I have blogged a fair bit about politics in the sense of what politicians have been saying or doing on topics of interest but have tended to avoid opining on the business of politics. Largely because, like most people outside the “Westminster Village”, I don’t have any first hand knowledge of what really goes on behind closed doors. Except to the extent that it impacts on what they actually do, the tales of personalities and little personal vendettas of politicians behind the scenes are mainly no different to the gossip about celebrities I haven’t heard of in the tabloids and at best, the subject of entertaining satire like The Thick of It or Yes Minister.
I would say that I’m fairly interested in politics but couldn’t really make much headway with the recent memoirs of Alistair Campbell, Tony Blair or Peter Mandelson. I suspect that I won’t want to read the whole of Alistair Darling’s autobiography. However, the reports about Darling’s book do raise, for me, an interesting question.
What is it that makes politicans who are in a position to point out that a Minister or the Prime Minister are doing harmful and capricious things, running their departments or the country in damaging ways, sit on their hands? Why did Alistair Darling not resign and explain what a horror Brown was, how deluded he was about the scale of the economic crisis and the responses to it – or why did David Miliband not take the opportunity to challenge Brown after meeting Darling and hearing his opinion that they were being led the wrong way towards defeat? Why did Tony Blair not simply sack Brown at the first instance of rebellion or at least ahead of the 2005 General Election?
Is it simply that ultimately politicians are concerned first of all about retaining their position of power? That politics, once one has become an MP, is all about remaining an MP, getting noticed by your Party leadership and progressing to shadow or ministerial posts of influence then doing whatever you can to ensure that whatever is happening you become the government and stay that way? So, unity is better than defeat in the cause of one’s beliefs? Better to feel, as Blair apparently did, that he had an angry and antagonistic ball and chain around his ankles but to be hobbling around Number 10 with it than to be free and risk being anywhere else. Better for Darling to be bullied and sidelined for two of the most stressful and momentous years for any Chancellor than to risk either bringing the government down or simmering on the backbenches as Ed Balls got the job he apparently wanted?
We are all to an extent cowardly and ready to do things for a quiet life but there are enough ordinary people who have risked their entire livelihoods by walking out of jobs and claiming constructive dismissal when things become intolerable at work to put it down to that. Wanting a quiet life is surely the opposite of what takes most people into the bearpit of public life.
Perhaps in the end it is more about pure tribalism. Better to hate being a key member of the winning team than to be any form of a loser. If that is a fair assessment of the mindset of politicians, forget their dodgy expenses claims, this is the real sign of a lack of honour in the “Honourable” ladies and gentlemen. It means that politics, as experienced by the people who do it purportedly on our behalf, is nothing at all about us and all about them.
I hope that the high level of “rebellion” from many of the 2010 intake of MPs from all parties is a sign of change in the future. The fact that the path to promotion is more difficult for Conservative backbenchers than for their Labour counterparts in 1997 may free them from trying too hard to keep their noses clean. The fact that many of their voters considered entering a coalition with the Tories to be a betrayal may mean that LibDem backbenchers will concentrate on being sufficiently disloyal to the government they nominally support to preserve their chances of re-election in 2015. I hope that the existence of an internal opposition to the government in the form of a coalition where it is implicit that policies have to be fought out internally between the Conservatives and LibDems at least to some extent make it somewhat less likely that Ministers will focus first on keeping the present government intact at all costs. But, I’m not sure whether all that might not be overoptimistic. We may just see a different and even more opaque set of ways in which MPs will continue to play politics rather than do politics for their constituents.