Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The abnormality of politics

Septicisle comments on the ongoing sniping – mostly from bloggers and the occasional newspaper columnist, but sometimes from Tory frontbenchers or anonymous Blairites too – that Gordon Brown is [insert your favourite psychiatric disorder here]. Basically it comes down to: Brown doesn’t talk or act in the way that we expect our political leaders to, therefore there must be something wrong with him. Septicisle says:

More than anything, this perhaps comes down to what you regard as the qualities that a politician should always have on display. We seem increasingly to want our politicians to always be presentable, to always instantly know what to do, and at the same time to be incredibly open with everyone. In short, we never want them to put a foot wrong, be off-message, or be consumed with anything other than constant public service. This, more than anything, is what is currently delivering us identikit politicians, overwhelming upper-middle or upper-class, with next to no experience other than from within political parties, all of whom look more or less the same and indeed, offer more or the less the same. They can deliver a speech brilliantly, pretend to empathise, emerge as brain-shatteringly normal or at least act like it, and pass the barbecue test, but none of this qualifies them in the slightest to actually run a country. Surely we ought to have learned this lesson by now, whether by the examples of either Bush or Blair, yet we seem more than ever to lap up the spin we so profess to detest while railing against the outsider, the abnormal, those who don't seem to fit in.

I want to add three things to that. First, to come across as so smoothly and assuredly ‘normal’ when one is so consistently in the public eye isn’t ‘normal’. While celebrity itself must be disconcerting and stressful in many ways, a mere sporting, pop or TV star doesn’t have to stick so thoroughly to a particular line: you can get drunk in public, you can make stupid comments, and if your album only gets to number 2 in the charts, you don’t lose your job. Not so in politics.

Second, to seek power (as all political leaders do) isn’t ‘normal’. To get into the higher echelons of this game requires uncommon drive. Furthermore, to hold and exercise political power makes you less normal – Thatcher and Blair had their personal oddities before they set foot in Number 10, but their years at the top manifestly made them less ‘normal’.

Third, and perhaps aptly in Democratic convention week, is what Congressman Matthew Santos told that convention a couple of years ago:

We all live lives of imperfection and yet we cling to this fantasy that there’s this perfect life and that our leaders should embody it. But if we expect our leaders to live on some higher moral plane than the rest of us, well we’re just asking to be deceived.

I have never met anyone who wasn’t “psychologically flawed”.


septicisle said...

I couldn't have put it better myself. Politics always was partly illusionary, but the 24-hour media world has distorted it even further. Read the Alastair Campbell diaries and you'll see the real Blair, a man at times racked by insecurity, especially over those speeches, but the spin and his delivery so good that no one was ever the wiser. Brown's problem is that he's less naturally gifted with social skills than Blair, and his spin isn't anywhere near the level of Campbell's. It doesn't make him in the slightest strange or weird, let alone mentally deficient, just that he can't compete with the hypocritical demands made of him.

Liam Murray said...

But your tone suggest ALL Brown's being accussed of here is being a little awkward or clumsy, less of a media smoothy than his predecessor or Cameron.

That's part of the charge but by no means the full thing. There was 42 days, 10p row, non-elections etc. - these was all substantial issues in which Brown either did the wrong thing or needed heavy steering to do the right thing. In the course of them he also gave some frankly bizzare anwers that nobody believed so the questioning of his character isn't some random right-wing trope.

Tom Freeman said...

I thought you did put it excellently yoursefl. hence, y'know, the quote... ;-)

I think the phrase "the charge" explains why I read you blog post twice and wondered whether you were actually talking about me! We're addressing very different, although related, charges. Certainly I agree with you that Brown had made some policy and strategic blunders, and often lies far less convincingly than other political leaders. The 'weird'/'insane' issue, though, is another matter.

Nick Drew said...

the questioning of his character isn't some random right-wing trope

correct: nor is it recent (and I don't just mean the "psychologically flawed" briefing), many people felt - and wrote - that something was amiss before the ascension to the throne

BTW, Matthew Parris suggests Brown's condition is in fact stable (which is rather disquieting)

Tom Freeman said...

Nick, you've just reminded me of - I have no idea where this quote comes from, and it's a paraphrase from memory anyway: "The patient's condition was initially stable, then sharply deteriorated to the point of death, after which his condition returned to stable."