Why do our current leading politicians seem like such a feeble bunch? - Joyce McMillan

When Dominic Cummings made his famous bombshell appearance before the Commons Health and Social Care Committee three weeks ago, one phrase he used stuck in the memory like a barb.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in private WhatsApp exchanges slammed Health Minister Matt Hancock's "hopeless" handling of the pandemic. PIC: Jessica Taylor.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in private WhatsApp exchanges slammed Health Minister Matt Hancock's "hopeless" handling of the pandemic. PIC: Jessica Taylor.

He said he felt it was “completely crazy” that he, along with the Prime Minister, should have had so much power to determine the fate of the nation, in relation to the pandemic - a remark that raises a myriad of doubts about what Cummings thought he was doing in Downing Street, if not assisting the Prime Minister in making momentous decisions that might shape the fate of millions.

And it perhaps goes to the heart of a question which Cummings brought to the surface again, this week, when he released a series of private messages, in one of which Boris Johnson described his health secretary Matt Hancock as “absolutely f**ing hopeless".

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Harsh things are said in the heat of a crisis, of course. Yet like Cummings’s earlier remark, Boris Johnson’s comment exposes what many now feel is a growing gap between the qualities demanded by a serious role in government and the actual abilities of most of the politicians who currently reach that elevated position.

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Venal, incompetent, boring, mendacious, unimpressive, unwilling or unable to implement the policies they claim to support - it’s a rare politician in government at any level that cannot be accused of at least one or two of these. Boris Johnson’s current UK government of course offers a particularly vivid example, simply because of the manner in which it it was chosen, from the hard-Brexit-compliant section of the parliamentary Tory Party.

Yet scan the opposition front benches at Westminster, or the government and opposition benches at Holyrood, and you will hardly be overwhelmed by the range of talent available. Even Nicola Sturgeon, one of the most hard-working and presentable politicians currently operating in the UK, struggles to deliver on her government’s declared policy priorities; and if she has never been moved to use the word “hopeless” about the performance of some of her ministers, she must be a woman of great restraint.

So why do our current leading politicians seem like such a feeble and inadequate bunch, measured against the scale of the problems they face? Some caveats are necessary here, of course. There is always a temptation to look back in nostalgia, and to claim that there were giants in the old days. The truth is that we remember the few giants, and forget the dozens of mediocrities; nor has any previous generation of politicians suffered anything like the 24-hour-a day scrutiny applied to our current leaders.

Yet most observers would seem to agree that there are some particular problems, these days, in attracting a wide range of gifted people into politics; and they don’t include what some Tories revealingly characterise as the “low” pay. The real difficulties seem to lie in three areas, the first of which is the growing professionalisation of politics, and its consequent increasing detachment from other professions and social movements; the development, that is, of an “insider” career path that leads from university, perhaps via a think tank, to work as and MP’s or MSP’s advisor, and thence to a political career of one’s own.

This, though, is ultimately more like a preparation for playing the game of politics, than for a political life that is rooted in human experience, and in deep convictions about how society should work. It often alienates working-class communities by offering them representatives who cannot truly speak for them; and at its worst, it leads to the kind of elite game-playing in which Johnson and Cummings indulged during the Brexit referendum, playing high-stakes roulette with the lives of millions for fun, and out of personal ambition.

Secondly, there is the increasingly toxic relationship between politics and the media, including social media. In another of his revealing remarks, Cummings said the Prime Minister was “a thousand times” too concerned about the media in framing his Covid response; and while the view of politics as essentially a matter of day-to-day media management is now widespread, it obviously tends towards an extremely poor quality of government, incapable of long or even medium term thinking.

Then finally, out of this conjunction of increasing bureaucratic managerialism and toxic fear of the media, comes the top-down, highly controlling model of party management that has become universal in the UK since the glory days of New Labour. And between them, these three factors conspire to drive out of frontline politics - or perhaps never to invite in - almost all of those whose independence of mind and creative energy might actually enable our political institutions to rise to the challenges of our time.

It’s small wonder that so many mainstream parties in the west now seem so overwhelmingly dull; small wonder that on the margins of mainstream politics, so many florid populist phenomena emerge, incapable of delivering good government, but ever willing - like Boris Johnson himself - to provide a little entertainment.

And as for the ancient art of combining competence and strategic thinking with vision, flair, and the kind of language that lifts hearts and opens up new horizons - well, perhaps the leaders and movements who could offer all of that have always been rare.

Yet in the week that marks the fifth anniversary of the killing of Jo Cox, the young Labour MP gunned down by a far-right extremist during the Brexit referendum campaign, we owe it to all of those who have ever believed in the positive power of politics not to give up on the possibility of creating political movements that work; that inspire, that draw their strength from the grass roots, that attract the best of us, that think things through, and that finally, just sometimes, deliver on their promises.

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