Calling politicians ‘childish’ is an insult to children…

Rather than write about the more obvious points about Plebgate – from the actions themselves to the foolishness of taking libel actions when the consequences of losing could be so damaging and when your reputation has already been substantially repaired – I want to write about one particular turn of phrase used by Mr Justice Mitting. He said that Mitchell’s behaviour had been ‘childish’.

It’s a common enough description – and anyone who ever watches the ridiculousness that is Prime Minister’s Questions, the absurd self-importance, name-calling and point-scoring that most politicians seem to get up to on the BBC’s Question Time knows what it refers to. Politicians do seem to spend an inordinate amount of their time – and from the evidence in the Plebgate libel trial not just their time in the public eye – engaging in this kind of activity. They even do it in the laws they draft – anyone who has seen the Social Action, Responsibility And Heroism (‘SARAH’) bill will see that it’s ridiculous, irrelevant and designed only to try to get a few headlines in the tabloids. Absurd is too polite a word for a law like this. And then we have ‘grandees’ like David Mellor ranting and swearing at cab drivers.

It’s an insult to us, who elect them and pay their salaries (and expenses) that they do so – but it’s also an insult to children to call this kind of activity childish. I have an eight year old daughter, and she and her friends may engage in this kind of thing from time to time, but, frankly, not that often. What’s more, they feel ashamed of it when they do it – at least most of the time – and they spend a lot more time being cooperative, friendly, listening to each other, being joyful, free, honest and helpful. What’s more, the ones that I know seem to spend a lot of time really wanting to learn…

…which is something that MPs seem conspicuously unwilling or unable to do.  The point scoring, the straw-man arguments, the bare-faced-lies, the attempts to get things just for themselves, are all things that we wouldn’t (and as parents generally don’t) accept from children. In grown adults, highly educated, highly paid, in deeply responsible positions, making decisions that have a massive impact on all of us, it’s far worse.

18 thoughts on “Calling politicians ‘childish’ is an insult to children…

  1. I agree that your description, going by the bear pit that is PMQs, is an accurate one, except most of the time politicians behave just as your daughter does, most of the time.

    My father was a Labour Councillor for four years and co-operation was mostly the order of the day. Of course, had there been complete co-operation between the parties then the argument that politicians are all alike would really be true! My father has also observed that sometimes there was greater cross party co-operation on an issue than within parties. On the other hand, there were dividing lines and as a result there were some free and frank exchanges of view, but then we do say we want politicians who emote more and do not seem to have all come out of the same mould!

    Only the racy stuff attracts the attention of the media these days. Conflict, synthetic or otherwise; grandstanding; poor behaviour etc sell newspapers and get good ratings. Long gone are the days when The Times used to publish whole extracts from Parliamentary debates within its broad sheets. And politics was actually much racier back then. Heseltine did not get the nickname of Tarzan for metaphorically beating his chest! And those red dividing lines between the two front benches are allegedly the same distance apart as the length of two swords, thus stopping a member from attacking a member on the opposing side.

    As an unelected politician for 27 years I saw plenty of the behaviour you describe from other unelected politicians such as community leaders, business people, local government officers, fellow Civil Servants, even the man and woman in the street. We often say politicians should be more representative of their constituents. I would rather they were not in this aspect at least.

    I do, though, want them to do what others and I tried to do (and I am sure still do) argue our cases with a bit of passion, because most of the time we believe(d), rightly or wrongly, in our causes and our argument. Although, sometimes in one’s passion one makes comments that, on mature reflection, one regrets, but then apologising for same creates bridges that less intemperate behaviour might not have done. Mostly one aims for compromises and building consensuses, even if only to create a temporary one to move one issue forward. I was blocked by someone on Twitter for making just that point. My refusal to agree with him resulted in him complimenting me, I think, by saying that I sounded like a member of the Shadow Cabinet.

    Politics is a funny old game and even non elected polticians have galleries to which to play in public whilst in private they do their best to reach compromises and consensuses. Sometimes their constituents want what you decry, despite it mostly not being in their best interest. It is a mantra of the far Left (and the Right?) that symbolic gestures are something that politicians do not engage in enough, at least not enough for them.

    The often passionate Aneurin Bevan remarked in 1955 that “I know the right kind of political Leader for the Labour Party is a kind of desiccated calculating machine”. Up to a point, really you need to be a combination of Bevan and Gaitskell to be an effective politician, elected or otherwise. And Gaitskell could be passionate and Bevan compromised and built, sometimes, temporary consensuses to create the NHS. Both of them it seems were in touch with their inner child.

    Could the issue here be that the electorate as much as politicians cease to be ever less childish as they grow older and as a result of that get the politicians they deserve? Perhaps if we were to spend more time scrutinising the minutes of our local Planning Committee (and holding its members to account) and reading Hansard (and holding our MP to account) rather than watching Question Time then political discourse might improve?

