I started writing this piece a couple of weeks ago, but then, like so many things, Margaret Thatcher threw a spanner in the works, even in death.
I was meaning to argue the problems - and sometimes hypocrisy - in the popular call for more 'conviction politicians', but then she was, perhaps after Clement Attlee or Winston Churchill, the UK's greatest 'conviction politician' and she has been largely lauded.
But also largely slated - so I think my argument holds. Judge for yourself...
"They're all the bloody same" - the phrase decrying politicians' character spoken with such regularity nowadays, particularly in the UK, that it's a surprise some enterprising fellow hasn't capitalised on it and tried to gain office on a basically 'anti-them' ticket.
In fact, it has been done - at least in science fiction. On one of the episodes in the second season of Charlie Brooker's brilliant Black Mirror was based around Waldo - a crude, irreverent cartoon character, whose televised cri de couer against a Tory politician earnt him (it?) so many Youtube views that some canny execs decided to have him run for office, despite the speechmaker thinking his own speech was vapid rubbish.
And the phenomenon at least accounts for some actual political groups' prominence. UKIP's Nigel Farage consistently decries the staid politics of the Conservatives/Labour/Lib Dems, who he has described as "just three social democratic parties". And on the other side, you have strands of Occupy and the People's Assembly, which is currently trying to get off the ground - although these are as more about general economic "injustice".
But why is being a 'technocrat' and a 'career politician' necessarily such a bad thing? Certainly, in nearly every other profession professionalism and dedication would be seen as undeniably positive traits.
Instead of such character assessments people seem to rigourously apply the 'would I have a pint with them' test, to judge politicians' character. I often think I'm alone in wanting politicians, to be - generally - the precise opposite of a drinking buddy - measured, rational, careful with money and (in their eyes at least) reasonable to all groups.
Your average bloke in the pub might be forthright, but it doesn't necessarily make him (or her) right. Just as populism - left or right - isn't always right, even if appealing and morally decent. Because the nuances of law and finance are, while often boring, vitally important considerations to politicians - not necessarily to that bloke down the pub.
For instance, take two favourite tropes of the left and right respectively - the 'politicians love the rich' and 'bloody immigrants'. There's a reason politicians like the rich - they're rich! Therefore they can pay more for the hospitals and schools everyone loves. Even after the recent "£100,000 giveaway" (more accurately known as a tax cut), the UK's top income tax rate is still relatively high. Corporation tax is relatively low, but making it higher may well just encourage companies to move abroad, not invest in the first place or avoid paying their tax. It may well be no coincidence that America has both one of the highest corporate tax rates and highest levels of tax avoidance. Doesn't mean it's (morally) right, but governing merely on moral outrage may well make it worse. Just doubling our taxes on the rich may sound appealing, but a bit of a shitload is still a lot; a lot of not very much is even less of not very much.
And of the right's complains about immigrants greedily taking up our services, the government's own statistics show more than double the percentage of non-UK nationals claiming working age benefits (7%, of total population) were in fact British nationals - which makes sense really given you would imagine those able to migrate, almost by definition, would be healthy and of working age (ie able to work and pay taxes).
Therefore much of these arguments are reduced to mere anger - understandable but not necessarily constructive - and more abstract - though not unimportant - arguments of, respectively, inequality and nationhood. (There is, granted, a strong argument about immigrants depriving UK nationals of jobs).
The 'career politician' criticism I also find a little baffling, as it seems to suggest politics is just something anyone can just walk into, with no competition or without any expertise in things like law, managing finance, handling an often unruly press or writing important speeches. Arguably, it just means they've had one less 'proper job' than anyone else.
I think what people really want is more conviction politicians if (and it's a pretty big 'if') they are on their side. There's a strange irony in the left commentariat, Owen Jones in particular, hailing the virtues of welfare, the NHS without much scruple to their cost, yet denouncing the Tories as 'ideologically crazed'. It's hypocritical of such hard left (and hard right) figures to complain of strong ideology; it's just the Tories' ideology doesn't match theirs.
If we do actually want more conviction politicians, with stronger personalities, we should stop being so fucking prissy about our sensitivities. Just this year, we have furores over a minister stating the truth - in sympathetic terms - about people from poor backgrounds tending to be fatter; on both sides of a law allowing gay people to marry who they want but religious institutions to not partake in it; whether to play a song in the charts which made it into the charts
; and, in the US, over the (happily married) president complimenting a female friend on her looks.
I think I'd quite enjoy it actually, but I'm sure politicians wouldn't be very popular if they were seen "connecting with their constituents" by stumbling out of bars every weekend.
And there is a significant plus side of the disconnect, perceived or actual, between politicians and normal people; it makes it easier to mock them - which, with things like Spitting Image, Private Eye, Have I Got News For You, The Thick of It, and, more recently, the less than glorious welcome to Twitter George Osborne received, us Brits have a sterling tradition of. Think of politicians, if you will, as a metaphorical human punch bag, a vital release valve upon which to vent all of life's perceived injustices and uncertainties.
It's actually quite skill, in a sense, to have the restraint to give reasoned, politically correct answers to those one considers raving idiots. (Having been an albeit mediocre teacher - and an RE one at that - I can sympathise.)
In truth, the situation was probably ever thus, but things probably seem more polarised now largely as Twitter and Facebook do not particular lend themselves to moderate, nuanced dissections of government policy, and the credit crunch has thrown people's ideas into sharp relief, after the apparent 'boom' years under Labour papered over cracks, and perhaps made the right inured to general freedoms of the free market and money pouring in and the left inured to the welfare state due to Labour's rising spending. Now, the squeeze on living standards is having the obvious effects and those of severe questioning of whether the recession represents a crisis of capitalism as a whole or just a small part of it.
Or maybe people aren't as divided as things seem - less politically one-sided people almost by definition getting less coverage on social media, with its propensity to short, snappy soundbites, and the media, with its obvious inclination towards engaging (therefore extreme) views.
I hope so, but then things would be less interesting.
I'll leave you with the words of Sam Harris, here rebutting some 'atheist fundamentalist' garbage written about him. But I think, if you replace 'unethical' with 'extreme', it's applicable to holding nuanced positions in the centre ground (as he often does - being a self-proclaimed 'liberal' who has, in measured ways, argued in favour of torture and gun ownership).
"It's impossible to effectively defend oneself against unethical critics. If nothing else, the law of entropy is on their side, because it will always be easier to make a mess than to clean it up."