IT’S easy to criticise politicians. Thankfully. As a sport, it’s kept me in coffee and LPs for a couple of decades now. For the stupidity, venality and incompetence of (some) political figures, I’m deeply grateful.
Whether it’s over expenses – a scandal still rumbling on with news that former Labour MP Denis MacShane may yet be prosecuted over £7,500 in false claims – or some excruciating display of ego (see Nadine Dorries’ decision to enter television’s most popular marsupial genitalia-eating competition), we can always find reasons to despise the people we elect. Like the weather, the utter terribleness of politicians is a small-talk staple. Our distrust of, and disdain for, them unites us.
Which makes my secret all the more embarrassing, I suppose. You see, I love politicians. Or, at least, I love their potential. I love what they might be. And, as public contempt for elected members reaches saturation, let me softly whisper to you the ways.
First, I’ll have you know that I’m not reckless with my affections. Sometimes I despair at the quality of debate at Holyrood. The lack of drive and creativity in too many MSPs is teeth-grindingly frustrating to watch.
But speckled through the chamber there are good, decent, even brilliant people. There are people trying to make a difference, people trying to understand complex problems, people who sacrifice a lot, driven to create some greater good.
We could do with many more of them. But why would anyone bother?
Go to any mainstream party-political conference – even a Scottish Conservative one – and you’ll meet armies of bright young things from their mid-teens to their early 20s. They can be irritatingly upbeat, these kids, but they have an energy and an idealism that I can’t help but admire. Time and again, I’m struck by how frighteningly clever some of these young activists can be.
Ideally, these potential political leaders would go off, live in the real world and come back, experienced in life and ready to serve. In reality, the career politicians hang around, making the transition from student union to parliament without bumping against the world outside their bubble, while those who do branch out rarely return.
And the way we – public and media alike – treat politicians is a huge part of that.
Why step forward when to admit to being a politician is to attract immediate suspicion? (MPs should take personal blame for this. It was their system that allowed flagrant abuse of expenses. Holyrood, on the other hand, has always been far stricter.) Why step forward when complex ideas seem to be instinctively dismissed by a commentariat that seems unwilling to allow politicians time to grow? Why, more simply, give everything to an electorate that basically hates you?
Having dared to have had a life – with its mistakes and successes in all their stark contrast – why expose yourself to the danger that any aspect of your existence is a potential story, either in the mainstream media or on a blog, where the personal vitriol can be stomach-churning, if inventive?
Somewhere just now there may be a 25-year-old woman who won’t step forward because that might mean the exposure of teenage self-harming. There may be a 32-year-old man whose past drug addiction is a similar personal barrier. That could be two good First Ministers missed.
We can’t easily assuage those fears that stand in the way of people coming forward. Mainstream media has certainly changed in the way it handles the personal. Social media, however, is less inhibited. The use of Twitter to smear is prevalent. And if we all started listing the things we wouldn’t want to read online, well, I might finish round about the end of the business pages of this newspaper.
And then there are the conditions. MSPs earn a basic salary of £57, 521. Okay, it’s not chicken feed and there are people in Holyrood who aren’t worth it. But let’s be realistic: it’s no king’s ransom for someone who might make considerably more, while having a private life, in industry or the law. Given the time that the best spend on constituency work, it can represent a pitiful hourly rate.
A great cliché about Holyrood is that it is full of people who ended up lucky on salaries they couldn’t have dreamed of outside. But that happened because smarter, more dynamic people wouldn’t have dreamed of taking the pay cut that election would have demanded.
I know them, the good ones. And somehow they do step forward. I know the not-at-all-reportable stories of personal kindnesses, of tireless campaigning for constituents, of personal lives abandoned (sometimes ruined) in building careers motivated by a genuine desire to serve the public.
I’ve seen the fire of ideas in the eyes of the best of them. And I love it. This is my secret and I’m not ashamed of it any longer.
Dismiss me as an apologist if you will, but I’m wearing my heart on my sleeve. Please believe me, the problem with politicians is not really that they are all as bad as each other, it’s that they’re not all as good as each other.