John McTernan: Our MPs are only human

Boris Johnson is liked by many people because of his faults. Picture: AFP/Getty
Boris Johnson is liked by many people because of his faults. Picture: AFP/Getty
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We should allow politicians to fall and get up again – and expect them to improve – as only then will we get the reasoned political debate we need to grow as a country, writes John McTernan

Saints or sinners? It seems we can’t agree about politicians. In the last week we have celebrated the life and the achievements of Nelson Mandela. Despite his own modesty, he has become a secular saint – and the praise for his achievement is merited; just imagine if South Africa had gone the way of Zimbabwe.

Yet in the same week we have had a huge row about the proposed pay rise for MPs. Should they get 11 per cent more? For all that the framing of this debate is the “politics of austerity”, the undercurrent is pretty strongly the straightforward question of what are our MPs worth, with the implication being “not very much”.

What is going on? We admire the titans of politics once their time has passed, yet we lambast the current generation as pygmies. Is it False Memory Syndrome? As the past recedes, do our fading memories bathe it in a golden light? Or has there been a real change? Has a golden age been replaced by one of lead, or to update the classical analogy, an “age of plastic”?

One thing is certain, there is less respect for the flaws of politicians. Or maybe I should say there is less leniency. Franklin D Roosevelt’s health, Winston Churchill’s drinking, John F Kennedy’s philandering, François Mitterand’s second family – all of these were known about by friends, colleagues and journalists but this knowledge was not shared with the public.

All, I think, would agree that politicians with characters like these four great men would be hounded from office today. Most would probably also regret that fact, but think that it is unavoidable. But is it?

In the phone-hacking trial, one key witness is missing: the public. If there were no audience for prurient and intrusive journalism, then there would be no market for phone-hacked stories. Similarly, if there is no demand for serious, or at least well-rounded, politicians, then you probably aren’t going to see them – or more properly, you will not see the reflective, considered, well-rounded part of our current crop.

This, in a way, is what the debate about parliamentary pay really amounts to. Not the arid calculation of what precisely an MP is worth, that’s a dead end. Sure, on the one hand if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. But on the other, no-one wants a football style transfer system with associated mega-salaries.

The problem is that we admire values when they are lived – whether it is Mitterand’s historic settlement with Germany, or Mandela’s leadership of South Africa’s peaceful transition to democracy. How much is that worth? The question is absurd. But we live in a world which monetises everything. Money is the dominant prism for examining any question. Even values, it seems, have to have a value. We need a different way to talk about this.

What do we actually like about politicians? Well, while we think that most politicians aren’t worth the money, we like our own MP. It’s always easier to think badly about strangers, harder when you have some connection – however vestigial. We also like a character. Middle-class voters who would be more likely to shoot up heroin than vote Ukip admire Nigel Farage, the chain-smoking, politically incorrect leader of that party. Conservative London mayor Boris Johnson is forgiven not for his peccadillos but precisely because of them. Both politicians are seen as “real people” not “career politicians” despite their public personas being as carefully constructed as that of Lady Gaga.

And, as we are reminded whenever we hear US president Barack Obama speak, we like a little bit of old-time religion. There is still a handful of parliamentarians one would cross the road to hear speaking: William Hague, George Galloway and Gordon Brown. Each one a very different politician, but they can all hold an audience, shape an argument and move opinions. They have passion and humour and intellect. Like great evangelists they can call forth a different self, one that will – or is willing – to align itself with their chosen cause.

One of the things that Mandela’s death reminds us of is the power of language; the critical role of speeches and speech-making in allowing a people, a nation, a world to encounter itself afresh and to be renewed as well as inspired.

What we like and admire in politicians today – connection, bigness of character, rhetorical power – are what has always distinguished the great figures from the others. Are we simply too close to the current crop? Sure, there will be some giants among them – and experience has taught us that they may not be the most immediately obvious – but I don’t think so.

Russell Brand got a volley of abuse from the commentariat for comments he made during his interview with Jeremy Paxman recently. Now, I agree that the “revolution” he called for is unclear in shape and intent, and I don’t think that “disengagement” will make anything radical happen – it will simply allow more of the same. But Brand was absolutely right when he said that a populism that eradicates any form of nuance from public debate undermines democracy.

We are clever, well-educated and thoughtful people, yet we tolerate the discussion of politics in binary propositions. Are you for the welfare cap or against it, and by implication a tax-and-spend liberal? Are you for an immigration cap or against it, and therefore want to see the country flooded with (supply your own nationality)? This is infantilisation. There is a huge appetite for deliberative discussion of difficult issues – it just isn’t happening in politics any more, it’s at book festivals.

We all need to be a bit more forgiving of each other in this triangular relationship between politicians, media and public. Greatness in politics comes, as Gordon Brown once said, in adopting great causes. They still exist in abundance: abolishing slavery; universal free primary education; eradicating malaria; equal rights for girls and women. Greatness also comes in the actions of individuals. Willy Brandt falling to his knees in the Warsaw Ghetto. Doing, he said, “what people do when words fail them”. Or Mandela, seeing a better man in PW Botha and bringing him forth. We still need acts of political leadership like those.

“I am not a saint,” Mandela once said, “unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.” Shouldn’t we see our politicians in that light too?

When they sin, and they will, we need to treat them as if they are failed saints, not perpetual sinners. This is not a soft option; political failure is comfortable, as all sides know where they are – the press mocks, the public condemn and the politician retreats. How much harder it would be for us to expect the recalcitrant to improve? How much more shaming are high expectations?