if you get to the top increasingly you do it quickly, and once there if you don't survive you are out very quickly too. We don't seem to have patience and that means that our politicians are rough diamonds, to be shaped in office, but once shaped kicked out the door. The exception that proves the rule is William Hague- who seems so much abler a politician since his failed stint as leader of the Conservative Party- as shadow foreign secretary Hague has matured into the older statesman of the Tory party.

I'm not sure what you do about this- perhaps though the solution to Heffer's dilemma is for us not to feel like Heffer. Perhaps we need to be more patient with our politicians and allow them time to mature on the job- perhaps as well we ought to expect more people to reach the top at the age that say David Davis has- in their fifties rather than in their thirties. Speaking for youth means that you ultimately end up with people like Hague getting to jobs before they are ready. Maybe its time to give experience a chance...


Anonymous said...

"Its not that Osbourne is a bad guy".. I'll tell you about Osbourne at Magdalen sometime!

Gracchi said...

I'd love to hear.... to be honest he is one of those that I am less impressed by. But Cameron I think is bright as is Hague and Willets and plenty of others.