Enoch Powell famously declared that all political careers end in failure. These days we need to modify the old saying: All political careers end in failure – followed by extraordinary acts of impudence. Britain is currently suffocated by failed former politicians telling us how to fix everything that is wrong with the country, which they mysteriously failed to fix when they were in power.
We live in an age of political impudence
Liz Truss almost destroyed the British economy during her 49 days as Prime Minister, and is now working on a book called Ten Years to Save the West, due to be published in April next year. Margaret Thatcher was initially reluctant to join the international speaking circuit after 10 revolutionary years in power. But the shortest-serving politician in British history recently received about 90,000 pounds ($112,230) for a five-day trip to Taiwan during which she delivered a speech about the importance of confronting Chinese aggression.
Truss differs from other politicians only in the degree of her rudeness. Take, for example, the abundance of former prime ministers in Britain. Theresa May played herself to the hardline Brexit crowd when she succeeded David Cameron as prime minister in 2016, committing that “Brexit is Brexit” and expelling “citizens who have no place.” She is now promoting her new book, “Abuse of Power,” in which she presents herself as a social justice warrior. Boris Johnson was forced to resign because his fellow politicians were no longer willing to lie on his behalf and his government collapsed into chaos. He now writes a paid column for the Daily Mail in which he speaks out about poor governance and calls on his erring colleagues to resign.
Some younger players also push the boundaries of rudeness. Matt Hancock was mocked in the political arena when he was caught flouting lockdown rules with a political aide. He then tried to rehabilitate himself by appearing on the vulgar TV show, I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here, which specialized in humiliating its guests. Nadine Dorris, a soon-to-be former MP who has not been seen in her constituency for months, spends her time either railing against the establishment or complaining that she was not given a peerage. Iain Duncan Smith was the second-worst Tory leader after Truss, although he never made it to Downing Street, but that didn’t stop him from donning the mantle of “senior Tory” and criticizing his government whenever it “got lax” (aka compromised with reality).
The root cause of this epidemic of incivility is the end of “politics as a profession.” When Max Weber wrote his great essay of that title in 1919, politics was dominated by two types of people: members of the traditional ruling class (both liberal and conservative), who entered politics out of a sense of public duty, and socialists who wanted to change the world. Neither group cared much about money – the traditionalists because they had their own means and the socialists because they were idealists. (Members of the British Parliament did not receive a penny until 1911.) The most dangerous policies were conducted in secret, and newspapers published parliamentary speeches verbatim.
Today, politics has become a strange mixture of a profession and a branch of entertainment. It is a profession in the sense that most of these officials depend on their position for income, and become richer as they move up the political ladder. (Rishi Sunak is unusual among contemporary politicians in being independently wealthy.) It’s a branch of entertainment where they need to keep themselves in the public eye if they want to have any chance of success.
Politicians are pre-selected for impudence. At the very least, they should be willing to live in glass houses. But most people today go out of their way to seek fame and publicity – indeed, politics is as much the art of self-promotion as it is the art of government. Some of the most successful of them go so far as to turn themselves into brands – Johnson was deliberately transformed into a cross between Bertie Wooster and Just William, while Jacob Rees-Mogg became a parody of Edwardian class with his strangled vowels and double-breasted suits.
A growing number of people are taking advantage of television and social media – appearing not only on political talk shows, but also on entertainment shows (House Leader Penny Mordaunt had a stunning performance at a diving show years ago) and on online platforms (Truss was famously addicted to Instagram More than her robotic personality.) “Being there is what matters,” May says in her book.
Most politicians also end their political careers with a strong desire to make money. They spend their lives earning much less than their peers in other top occupations. They also see the vast fortunes amassed by the most successful members of their generation, such as Tony Blair and Barack Obama, and wonder, “Why not me?”
What Enoch Powell called “failure” gives them the opportunity to jump on the money round. There are companies that pay politicians £100,000 or more to give a speech. The bonus is that these speeches then provide an opportunity to explain one’s mistakes, settle scores with former colleagues, recall accomplishments, and relive the thrill of holding an audience in the palm of one’s hand.
But how can you get lucrative speaking spots when there are so many people competing for them? Politicians are retiring much earlier than they used to: David Cameron (now 56) and George Osborne (now 52) were barely middle-aged when they left the House of Commons. You write a book to give yourself something to beat yourself up about. You make news by revealing secrets of your former management. You can keep your name in the press by writing regular columns. If shameless self-promotion is the way into politics, shameless self-vindication is the way out.
The other vital ingredient in a sassy soufflé is partisanship. And the more partisan politics becomes, the greater your incentive to blame your enemies for all your wrongdoings — “externalizing blame,” in the language of psychologists — while simultaneously playing on the worst instincts of your supporters.
Truss compounds his mismanagement of the British economy because he has a coterie of supporters who blame everyone but themselves for the debacle of those 49 days. The Daily Telegraph publishes frequent columns explaining how the near collapse of the economy under Truss was the fault of “the establishment”, i.e. civil servants, And Remainers, and thugs of all kinds, not the bond traders who actually shot it down. She has a safe corner in the US, where the Heritage Foundation invites her to speak, Regnery is producing her book about saving the West, and Sunbelt billionaires are eager to revive their youth by watching a Thatcher tribute show.
It’s easy to give into the despair of it all. But what can you expect in a world where I’m a Celebrity with a fan following in the millions, Love Island produces a new edition featuring middle-aged contestants, and grown men wear shorts to work? Victorian England had respectable politicians because it was a generous age. We have rude politicians for exactly the same reason.
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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Adrian Wooldridge is Bloomberg Opinion’s global business columnist. A former columnist for The Economist, he is the author of The Aristocracy of Talent: How Merit Made the Modern World.
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