Do politicians deserve their reputation?

It is fashionable to deride politicians for being ambitious, greedy, incompetent and vain. This is in part perpetuated by right-wing bloggers, perhaps because it is a natural complement to favouring small government.  But it also seems to be a widely held view among the public.  When J K Galbraith coined the term “conventional wisdom”, he meant it pejoratively, denoting an idea that was widely believed but wrong.  Public contempt for politicians seems to me to be a good example of where the conventional wisdom is incorrect. 

I have been fortunate in my civil service career to work very closely with politicians from both the Labour Party and the Conservative Party, across the political spectrum, from Clare Short to Michael Howard.  I have got to know many of them well at a personal level, and I have watched them reach decisions on a range of issues.

In my experience, politicians in Britain are principled, intelligent and decent. They enter politics with a sincere desire to improve their country, typically with deeply held convictions about how they can contribute to the public good.  They are hard-working and honest, and I have found them unfailingly courteous. In most cases, they are self-effacing in private, sometimes to the point of lacking self-confidence.   (One Government Minister whom I was briefing about a rather technical issue which he was due to explain to the House of Lords once interrupted me,

I’m afraid you’ll have to explain that more slowly – remember, I am a hereditary peer.

I have also met many senior private sector leaders (what used to be called “captains of industry”) from a range of sectors from both the US and the UK.  With some notable exceptions – such as Bill Gates and Niall Fitzgerald – these well-paid titans have not impressed me much.  In my sample, British politicians have, on average, a level of competence in analysis, judgement and communication that significantly exceeds their private sector counterparts. 

Furthermore, it is striking how rarely our politicians are caught doing anything seriously wrong.  The “scandals” of the last twenty years have nearly all been trivial issues of little significance – such as borrowing money from a colleague without declaring it or accelerating the processing of a visa application.  There have been many more financial scandals involving personal greed and corruption in the private sector than among our political classes.  It is quite normal for a senior business leader to stay in the Paris Hilton without paying the bill; but for a politician it is a resigning matter.

It is dangerous to generalise, but if there is one common weakness I have noticed among some British politicians, it is that they convince themselves that their noble goals are best served by building broad public support to enable them to continue to exercise power, even if this means compromising on some of their values in the short term.  Thus politicians may find themselves making populist choices (or, more often, avoiding difficult decisions) having convinced themselves that their own political longevity is in the greater public good.  For example, Clare Short allowed herself to be convinced that the interests of people in developing countries would be better served if she stayed in Government, even though she disagreed with the Government’s policy on Iraq.  As a result, politicians sometimes stay in power too long: perhaps this is why Enoch Powell observed that all political careers ultimately end in failure.

To the extent that governments do not provide us with the quality of decision-making or quality of services that we desire, it seems to me that the problem does not lie with the quality or integrity of those whom we elect to public office, but rather with the institutions and incentives we create for them once we have put them there.  In my experience, our politicians simply do not deserve unthinking criticism for their alleged greed and stupidity.

6 thoughts on “Do politicians deserve their reputation?”

  1. “In my experience, politicians in Britain are principled, intelligent and decent.”

    Two word answer:

    Stephen Byers.

    Owen replies: I haven’t followed the recent legal battle over Railtrack, in which Byers seems to be a spot of bother, so I can’t really comment on what went on there. But even it turns out that Byers was a wrong ‘un, it is a rare example. My point is not that every single politician without exception is faultless, but that in general they are principled, intelligent and decent. One counterexample, if that is what this turns out to be, will not disprove that proposition.

  2. And which comedy programme are you auditioning for? Must be the BBC.

    Owen replies: If you don’t have something interesting to say – you know, actually contributing an idea or piece of knowledge – then why waste everyone’s time and bandwidth being sarcastic?

  3. A friend of mine used to work for the Scottish Office, 20 years or so ago; he was very struck by the difference between two MPs he met on the issue of prison reform. One was, as you say, “principled, intelligent and decent”, the other was “a turd”.
    The good guy was Malcolm Rifkind and the turd was, to my marxist chum’s dismay, Robin Cook. I was struck by the tale; a different friend who was at primary school with Cook always called him a “shit”; a striking correlation, I’m sure you’ll agree.

  4. I didn’t have much to do with Robin Cook, so I can’t comment from personal experience on him.

    I have been similarly struck, however, that politicians I wanted to hate have been amongst the best – Michael Portillo, for example, who was then a right winger with rougher edges than now, was strikingly courteous, thoughtful, principled and intelligent.

    I have also noticed that polticians with a reputation in the press for being “intellectual lightweights” – such as Neil Kinnock and Normal Lamont – have been among the most cultured and intelligent.

  5. Is there a general rule? One pal claimed that, among Tories, the ones presented in the press as rabid right-wingers tended to be decent and considerate, while those presented as compassionate tended to be bad-tempered bullies. But the Rifkind story isn’t consistent with that.

  6. I don’t think it is a general rule. Tony Newton, for example, is a lovely bloke, and nobody ever accused him of being rabid. And I can think of some extreme right (and left) wingers who were bad tempered bullies – they will have to remain nameless while they are still alive.

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