To the untrained eye, those at the top of British politics today are an uninteresting and stagnant cabal of mediocre personalities. To the trained eye, it is much the same. Today’s politicians are simply of a much lower calibre than those one hundred years ago. Why?
Perhaps great challenges attract great politicians. Negotiating our exit from the European Union is the most torturous issue confronting Britain today, and both major parties have rightly entrusted it to two heavyweights.
David Davis – the self-titled “charming bastard” of Brexit – was quickly appointed Secretary of State for Exiting the EU by Theresa May when she formed her new Cabinet. Perhaps the Prime Minister was influenced by Davis’s business experience when making her choice: after studying at Warwick and Harvard, Davis became a director of Tate and Lyle, and wrote a book about his time turning the company around. To pay his way through university, he joined the Territorial SAS.
Davis is one of those rare and exotic birds: a Tory MP with principles. After being defeated by David Cameron in the 2005 leadership contest, he resigned as Shadow Home Secretary and forced a by-election in 2008 in protest at the perceived erosion of civil liberties by the government.
Sir Keir Starmer QC MP is the Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the EU; his name, adorned with post-nominals and titles, is testament to his kaleidoscopic extra-parliamentary CV. Starmer studied Law at Leeds and Oxford before becoming a barrister and a law officer for Liberty, a well-known human rights organisation. He was named Human Rights Lawyer of the Year in 2000.
His legal submissions helped to abolish the death penalty in the Caribbean. His name appears on the front covers of a shelf’s worth of textbooks about human rights law. In 2008, he was appointed Director of Public Prosecutions – the head of the Crown Prosecution Service. Entering the House of Commons might have seemed somewhat anticlimactic after such a voluminous and celebrated legal career; nevertheless, Keir Starmer was elected as MP for the safe Labour seat of Holborn and St Pancras in 2015.
Such was his credibility that colleagues urged him to contest the party leadership following Miliband’s resignation in the smouldering aftermath of Labour’s general election defeat. Iain Duncan Smith’s gibe that he was a “second-rate lawyer” fell flat precisely because of Starmer’s reputation as a first-rate lawyer, established over nearly three decades at the Bar.
Both David Davis and Keir Starmer are recognised as first-class politicians because of their experience outside of parliament.
The well-worn path of graduating from Oxford with a degree in PPE, working as a special adviser or researcher for the party, before being parachuted into a constituency they’ve never previously visited – such a career trajectory may produce loyal ministers, acolytes of the party leadership, but it does not produce great politicians. It is the road to political mediocrity.
That’s not to say all career politicians are of a low calibre. After all, what were Gladstone and Churchill if not career politicians? But the MPs churned out by this almost mechanical process are invariably dull and insipid.
That is, unless the PPE-SpAd-MP-minister route is tempered by something formative and interesting – something that makes the politician more world-aware.
Many heavyweights of the last half-century had a world war to accelerate their progress up the political ladder. Both Harold Macmillan and Anthony Eden saw battle in the trenches of the western front.
The Labour Chancellor, Denis Healey, was beach-master of the Anzio landings; his contemporary Roy Jenkins, the Labour Home Secretary, worked as a code-breaker at Bletchley Park; Tony Benn was in the RAF. Many career politicians simply don’t have the character-building experience thrust upon these men, and thus are less charismatic in comparison.
The decline of political oratory from the healthy vigour of previous years to a state of wheezing weakness is a lamentable tale.
Hilary Benn’s marvellous speech in favour of airstrikes against ISIS in Syria in December 2015 was a brilliant parliamentary performance, catapulting him into the public eye – many regarded him as something of an authority on the conflict afterwards. But why were people watching his speech in the first place? Was it the expectation of a great piece of Churchillian invective? No – it was because Benn was rebelling against the Labour leadership.
Although Benn received a standing ovation, his name on the cover of the next day’s papers, and his speech reproduced in full and acclaimed by vast swathes of the media, he also received a knife in the back from Jeremy Corbyn in the next Shadow Cabinet reshuffle.
This sorry tale illustrates two reasons why British politicians are of a low calibre. I have already mentioned the decline of political rhetoric. But, perhaps more importantly, party leaders have come to prize conformity and obedience over brilliance and talent. Dull politicians obey the whip. Interesting ones make spirited and interesting speeches from the backbench; they have independent thoughts; they sometimes rebel.
As decades pass, ministries decline and fall, but those promoted for loyalty and not for talent accumulate. And eventually, as Benjamin Disraeli said of Gladstone’s Liberal government, “You behold a range of exhausted volcanoes. Not a flame flickers on a single pallid crest.” Both parties become led by the mediocre. A talent deficit develops at the top of British politics.
So, my prescriptions for aspiring politicians seeking to inject an invigorating pulse into British politics are the following:
Do something interesting after university – preferably something that doesn’t further your political ambitions too much. Be unconventional – become a lawyer or soldier or charity worker or historian, and be great at that career before leaping into politics.
Learn how to give a good speech.
Take your time: nothing is more tedious than the oily tick who delivers his first conference speech in his teens, races into the Commons as soon as possible, becomes a minister, suffers major defeat of some sort (at the polls, forgotten in a reshuffle, the media exposing an explosive sex life, etc., etc.) and, exhausted at fifty, he slinks off to the BBC to make documentaries about trains, and lives out his days on an unending after-dinner speech circuit.
Perhaps if such remedies are taken, we might see more high-calibre politicians at the top of British politics.