    Also, it might help if people complimented politicians, elected or otherwise, when they do things with which they agree. It might just help change their behaviour. Let us be a little less British and give them more than just negative criticism. We do like to complain, but rarely take the effort to compliment. Too often in political life (and elsewhere) doing a good job is like wetting oneself in a dark suit, strangely pleasurable, but no one notices!

    • True – we should applaud the good things, for sure, but I do wonder if your characterisation of the positive side of politicians is more true of local politics than national politics. Local politicians that I’ve encountered have been excellent – the national politicians rather less so.

      • Very hard to say.

        In Yes, Minister, Hacker seeks help (and gets it) from his Opposition Shadow, who had previously held Hacker’s Minsterial position. Hacker’s wife queries why he is working with the Opposition. Hacker responds by saying that the Opposition is the government in waiting and that the real opposition is the Civil Service (or, as I like to think of the old firm, the most professional politicians in the UK bar none)!

        Incidentally, the legislation Sir Humphrey is seeking to stop Hacker putting before Parliament relates to protecting the data of individuals from misuse by the State …

        I am not sure at national level politicians want us to know too much about cross party co-operation. I think that is wrong, myself. I see no reason, as a former Civil Servant and party member, why artificial divisions should be created and maintained. On the other hand, as you regularly remark some of the cosy cross party consensuses in your specialist field are a disservice to the electorate and require challenging and discomforting from both within and without Parliament.

        I was surprised to learn about the meeting contained in the last three paragraphs of this article http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jun/28/iain-duncan-smith-stubborn-fool-not-statesman, but heartened too. One does wonder about how much of this sort of co-operation goes on, particularly sub rosa or following the Chatham House Rule. Even junior Civil Servants like myself, well outside of Whitehall invoke the latter to ensure an open discussion for the reasons set out herein http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chatham_House_Rule I was able to offer a rounded view of government policy at operational level in order to address criticism and find ways in which to bend the rules to make them more palatable to those with whom we were working.

        Informed observers of the machinery of government and governmental protocol know that the files of previous governments are not open to the members of opposing parties (when the latter take up office), without the express permission of the former. Continuing observance of the protocol puts the Civil Service in a (too?) strong position.

        I am not surprised Rachel Reeves has not made a big issue of the meeting as I am afraid too many on the Left would kneejerk at the idea of her supping with the Devil! And there is already too much ill informed kneejerking in the area of Social Security and Welfare to Work as it is. Universal (actually it is not) Credit really is the Holy Grail of Social Security reform and just because IDS is making a pig’s ear of it does not make it any the less so.

  2. Paul, I enjoy your blog.
    I’m trying to think as broadly as possible about this.
    I think the issue is, and you touch on it when you mention learning, whether politicians are well prepared for their careers and have good support.
    This coincides with a thought I have often had which is that the civil service has been decimated.
    I have vanishingly little knowledge of the civil service, but I have encountered it ‘at work’ and I have a memory of what the culture of the civil service was once like.
    Where I have encountered it ‘at work’ the truth is it was undermanned and relied for a lot of it’s functioning, the evaluation of the performance of the contract, on the same contractors from whom it was contracted to purchase.
    I should point out that this situation was not helped by the jolly disregard with which government was pumping money through the system, pre crash it was Labour at that time.
    I think they would have been better thinking about how to strengthen the civil service and spending money on that. But no votes in it.
    As to the sense of what the civil service once was, what do I really know apart from to be sure it was never perfect?
    But I also know what was imperfect then is even less perfect now.
    Which leads me round to the idea of whether politicians are prepared and supported.
    I think the strong traditions of the civil service must have been what once prepared politicians for their role.
    Not we have politicians who seem to be pretending in their roles, because a substantial part of the context has been disbanded.
    Politicians who have largely handed the mechanisms of enactment to the private sector are essentially powerless. It is not as if they are able to use market forces to their advantage either, because of the way they have gone about their business over the last twenty plus years they have created huge suppliers hubs who no longer compete with each other on price or service.
    Meanwhile the civil service is denuded of skills and expertise to create such a competitive environment.
    Coming back to the ‘childishness’ of politicians, do I think politicians were less unpleasant twenty or thirty years ago?
    Obviously not, but then perhaps their behaviour was at least buffeted by the ideals and values of the civil service I’m referring to.
    Either way, I think both politicians and the civil service can, potentially, change and improve. What I’m convinced of though, is that improvement cannot happen without some resurrection of the civil service and an encouragement of the need for an institution to ensure the longevity of embodied values.

    • All very interesting! Personally I suspect politicians may be more unpleasant now than they were – but it’s very much a guess. We do seem to have more of the ‘career’ politicians than we used to…

      • I do not have a problem with them seeing politics as a career. I mean, is there any other occupation in which one would favour an amateur over a professional in the way some wish to do?

        Where I have an issue is that the career path should include work experience outside of Westminster. Jim Callaghan, Harold Wilson and Clare Short were all Civil Servants before they ceased to be unelected politicians. Callaghan was a particularly humble one.

