Saturday, 26 December 2009

Politicians I admire: UK

This has proved quite difficult. I could certainly come up with a list of politicians who are no longer with us: Clem Attlee for Labour; Jo Grimond for the Liberals; Ian Gilmour (whom I knew quite well) for the Conservatives. As I have remarked before, I could come up quite a long list of civil servants, but it would be unfair in particular to embarrass those who hold middle ranking posts.

When I was a teenager I was an avid reader of New Musical Express. They used to have a feature in which aspiring pop artistes/groups were asked, among other questions, 'Who would you like to meet when you come to London?' Of itself that question says a lot about Britain's metropolitan mentality and the attitude that prevailed then to what were referred to as 'the provinces'.

Anyway my answer to the question is Vince Cable. This is probably a rather boring answer as he is everyone's favourite politician. I first became aware of him when he was temporarily an academic at Chatham House and he wrote with great insight and perception about Britain and the euro. I have read his recent book about the financial crisis and I thought that it showed signs of being written in a hurry.

One of the things I like about Vince is that he had what Dennis Healey called 'hinterland'. (On one occasion I recall this involved Dennis reciting a rather bad poem he had written, but never mind). What Dennis meant was a life outside politics. Vince had to deal with the long illness of his first wife. Rather unfairly, he has got some stick from his children for marrying again.

Ballroom dancing is a complete turn off for me, but it is evident that Vince is rather skilled at tripping the light fantastic. Above all, he has an ability to choose the right phrase at the right moment. His 'Stalin to Mr Bean in a few weeks' remark about Gordon Brown was hilarious.

I think Vince has much more to him than the iredeemably lightweight Nick Clegg and should really be leader of the Lib Dems, but his age counted against him. Vince does have an instinct for the jugular, which any successful politician needs, as he manoeuvred quite skilfully against Charles Kennedy when the latter was in his 'are they open yet?' phase.

In the interests of fairness, I would like to add three other politicians from other parties. There are no Scottish Nationalists. I think Alex Salmond is a very clever politician and an effective defender of Scottish interests, but this at the expense (including financial expense) of the rest of what is still notionally the United Kingdom.

For the Conservatives I would nominate Theresa May. I have met her, albeit briefly, and she came across to me as intelligent, sensible and perceptive. I thought that her remark about the Conservatives being perceived to be the 'nasty' party was something that needed to be said. It may have upset Conservative loyalists, but it helped Dave Cameron in his task of rebranding the party.

For Labour, I would nominate Frank Field. I have met him and it confirmed my impression of someone who sincere and thoughtful (like Dave Cameron he is an Anglo Catholic). Frank Field was someone who was prepared (and encouraged) to 'think the unthinkable' and it cost him his place in government: the Blairites didn't want anything too radical which might upset traditional client groups. Since then he has been a very effective Parliamentarian.

My final nomination goes to Dr Richard Taylor, the Independent MP for Wyre Forest. If he is successful in seeking a third term, he will be the longest serving Independent MP under the modern franchise. There were, of course, some interesting examples in the past including 'Billy Brown from Rugby Town'. Brown was a white collar trade unionist who had flirted with Oswald Moseley's New Party but turned away once Moseley became a fascist.

When Taylor was elected in protest against New Labour health policies which adversely affected Kidderminster, Clare Short dismissed him contemptuously as 'only one guy'. In fact he has been quite an effective member of the Commons Health committee. He also has a nice touch in self depreciating humour. When the new Speaker was elected, he got up and said 'As senior Independent in the House ...'

So there you have it. The emergence of a professional political class has probably done more harm than good to democratic politics in Britain which is not to say that I would approve of it becoming a repository for celebrities where success in Strictly or the X Factor would launch you on a political career. There will be a very large turnover of MPs at the next election and it will be interesting to see how this affects politics.


Justin Greaves said...

I would agree with you on Frank Field and (probably) Vince Cable (although for a interesting counter view see - you may not agree but it is well worth reading).

I am not so sure about Theresa May - did she not refer to it as the 'nasty' rather than 'evil' party?

Wyn Grant said...

You are right, 'nasty' rather than 'evil'. I will correct that. Not everyone likes Vince Cable and his book on the financial crisis was pretty weak when it came to solutions as opposed to analysis but that would be true of many academic analyses. It's curious that many politicians seem to have a strong psychological desire to be liked or admired and enter a profession where they are more likely to be reviled, although Tony Benn is much more popular since he retired from politics than when he was in it.

Justin Greaves said...

I like the quote of Harold Wilson's: 'The problem with Tony is that he immatures with age'.

Wyn Grant said...

Whatever else you think of Harold, he had some good liners such as 'A week in politics is a long time.' It was for him, certainly. Interestingly I learn from my friends at Radio Scilly that visitors to the island are more interesting in where Heiki the vet (as featured on Island Parish) and her love life than Harold's grave in Old Town churchyard. I was coming back on the Scillonian one Easter time, the boat wasn't very full and I was puzzled why there was a long delay getting off at Penzance. Harold was standing at the top of the stairs with Paddy the labrador (this was not so long after he had stood down as PM) shaking every one's hand. I refused which was probably a bit mean of me.

Anonymous said...

What is the criteria for what makes a good politician?

As a voter, being able to contact my local MP is important. Also, the amount of time they commit to local issues and the local community.

Wyn Grant said...

I think that a lot of voters hold that view and there is a marked difference in surveys between voter perceptions of their own MP and of politicians in general. Whether it translates into many extra votes is another matter (although it may have a greater effect on propensity to vote), although a MP who is complacent or neglectful may be punished by voters.