Are all politicians alike? Perish the thought…

The healthy political cynicism I was brought up with, the wry understanding picked up from watching Yes, Minister, has gone septic

Politicians are the same everywhere, I suppose. I hope so anyway.

Not absolutely everywhere, obviously. I mean vaguely functional democracies, not North Korea, Belarus or Saudi Arabia. I know those places are worse and that I’m lucky to live in a free country. I totally get that, but it doesn’t always seem a helpful thought. It’s like, if you’re in a restaurant (and I realise I’m lucky ever to have been in a restaurant and so to be able to make this analogy – and you’re lucky to understand what I’m talking about) and you’ve been served an undercooked chicken breast, being told to be grateful it’s not a plated shit.

But throughout the lucky places such as here (even with sterling plummeting, we remain net importers of envy), I’m trying to think all politicians are the same. It would really help me if I could believe that.

The stoicism is eluding me, though. For example, when I heard that, after interviewing incoming Ofsted chief Amanda Spielman, the Commons education committee wanted to block her appointment because “she did not demonstrate passion for the role”, I was enraged. “She didn’t demonstrate passion?!” I wanted to scream. “What did you want her to do? Hump the desk?! You’re appointing the chief inspector of schools, this isn’t an early round of The X Factor!”

I had an image of a semicircle of our most mediocre representatives, all sporting their best responsible-and-concerned faces for TV cameras whose output no one but their aides will ever watch, smugly concluding that Spielman didn’t “have what it takes”, that she didn’t “want it” enough. “What I’m looking for,” I imagined each of them thinking, “is someone more like me. Someone with an easy access to second-rate rhetoric and a superficial plausibility that will carry a room as long as no one’s really concentrating. Well, this is a room where no one’s really concentrating and I can’t even remember her name!”

I don’t know how unfair I’m being. It’s definitely slightly, but it might not be totally. I really don’t have an opinion on how suitable Amanda Spielman is for her job – she may be a terrible choice, or a brilliant one. While, on the one hand, a bunch of politicians want her fired, which instinctively makes me feel she must be great, on the other, she was appointed by a politician in the first place (education secretary Nicky Morgan), which instinctively makes me think she must be terrible.

I don’t care who gets to be chief inspector of schools – I’m sure I ought to but I’ve checked and I really don’t. I care about these ferocious new instinctive reactions of mine. The healthy political cynicism I was brought up with, the wry understanding, picked up from watching Yes, Minister, that democracy isn’t perfect, has gone septic. And I’m desperately looking for the Savlon: politicians have always been like this, I tell myself. Politicians are the same everywhere.

They certainly all seem to be the same round here. Since the referendum, after which all sense of coherent national leadership melted away, a diverting game has been to try to work out which of the large cast of notables is most to blame for the shambles. It’s tricky.

The first candidate is David Cameron, a man whose key strategic career decision was to avoid the Tories having to face up to the Europe issue so that he could be prime minister. And he is, so from his point of view, things have worked out OK. He’ll always have that as a talking point at dinners, and it’s an anecdote made more interesting by the fact that the country he can say he was once prime minister of will probably have ceased to exist. He called the referendum to protect his own interests and then predicted the result wrongly. He’s a selfish idiot.

Another selfish idiot is Michael Gove, who has shown he’ll do anything to become prime minister, but is let down by his own unpleasantness. I haven’t space here to list the lies, betrayals and failure he’s perpetrated in recent weeks. On Wednesday, as his leadership campaign foundered, he wrote in the Times expressing his vision for Britain. Shall I tell you the worst thing about that piece? I’ve read it. That’s the worst thing about it, from my point of view. I want that time back. I demand recompense for that lost portion of my finite span. It is empty, positive-sounding drivel, completely out of step with the malign political tradition in which he once found modest favour.

What about the man he betrayed? Boris Johnson, who, many are now convinced, didn’t really want Brexit. Whether or not that’s true, I’m certain he doesn’t want Andrea Leadsom to be prime minister, though he now claims he does. How awful that such a foolish narcissist ever held significant power. He’s another one who tried to do the wrong thing and failed.

Nigel Farage, of course, has succeeded. His aims are realised, yet he’s chosen this moment to resign saying: “I have done my bit.” He hasn’t. His victory has challenging consequences that he should take responsibility for. I’ve always assumed he was a xenophobe, but now I’m not so sure. As he washes his hands of a disaster he helped create, it doesn’t seem as if he likes the British any more than foreigners.

I don’t mean to exclude Labour from this. The party’s campaigning for the referendum and subsequent paralysing divisions appal me. Government has ceased, but so has opposition. Leading Labour politicians are only interested in attacking each other, fighting over who will retain the party’s name and mailing list when it, like the whole country, inevitably splits. They failed to make the case for the EU in their political heartlands and now they’re failing to serve the country in any meaningful way at all. They’re like drunken bankers, plummeting off a balcony, still fighting over a gin and tonic.

The nation having taken the decision to vest even more power in this Westminster pantomime, I desperately hope politicians are the same everywhere. So let’s assume that. It would be too depressing to think there are more functional political cultures whose wisdom we’ll now miss out on.

But I absolutely cannot believe what the Brexiteers presumably must: that our bunch are, on average, better than politicians abroad. I cannot bring myself to believe that because – and I hate to end on a downbeat note – if that’s true, the world is doomed.


David Mitchell

The GuardianTramp

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