Dominic Lawson: We hound today’s politicians but we take them for granted at our peril

This article in the Sunday Times is a valuable corrective to the prevailing view on this blog that elected politicians are only in it for themselves. Note the claim from the FT Whitehall editor “There’s almost no one I’ve met in a decade in [Westminster] who isn’t here because they want to help the country.”

Various trades are being depleted by an exodus of those willing to do what can be an unpleasant job: we are now seeing this in road haulage and social care. For many workers in these sectors the pain seems no longer worth the gain. For the rest of us — the consumers — there are unwelcome consequences, readily appreciated. But what if the same thing happens to the trade for which the public seems to have least respect? I mean our politicians.

Last week the Financial Times’s Whitehall editor, Sebastian Payne, said on Twitter he was “struck by the number of MPs who have told me they’re seriously considering leaving parliament, following the killing of Sir David Amess”. But it wasn’t just a matter of concern for the physical safety of themselves and their families: “That’s before considering the threats, abuse and hatred that spills in every day.” Defending the political trade as a whole, Payne observed: “There’s almost no one I’ve met in a decade in [Westminster] who isn’t here because they want to help the country.”

That is not a frequently expressed opinion in the traditional outlets of journalism, let alone the sewers of social media. This is the general atmosphere in which the North Devon MP, Selaine Saxby, was appalled to come across a cartoon in her local parish magazine showing a woman in a confessional saying: “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. Last night I killed a politician”, and the priest responding, “My daughter, I’m here to listen to your sins, not your community service work.” This was published before the slaughter of Amess; but he was not the first MP in recent years to have been murdered, or stabbed, while, actually, doing his community service work.

We should distinguish between lethal terrorism and abuse. An earlier generation of MPs faced a threat from the IRA that more than matched what members face nowadays from Islamist assassins. My father, when chancellor to Margaret Thatcher in the Eighties, was found to be on an IRA “death list”. He warned me not to enter the family home unannounced via the garden late at night because there were army snipers hidden in the bushes who might respond unfavourably to such an intrusion. And he was in the Grand Hotel in Brighton when it was blown up by the IRA in an attempt to slaughter the entire cabinet in 1984.

But that, while terrifying, was not demoralising or degrading. The best up-to-date insider’s account of the insidious effect of constant abuse was provided last week by the ex-wife of Michael Gove, Sarah Vine, in the Daily Mail. “As a family, we’ve had so much abuse directed at us over the years because of politics. You never know when the next spittle-flecked pellet of poison is coming. It wasn’t always like this.” She went on to describe how their children, too, had become the targets of abuse and threats, purely because of their father’s political status.

Vine especially blames social media. It does seem that female politicians have suffered most from the online abuse. Nadine Dorries, now a secretary of state, revealed on the Conservative Home website the sort of stuff she was sent, even as a backbencher: “I want to see you trapped in a burning car and watch as the heat from the flames melts the flesh from your face.” I don’t think it’s accidental that a disproportionately high percentage of the MPs who have quit in recent years after serving for only one or two terms are women.

It is not just the continual abuse that makes some MPs feel under unbearable pressure. One unloaded onto me a sort of litany of stress: “The demands placed on us are much greater — constituents think we should be as available to them as their local GP — but there is only one of me covering about 100,000 people. We are besieged with requests, and many of them can be heart-rending.

“But there is also the false impression that we — or the government — can solve every problem, and that we are useless if we can’t. Not only that, but we can never be rude to anyone, or lose our temper, or tell a voter they are wrong. And we are on duty the whole time: God, it’s wearing me down. I doubt, if I had known at the outset what it would involve, I would have taken this path.”

But then she conceded: “No one made us do this. We are volunteers, not conscripts.” In fact it is a vocation, just as much as nursing or teaching is, or should be.

One MP, who had just quit, explained his decision to me by saying, “I have fallen out of love with politics.” Therefore he had once been “in love” with the idea of becoming an MP. It is actually necessary to be in such a state of infatuation to take on all the risks and uncertainties involved — the endless pursuit of a safe seat, the prospect of professional extinction within a few years if you are not so fortunate and, if you are among the successful, of being apart from your family during the week (you in Westminster, them in your constituency).

I became vividly aware of all this as a child, being the son of a politician, whose marriage to my mother foundered partly as a result of the nature of his second career: domestic life had been much less fraught when he was a journalist. Yet quite a number of children follow their parents into parliament, or try to. Recent or serving Conservative MPs who have followed a dynastic path to the green benches of Westminster include Nick Hurd, Dominic Grieve and Bernard Jenkin. I never, ever, wanted to do that. I have even been slightly irritated by those who, over the years, would ask why I hadn’t pursued the same path. I would fiercely defend the value of my own trade, journalism, and point out how extraordinarily fortunate I am to be paid to tell the world how I see it.

I feel that still; but the death of Sir David, a man who exemplified the best of public service — as distinct from the trait of personal ambition that plays a necessary part in any successful career — has for the first time made me feel almost ashamed not to have wanted to become a politician. Or, as the US president Teddy Roosevelt put it: “It is not the critic who counts. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again … but who does actually strive to do the deeds … who spends himself in a worthy cause.”

If we continue to disparage the very pursuit of democratic politics, only the most monomaniacal will want to enter it. Then it really would become a freak show.

2 Responses

  1. Yes, elected politicians are human too! But to suggest that ‘they are only in it to do good for society’ is incomplete. All of us in our own way want to do good, but which individuals seek elected office for that reason? Surely status seeking, recognition by others and ambition plays some part?

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  2. Conall:> ‘they are only in it to do good for society’

    Where did you get that quote from? (especially the word “only”). Of course politicians are, like everyone else, subject to a wide variety of motives. What I object to is the tacky soundbite “they’re in it for themselves” (or the “class” that they represent). How do you square that with the public service ethos of independently wealthy politicians like Rishi Sunak (would you want to be in his shoes tomorrow?) or Jeremy Hunt (remember the drubbing he received from the doctors’ trade union). Like it or lump it, we will always need elected politicians and if we rubbish them we’ll only end up with monomaniacs like Trump (or Johnson).

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