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Opinion: What makes a ‘good’ politician?

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Politicians are not always impeccably behaved. Michael Gove is regularly spotted, drunk, in the middle of raves. He admits to doing cocaine in his 20s. Diane Abbott was spotted boozing on the tube home. Boris Johnson is a serial adulterer who doesn’t know how many children he has. David Cameron was a member of the Bullingdon club, who smashed up restaurants for a laugh. The naughtiest thing Theresa May ever did was run through a field of wheat as a child; Jeremy Corbyn, however, mysteriously told the public that his naughtiest moment is ‘far too naughty to say’. This is not to mention the most notorious naughty politician of all: Trump. Seemingly every day of his presidency, Trump was in the news for behaving badly: be it bragging about groping women, or getting into a twitter-spat with Kim Jong Un.

We seem to know an awful lot about politicians’ personal lives (especially when they are badly behaved). Are our politicians increasingly immoral, out of control, and hypocritical? Some think not. Alistair Campbell says we just hear a lot more about our politicians than we ever used to. This, he thinks, is the result of a sinister shift in journalism. Reporting the truth – that politicians are generally good people trying very hard to make a difference – simply doesn’t sell. But shame sells. So journalists have become sleaze-detectors, ever on the lookout for some vice to expose in Westminster. The news site Guido Fawkes probably exemplifies this shift, in that their coverage of politics is highly personal and seemingly always aiming to expose some hypocrite in politics. 

But Campbell might be passing the blame too quickly. Increasing social media usage has probably intensified our interest in politicians’ personal lives too, because platforms like twitter bias us towards short, emotional messages. A video of Gove gurning with the caption ‘hypocrite’ will get far more attention than a well-argued tweet-chain about how drug laws tend to unfairly affect marginalised communities. Social media also encourages politicians to have regular, informal contact with the public – meaning we come to know our politicians as people far better than you could simply reading about them in a newspaper. Naturally, we are more outraged when they turn out to be bad apples.

But should we care how politicians behave in their private lives? It’s very easy to see why we might say yes. Politicians, ultimately, have an enormous amount of power. In Westminster, laws are passed which deeply affect our lives. It is surely fair to say that people with a heightened amount of power also bear a heightened level of responsibility. To put it simply, politicians hold an office that they must prove themselves to be worthy of. 

I’m not convinced by this argument, for two reasons. Firstly, politicians are and only ever will be human. Politicians may well be powerful, but this does not make it fair to hold them to inhuman standards. Humans make mistakes, even if they are powerful, and it isn’t clear why we should expect the powerful to be any different. You could even argue that the power politicians wield should make us more lenient towards politicians, as they operate under a pressure most of us will likely never experience. 

Secondly, I think we need to be careful not to talk about political office as though it is some kind of reward, to be doled out to the most virtuous. It is easy for ambitious young people to fall into thinking of things in this way, as many young people aspire to entering politics. Outrage about a politician’s conduct really becomes a kind of jealousy, that this person occupies the office I want despite being less moral. The majority of people don’t think of politics as a career option, and hence, don’t care about how or whether office is ‘earned’. Besides, politicians work far longer hours, for far less pay than what they could make in the private sector. You only need to watch a ‘day in the life’ video to see that actually, being PM is really quite horrible.

But, we might still care about what politicians get up to in their private lives because this reveals what their true character is, and hence, how they will govern. Remember Matt Hancock? If his wife couldn’t trust him, why on earth should we? The idea here is intuitive. If someone proves to be untrustworthy or hypocritical or unkind in their private life, we know that they will be untrustworthy with public finances, hypocritical and therefore insincere in the kinds of law they will enact, and unkind to the people they have power over. But again, I’m not sure whether this is true. Can’t people behave differently at work than at home? It seems straightforward that someone could be a nasty bully at work, but lovely to their family at home. Why not the reverse? Couldn’t someone have a troubled home life, but genuinely channel their best self at work? Martin Luther King Jr. cheated on his wife, but it isn’t as though this invalidates his work as a civil rights leader. In short, it seems doubtful that someone’s behaviour at home is a reliable guide to how they will behave at work.

A final argument rests on whether politicians are capable of undermining public morality. What kind of message does it send to children when politicians behave reprehensibly and still nonetheless serve in the highest offices of state? This argument makes more sense, because children evidently do look up to politicians. In a study last year, 500 children were asked what they think the President of the USA does. ‘Inspire people’ was a leading answer, alongside ‘helping people’ and ‘keeping people safe’. But even so, I’m not sure this means politicians can be held to a higher standard than any other celebrity. Children also look up to footballers, actors, singers, and even fictional characters. But we wouldn’t argue that these people are obliged to behave flawlessly because of their influence over children. Indeed, undoubtedly the biggest effect on the behaviour of children comes from their parents. If influencing the public is what matters to us, the first place to ban booze and drugs and infidelity from is the home.  

To conclude, I think we ought to care a lot less about what politicians do at home. The laws passed in Parliament affect our lives profoundly, and this is what we should spend our time scrutinising. Laws matter more than who makes them.

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