Magazine article The Spectator

Probity and Sincerity Are Admirable Qualities, but They Don't Make for a Good Politician

Magazine article The Spectator

Probity and Sincerity Are Admirable Qualities, but They Don't Make for a Good Politician

Article excerpt

ANOTHER VOICE

Does it matter whether a politician is sincere?

In the corner of my mind the question whispered itself with gentle insistence as, sitting round a kitchen table, some friends and I threw ourselves with relish and for the umpteenth time into that old favourite among parlour-debates: `Tony Blair is a confidence trickster: discuss'.

For what it's worth, I do not think he is. With this prime minister, what you see is closer to what you get than has been the case with most of his predecessors. Calm, steady, unvindictive and put-upon, John Major was in reality a more troubled and interesting character: manipulative, jumpy and volatile, and not beyond score-settling and spite. Brave and undeviating Margaret Thatcher may have seemed; she was also muddled, cautious, circumspect, manipulable and ready to trim. Uncle Jim Callaghan was more serpentine than avuncular; Ted Heath became a yachting man on spin doctors' advice; Harold Wilson never smoked a pipe except for the cameras; and relaxed, patrician Harold Macmillan was so much the nervy and insecure actor that any attempt to uncover the 'real' Macmillan only peels off another layer of the onion's skin.

But, as my friend Julian Glover, now editing the Guardian's politics website, wrote last year in the New Statesman, `perched atop a muckheap of media merchants, pagers and pledge-cards' the man himself - Tony Blair - is remarkably unspun. He is what he seems to be: 'a Christian lawyer who lives in Islington, probably ironed his jeans at university and really didn't smoke pot. He has never had a makeover and never would.' He tells tall stories about his boyhood (who doesn't?), and has developed to an advanced degree those skills to charm and disarm that the ambitious and slightly insecure tend to lean upon. He tells little lies (who doesn't?), but he is not in himself, in his own person, a big lie. `Sitting in his fourth parliament and sixth year as party leader, Tony Blair has yet to offer anything other than a single version of his character.'

I agreed then and, with Mr Blair now in his fifth parliament and seventh year as Labour leader, I still do. I could write you another 500 words on this, and (forgive the immodesty) I think they would read well enough. But then I love these discussions, don't you? They're so easy, we can all have an opinion, and no expert knowledge is called for. Anecdote rather than argument, hunches rather than fact, are what is required, for this is essentially the game of character analysis, and it can be played over the garden fence, at the golf-club bar, across the airwaves of BBC Radio 4, or in the commentary columns of serious newspapers.

The discussion we can have about the sincerity or otherwise of Tony Blair, lain Duncan Smith or Charles Kennedy is, in its essentials, little different from the discussion we might have on the former marriage of Cindy Crawford and Richard Gere, whether Michael Winner really is as rude to waiters as people say, or whether Gerald Corbett ought to have apologised more and sounded as though he meant it about that train crash ... except that those three discussions would be in the Arts & Entertainment section, the Food section, and the City pages, respectively, whereas ours comes under Current Affairs.

In truth, they should all be filed under Gossip - and be none the worse for that. …

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