April 08, 2008

Politicians and their private lives

I promised a response to Matt Sinclair and Tim Montgomerie- here it is...

The relationship between politicians and the public is an interesting one: one of the reasons often cited that more talented people do not enter politics is the threat posed by an intrusive press to their families and friends and yet there is a suspicion that politicians live privileged lives and use their high positions in order to misbehave. Elliot Spitzer in New York has just proved the suspicion by using prostitutes whilst in another context prosecuting those who use them vigorously. Hypocrisy has never been more aptly called. Is that the reason though that we should be interested in the private lives of politicians, and how far should our interest go?

Its a question that recently has been agitating the conservative blogosphere in the UK: two of its principle representatives, Tim Montgomerie and Matt Sinclair have argued that private lives do matter. Both of their posts are worth reading. Montgomerie's essential argument is that there are public ramifications to private decisions and politicians ought to acknowledge when they have made private decisions that harmed the public good: ie taking drugs for example. Matt adds to that by reminding us about the emmense power that politicians hold over us: as he says, "we can't judge politicians entirely on their policies because we are not just electing a manifesto but a set of oligarchs to rule for four to five years." Matt doesn't really develop that point, but I think that's the central reason that we ought to be interested in the private lives of politicians.


Many decisions in government are made in ways that cannot be predicted at the time of election: in 1982, 1990, 2001 and 2003 the United Kingdom went to war in places that could not have been predicted by the general public when the elections beforehand were held. Tony Blair's second term in 2001 turned from a domestic reforming term (as intended by Blair when elected) into a Premiership concerned with the battle against terrorism. Understanding how Blair responded to terrorism of course includes understanding his ideology: New Labour was always committed to democratisation in foreign policy from the Kosovan adventure of 1999 onwards and because of the events of the early and mid 1990s in Bosnia and Rwanda, but there is more than that to it.


In order to understand Blair's decisions about Afghanistan and Iraq you have to understand his personality and way of working. Iraq, in particular, as Lord Butler's inquiry made clear, was the result in part of the way that Mr Blair and his inner circle worked: their methods meant that they divorced themselves from the reality that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, something I think Blair believed but something he was in error to believe. The problem is that often when we talk about private lives, we seem to be talking about sex lives but actually as I think you can infer from what I'm saying someone's sex life is actually not the crucial part of their private life.


In this case, US political culture, much more used to a system where one individual stands at the pinacle of power, is much more impressive than the UK's political culture. One of the reasons that some Democrats distrust Hillary Clinton is her inability to run her own campaign. Senators Clinton and Obama have not really run anything before today- but the way that they are running their campaigns indicates the way that they might run their White House staff, and the way that they respond to campaign crises, indicates something about the way that they might respond to crises during their Presidencies. The same approach ought to be made more use of in the UK: for example very few of us know anything about the way that Nick Clegg or David Cameron would govern- would they like John Major use their cabinets or would they like Tony Blair rely on a close coterie of advisors, what kind of Prime Ministers or ministers might they be (the question is relevant to Clegg as in the case of a coalition he would be running one of the great departments of state)- it is a question that we aren't looking at at the moment and that's not a great thing.


Looking at a politician's previous life can also tell us things about the way that they would behave within politics: Gordon Brown's time as a PhD student seems to have established his own patterns of behaviour, as both Peter Hennessy and Peter Mandelson have commented Brown behaves like a research student, locking himself away with the data before he comes out with a decision. Often though that means that we pay attention to the less sexy parts of a politicians' lives: a politician's affairs seem to me to demonstrate very little about their method of governing, neither does taking drugs as a teenager. As for Tim Montgomerie's arguments about externalities, I disagree, politics is not a contest about which politician has the most altruistic behaviour towards the public, its a contest about who is best able to run the commonwealth for the interest of all. Politics is of course about ideology and argument: but it is also about management, how the politician manages events and manages a large staff in Downing Street, in order to assess politicians, we need to assess their behaviour as managers of events and people. In order to assess that, often in the case of opposition leaders in particular, we have nothing else to turn to but their private lives. Such may not be perfect indicators: but with nothing else to go on and the certainty that at some point, a politician will be challenged by events that none of us could have predicted, we need to have an idea about how they might respond.


Ultimately its less the private lives of politicians, than their personalities that matter. For the key thing to think about is with what mentality they come to make decisions- are they angry, rash, thoughtful, hesitant, cautious or sensitive? Do they like detail or despise it, preferring the broad brush? How do they treat advice? The difference could be the difference between war and peace.


Crossposted at Liberal Conspiracy.

8 comments:

Matthew Sinclair said...

Good post. Solid points.

Ken said...

Very interesting. I agree with your distinction at the end. Moreover, I think the problem of the position which you analyse is that it sees general scrutiny as a good thing. But the media isn't trying to work out the suitability of a candidate for high office - it is hoping to sell newspapers, and personality analysis plays second fiddle to tittle-tattle and smut which gets people's attention.

Shuggy said...

Very interesting post on something I'm quite ambivalent about. I certainly don't agree with the stock liberal response about politicians 'private lives', especially in an age when they are increasingly willing to use the personal to garnish the political. Blair was hypocritical in the extreme on this issue. However, I have a number of reasons for preferring the standard liberal response, albeit for other reasons that standard liberals usually give. For example:

In order to understand Blair's decisions about Afghanistan and Iraq you have to understand his personality and way of working. Iraq, in particular, as Lord Butler's inquiry made clear, was the result in part of the way that Mr Blair and his inner circle worked: their methods meant that they divorced themselves from the reality that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, something I think Blair believed but something he was in error to believe

I think we can dismiss Afghanistan. People forget, or choose to forget, that in the face of evidence that was as copious as it was overwhelming, allied intervention was justified and sanctioned unanimously by the UN Security Council. I don't think the personality of the PM is relevant here.

Iraq's different but here I think people are ignoring the institutional pressures. For reasons that everyone now understands, Blair was for it but I think most people were and are unable to imagine what a fundamental shift a breach in Britain's basically Atlanticist foreign policy would have represented here. This is not to say whether it was right or wrong, although I have my own view - but it is simply to make the observation that the only PM in my living memory who seemed genuinely indifferent to the Anglo -American alliance was Edward Heath.

My second thought has to do with the following: I entirely agree that personality is relevant and that this can't be reduced to sex - but this separation appears to be beyond the media in the way that they treat these issues, which brings me to this: despite the fact that I agree the personality of politicians is a legitimate field of journalistic inquiry, don't you think that the manner in which they cover these issues inevitably undermines the very concept of a private life and that this has profoundly illiberal implications?

Semaj Mahgih said...

This was excellent, Tiberius and an issue I'm just not sure about.

lettersfromatory said...

Politicians are elected representatives of their constituency. If their constituents feel that they do not represent their views or give their constituency a bad name or bring their constituency into disrepute, they have every right to get rid of them - and MP's private lives are therefore very important. I don't like it, but it's the way it has to be.

Anonymous said...

"Elliot Spitzer in New York has just proved the suspicion by using prostitutes whilst in another context prosecuting those who use them vigorously."


I rather like the idea of using a prostitute vigorously. I do agree that consensual vigorous congress should not be a crime even if you choose to pay for it.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post. like in prostitution, I do agree that consensual vigorous congress should not be a crime even if you choose to pay for it.

________________________
vinz - reader


Wide Circles

Anonymous said...

Interesting post. like in prostitution, I do agree that consensual vigorous congress should not be a crime even if you choose to pay for it.

________________________
vinz - reader


Wide Circles