Thursday, May 5, 2011

Could this be what people mean?

One of the things I find particularly puzzling is the widespread if somewhat fuzzy opinion that politicians should not be professionals but, somehow, be just "ordinary people". Of course, when they do behave like ordinary people opinion turns against them and they are berated for not showing a better example.

What exactly is the problem with "professional" politicians? Is it the fact that they are paid? Well, I go along with that. The idea of paying them was to allow people who are not rich to enter politics and to keep them honest. May have worked in the first case though there were plenty of people in politics who were not rich before but, obviously, not the second. Honesty, thy name is not politician.

So, do we mean that we actually do not want people whose only job is politics? I go along with that as well, but to achieve that state of affairs, we need to have two very big changes. We need to allow people to speak in the Commons on subjects they know about, that is those they actually work in, and, above all, we need to reduce government drastically. As things stand, no politician can even think of earning money for anything honest and honourable and do his or her work in the House. Things are different in the Lords but they do not get a salary. That could be the model for the Commons.

Perhaps, we want people in politics who have first done or achieved other things. Well, maybe. There is, as it happens no evidence that successful businessmen or officers make good politicians. And, as we look back to what we may consider to be the hey-day of British politics we find people who had dedicated their lives to a political career.

What we come to is a vague acknowledgement that politicians in the past may have dedicated their lives to their political careers but managed to have some other interests in life and, often, some other business or profession.

I have been reading a book of essays by that (failed) liberal politician, short-term barrister, historian and man of letters, Philip Guedalla, which I picked up in one of the few remaining second-hand bookshops in Charing Cross Road. Incidentally, he, too, represents a breed that is well-nigh extinct.

The essays are about writers, politicians, places and personalities; they give a wonderful view of what educated opinion was like in the early 1920s and, as usual, a great deal of amusement about the analyses and predictions. Still, Mr Guedalla is not often wrong in his judgements.

In his essay about Stanley Baldwin, then newly become Prime Minister, Mr Guedalla writes about the man's much publicized love of pigs their breeding, comparing it with Disraeli's peacocks and Joseph Chamberlain's orchids. All these men's politics seemed to be tied in with their choice of hobbies.

Then he adds an interesting point, one that applies to the discussions of our own times:
One has rarely known a statesman in these islands who was not racked by a distinguished craving to be something else. Sometimes our Premier is a manqué golf professional. Once (and a Peer, too) he had scientific leanings. But mostly he sits among the red boxes at Westminster and sighs for the English countryside. These thwarted longings are an invariable indication of political aptitude: perhaps it has some unpleasant explanation in psycho-analysis.

Mr Disraeli, who died in politics at seventy-six, craved only for the conversation of his fellow-farmers in Buckinghamshire. Lord Palmerston, who died in office at eighty, was believed to know no pleasure except in Hampshire. And Mr. Gladstone, who only retired at eighty-five in deference to the failure of eyes and ears and the successful persuasion of his united colleagues, found his sole happiness in the crash of falling trees at Hawarden.

The English always prefer someone, who is something, to be really something else: this is called the amateur tradition, and is a sure safeguard against the grave menace of professionalism. Their statesmen are recruited from the crowded ranks of successful competitors at local flower-shows; their favourite critic of the drama is a Civil Servant; and their one Homeric scholar is a banker. it is a grand tradition of inconsequence.
Let me add a couple of things. First of all the Premier with scientific ambitions was Lord Salisbury and those ambitions did not do him much harm when it came to understanding politics.

Secondly, the description of a barely capable Mr Gladstone being finally eased out of office reminds me of the time the same thing was done to a barely capable Churchill in 1955.

I am not exactly clear as to whom he means when he talks of the Homeric scholar who is really a banker. Perhaps, some readers will know.

But having read Mr Guedalla's gentle mockery of amateurism and inconsequence I can only say that if he were to see the Britain of today he might change his mind and long for the good old days.


  1. The states which do best on this side of the pond, do not have full time legislators. They meet for a few months of the year ,and then they go home to do something productive. They know what it means to earn a living by doing something someone is willing to pay for.

  2. F***KW*T TW***ERMay 5, 2011 at 5:33 PM

    Make being a Polly Titian difficult. Certainly don't make it pay. The nurses are going the same way.

  3. Good points.

    Best regards