        Other well known politicians who had other jobs before entering Parliament were Lloyd George, crusading lawyer and Councillor (and the UK’s Barack Obama); Winston Churchill, soldier, journalist and author (and spendthrift); Aneurin Bevan, worked briefly in the mining industry, was a trades union activist, a Councillor, the member of a Cottage Hospital Management Committee and a writer of articles and pamphlets and Clement Attlee rose to the rank of Major during World War One and then went on to be a social worker in the East End after the war ended.

        I have no problem, for example, with an MP having trained as a barrister. What I do find disturbing is how politics attracts ones who could not make a living as barristers! Perhaps that explains a lot about the quality of the legislation passed by Parliament.

        Of course, it would be great if we were all motivated by a sense of community and solidarity then may be we would get more politicians, elected and unelected, who see what they do as a vocation not merely a salary at the end of the month.

    • Hear, hear!

      May I humbly direct you to my blog parts of which have been written as much in sorry as in anger. I do not wish to dominate the comments on this post of Paul’s so I will try to address the issues you raise in a post on my own blog.

      Like you, I enjoy Paul’s blog, for the informed insights into an area in which I know, in comparison with Paul, precious little and because he does his level best to present the topics about which he writes in the round.

      I like a writer who shows his or her workings out and recognises that they person on the other side of the argument might just have a point. I am not sure I am quite so reasonable on Twitter!

  3. Problem is politicians are mainly little rich boys in short trousers playing at being politicians. They need to grow up. We can help them by doing as you suggest, make them accountable and keep up the pressure on them.
    We probably do get the politicians we deserve. Frankly, I think we deserve far better!

    • They were even more so in the past …

      One son was set to inherit the estate, the next went into Parliament, the third into the military, mentally challenged member into the Church …

      And the schools to which they went all put them in short trousers?

      Bit of a sweeping statement, but even the nouveau riche, in aping the traditions of the class into which they wish to be welcomed quite often adopted the same career paths for their sons.

      Dare I suggest that the electorate need to grow up along with the politicians? And that means, amongst other things, taking a serious interest in the functioning of the society in which they live and a lot less interest in ephemera like reality tv shows.

  4. Politicians mostly come from public school education that is an aristocratic mindset, that is the Normans who parachuted into England from French nobility.

    The politicians have never been part of the nation, nor comprehend it.

    Proved by the continued existence of the House of Lords, that is pure feudalism and no part of westen democracy concept, being abolished by Cromwell, who brought about the people’s parliament back in the1600s.

    Politicians have kept pension rights and take lost state pension payout as an 11 per cent pay rise next year, when giving the poor (mostly in work) either 1 per cent or nil or denying them any money for food from the lost benefits and denied state pension payout since 2013.

    MPs of all parties offer a penniless old age to the poor, for the first time since the state pension began
    to women born from 1953 and men born from 1951.
    https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/state-pension-at-60-now

    MPs talk of old people as well off, when it is as imbecilic as saying all ages are well off with no poor.

    The average women’s works pension can be within the lowest 4 per cent income.

    Half of the over 50s to 66 are within the working poor, on wages stagnant a decade into the past, and suffering over 70 per cent inflation of energy bills and food prices in comparison to all other income levels, and especially MPs who get all such inflation paid for by the taxpayer.

    And who is the taxpayer?

    Well the poorest 20 per cent income pay a 90 per cent tax, from the 75 per cent of all tax from people to government that comes from stealth indirect taxes, sin taxes (motoring, drink, cigarettes) and VAT, even on food.

    Inside the 20 per cent poorest income are 2.6 million pensioners with only state pension as food and fuel money in old age. 530,000 women since 2013 lost state pension payout, payable if remain in work or on a low works pension from the early retirement in lieu of redundancy from the massive austerity job cuts, that mostly hit women in the public sector, the majority employer in the UK.

    • Good to hear from you again!

      Edward the Confessor spent 28 of the first 38 years of his life, from 10 to 38, living in Normandy. Thereby underlining the fact that our country has never been indivisible from the rest of Europe.

      We would only have a State Pension to defend, but for politicians, including one who had an unhappy time at Harrow. As for Cromwell, a political and military hero of mine, he was many things, but he was certainly not a believer in Universal Suffrage and he did not do away with the House of Lords.

      I am pleased to note you have registered my point about there being no National Insurance Fund. I am afraid to have to point out to you, though, that a goodly proportion of pensioners are well off and they know voting matters.

      May I tactfully suggest that rather than taking every opportunity to post links to the petition in comments on posts of mine (and to which I link) that you would be better advised in encouraging people to register to vote ahead of next May, make it clear to party canvassers what concerns them and then to exercise their franchise on 7th May 2015?

      Petitions signed by people not registered to vote or who are registered, but do not vote are nowhere near as effective as those signed by people who are registered and who vote every time there is an election.

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