Today, more than ever, the politician seems to be held in contempt. 19th century writer Joseph Hilaire Pierre Bellocs grisly epitaph echoes that feeling. Where do this extraordinary breed come from What do they do that make us so disenchanted with them What is it that drives young persons to plunge into politics What kinds of lives do they lead
Jeremy Paxman sets out to answer these questions in his new book, The Political AnimalAn Anatomy. The journalist in him has captured the life of politics. The highly entertaining and witty book keeps you engrossed, with telling anecdotes and revealing details culled from the lives of several British politicians as they struggle from the periphery to the centre of power.
Politicians are not like the rest of us. Many choose their parents well. Those who are not so lucky, take pains to trace their lineage to remote ancestors, to politically committed families, seeing themselves as finishing their ancestral business or completing their mission. A mission for public service, they would loudly proclaim. Public service, yes, but it is humbug to expect a politician to lack ambition or to pretend that he is driven solely by a concern for the peoples good or by a divine call.
Benjamin Disraeli spoke for all political activists when he spoke for himself with his characteristic candour. All men who offer themselves as candidates for public favour have motives of some sort. I candidly acknowledge that. I love fame; I love public reputation; I love to live in the eye of the country. Hats off to them for the enormous self-confidence they exude in their public postures. They will make noises on any subject with doctrinaire certainty, from the size of nuclear arsenal to what ought to go into powdered milk; their ability to reduce everything to simple binary choices is their invaluable intellectual asset: In their world, there is little room for any free thought, for there are only two ways of looking at an issue: my way and the opponents way. My way is right. The other way is wrong.
A classic essay by Jonathan Swift, The Art Of Political Lying (1710), captures the essence of what the author is seeking to convey. I seek the indulgence of the reader for this somewhat longish quotation from that essay: The superiority of his genius consists in nothing else but an inexhaustible fund of political lies, which he plentifully distributes every minute he speaks, and by an unparalleled generosity forgets, and consequently contradicts the next half hour. He never yet considered whether any proposition were true or false, but whether it were convenient for the present minute or company to affirm or deny it; so that if you think to refine upon him, by interpreting everything he says, as we do dreams by the contrary, you are still to seek and find yourself equally deceived, whether you believe him or no, the only remedy is to suppose that you have heard some inarticulate sounds, without any meaning at all.
The Political Language is a special kind of language, designed, as George Orwell puts it, to make the lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give the appearance of solidity to pure wind. A speaker that uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance towards turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he was choosing the words for himself.
Allied to self-confidence or rather a posture of self-confidence is a kind of manic persistence coupled with incurable optimism to move along a greasy pole to reach the top. Each step of the way resembles a game of snakes and ladders. Education starts with fighting the election. Here you come in contact, John Churchill reveals, narrating his own experience, with all sort of people and every current of national life. Dignity may suffer, the superfine gloss is soon worn away; nice particularisms and special private policies are scraped off; much has to be accepted with a shrug or a smile; but at any rate in the end no one knows a good deal about what happens and why.
When the coveted office eludes him, he says almost truculently, Very well: one day they will want me. You have to wait it out with equanimity and self-assurance, expecting that the rewards will come some day. When they reach the top of the greasy pole, life is equally uncertain. There is no respite from the ruthless battle of survival marked by intrigue, scheming and bitchiness. They have to develop the clever artistry of outwitting their comrades. Soon, to their chagrin, they discover that they have become evangelists for a system that is intrinsically incapable of delivering what is asked of it.
Decision making becomes a nightmare. It comes as a choice, as John Kenneth Galbraith once said, between the disastrous and the unpalatable. Sinewy persuasiveness or mental gymnastics of the bureaucratic establishment tire them out. When the time comes to pass into history, few can take it with equanimity. I cannot help reproducing what the author quoted from the memoirs of the wife of the Liberal British prime minister Henry Asquith.
It was Mr Asquiths last night at Downing Street. His wife, Margot, says, Why dont you go to bed, darling Even last night when I came I found you translating Kipling into Greek. Surely that was an effort
Asquith: Not at all; it was a relaxation.
Margot: What are you reading now
Asquith: The Bible.
Margot: What part of the Bible
Asquith: The Crucifixion.
The portrait of a British politician delineated by the author has a universal ring about it. Not very endearing creatures, they are cynical and cunning, given to noisy and incoherent promises and known for that opportunistic chase after unmerited fame and strutting about the world with a baggage full of a hotchpotch of unfounded ideas and impractical plans. But nonetheless we have to tolerate them as we have to tolerate animals for the sake of preserving our natural habitat.
They are indispensable for preserving our political environment. A society that has to grapple with a multiplicity of wills and interests and has to find a common ground to make action possible cannot do without their services. Certainly we have to be unsparing on occasions, but we must at the same time admire their art of dealing with recalcitrant materials. In one of his erudite essays, The Lives Of Politicians, Henry Fairlie talks of the predicament of a politician, He is a potter who cannot choose his own clay, a painter who cannot mix his own paints, a composer who must score for a brass band what he had perhaps intended for a string quartet. This is the measure of his art.
It is they who manage somehow to keep the polity alive and kicking and protect us against tyrannical authoritarianism. Their very ordinariness makes them outstanding; they are the ballast that does not shift in the storm. Politics, we must remember, is not a grasping for the ideal. It is an activity, lively, adaptive, flexible and conciliatory. It is the way in which free societies are governed. Politics is politics and other forms of rules are something else.
An Anatomy by Jeremy Paxman; Penguin Books;
11.06; Pp 340
Mr Ghosh is a former chairman of the State Bank of India and currently chairman, ICRA Limited, the Peerless Group and the governing council of the Globsyn Business School