Britain’s self-harming Brexit crisis, its unsettling outcome made worse by the feeble incoherence of the political class’s response, again highlights a wider problem for us all. What has gone wrong with quality control on the production lines of leadership in public life?
It’s not just our problem, of course, any more than aggressive populism tinged with nationalism is unique to Brexit, though parochial Brexiters may think so. There are people like them, thinking the same, in every country, that’s the point. Our national mood, angry and resentful, is part of a bigger malaise. Let’s call it Trumpery.
But 30 years ago substantial figures with weighty experience, powerful intellects and low cunning still swirled around at the top of politics. Love her or hate her, Margaret Thatcher was already the dominant prime minister since Churchill in his heyday, a major world figure, trusted confidante of both Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev.
But there was also Denis Healey and Michael Foot, Nigel Lawson and Geoffrey Howe, Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams and David Owen, Tony Benn too in his way, Jim Prior, Douglas Hurd; also rising figures like John Major, Neil Kinnock, a popular leftwing leader of the Labour party committed to necessary discipline in the search for power he made possible for Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
Your list may be different (Norman Tebbit was a redoubtable populist, a nicer forerunner of Nigel Farage), but you get my point. How many members of the Cameron cabinet can you name, let alone this weekend’s shadow cabinet resigners? Monday’s new appointees from Camp Corbyn? Let’s not dwell on them beyond wishing them good luck. They will have time to read their briefs in peace, because few voters remotely care.
Is Boris the Coming Man as substantial a figure as fellow Etonians, Hurd or Harold Macmillan? Is Michael Gove as clever as Brexit types like Labour’s Peter Shore or Tory Peter Lilley? Does John McDonnell’s temperament and CV make him remotely as electable and qualified to be chancellor as robust figures like Healey and Ken Clarke so obviously were? Are any of them as nimble as four-times prime minister, Harold Wilson?
Down the centuries there’s always a danger in oldies deploring declining standards among the young.
All the same, I think we have a growing problem. Putin is worse than Gorbachev, France’s François Hollande is painfully inadequate, Angela Merkel is honest and decent, she has stamina and a moral compass, but few would call her brilliant. Barack Obama is a good man but not a great president. The White House will be contested by two unsatisfactory candidates in November.
It was ever thus. But it is getting worse, people coming into politics with too little experience and unrealistic expectations who quit when they hit a storm – Ed Miliband, now David Cameron – instead of sticking to the task and learning something that may help later. Clarke is the last of that breed.
My own primary explanation for the change lies in the marketisation of society in ways unrecognisable 40 years ago, before the Thatcher/Reagan assault on the post-war consensus. Its effects are many, not least in the twin problem of its attitude towards public service and the public sector.
Rewards for clever people going into financial services, much of their work merely an elevated form of gambling on very small high-speed margins, have grown hugely and been copied in the manufacturing sector, later in the top end of the public sector.
We can all see this in rising inequality, a key driver of discontent which stirred the Brexit pot, led though the campaign was by piratical moneymen and free market ideologues who would make it all worse. There have been plenty of benefits to marketisation, but a lot of downsides too as is clear on bleak poundshop high streets.
Less remarked upon is that politics as a career, or Whitehall as a career for that matter, has been downgraded. Ministers and MPs had outsourced so much of their power – rightly where management of the car industry or the phones are concerned – that there was less to do.
The rewards were less too. Cameron’s successor will earn less in a year than Wayne Rooney makes in a week. The Wimbledon champion will take home £2m (£2,000 40 years ago). MPs’ pay and expenses have been a running sore and few outside pro-remain London need feel sorry for them.
But it means that clever people who might be tempted by politics think they’ll “make some money first”. Few come back to their youthful goal. Instead the Commons gets Chris Grayling and Theresa Villiers, IDS and Priti Patel.
There’s another reason why the good guys and gals often don’t come back. Career prospects are uncertain and the financial rewards modest for professionals. One thing is guaranteed though: lazy public disdain of the “they’re all in it for themselves” and “all as bad as each other” kind.
Cap-doffing deference is over, and a good thing too. But all too often it has been replaced by snarling aggression or contempt, by indifference and non-voting (especially among the young who have learned a hard lesson this week). It’s not something to make a wannabe politician, a realist not a fantasist, take the plunge.
Party activists have always been a mixed blessing – just look at Labour’s Young Turks and Tory Old Farts full of self righteousness right now – though a good MP can manage them with patience, humour and respect. But the savagery of social media makes it so much more arduous. Otherwise normal people hiding behind anonymity can be so unpleasant.
Last, but far from least is the media. Facing commercial pressures and vast online rivals like Google and Facebook, much of the press have lost staff, lost confidence and self belief to become parodies or shadows of their old selves. One way or another, we are all guilty. Only in beating up the easy targets that are elected politicians have we not abandoned the habits of the old press lords who beat up on Stanley Baldwin and Ramsay MacDonald in the 20s and 30s.
Newspapers rarely beat up business tycoons and other sharks who have lawyers and deep pockets. And there was timid silence over Jimmy Savile.
But politicians are always fair game.
Sometime fairly so too, though often not.
William Hague, a decent and clever man, was finally old enough to be a useful public servant when he was hounded out by nasty baseless press insinuation. A brazen rascal like Boris – sacked twice for lying – gets away with it.
If he’s finally caught out this time, we’ll all pay for that too.