Thursday, 4 August 2011

Modern politics doesn't allow free-thinking

Last week I received a call from a Lobby journalist on a national newspaper who was 'compiling a list of Steve Hilton's most mad-cap ideas'. The journalist was almost beside themselves with excitement, reveling in the freedom their editor had given them in silly-season to compile this list. I've taken calls like this a number of times since the coalition government was formed but what I say to the journalists is never quoted.

I can't claim to know Steve well - our paths have crossed a number of times through the years in various mind-numbing meetings often enlightened only by Steve's energetic presence. Although some don't like him - his abrasive, sometimes combative style rubs people up the wrong way and his ideas can indeed sometimes be unworkable - but the vitriolic pursuit of him points to a depressing future for politics in this country.

Through British history we as a people have warmed to mavericks; this is even true of politicians who went against the grain still to reach the zenith of their profession. Two obvious examples are Winston Churchill and Harold Macmillan. Churchill's opposition to appeasement in the face of general political consensus is well documented. Macmillan was a rebel too; on appeasement like Churchill and on broad social issues such as welfare and unemployment. The antipathy shown to him by the whips' office ensured it was 31 years from entering Parliament until Macmillan became Prime Minsiter.  

Despite antipahy from within party ranks, politicains such as Churchill and Macmillan gained respect from the media, intellectuals and even their political opponents for their free-thinking style. This meant they weren't labelled in the modern lazy journalistic style as 'gaffe-prone' or 'mad-cap' as today's more thoughtful politicians generally are.

In a summer when the media and politicians are examining their relationships in detail let's hope that a little bit of intellectual inspiration from our political class will be allowed to develop in future. The media surely cannot have it both ways: sneering at genuine new ideas while at the same time bemoaning the tightly controlled party machines.

Macmillan was an avid reader of novels and great British literature as one would expect of someone who ran a successful publishing house. On the morning he became Prime Minister he passed the time reading 'Pride and Prejudice'. The contrast with the uninspiring list of management self-help books Ed Miliband has taken on holiday is startling and is, perhaps, the perfect metaphor for the level of free-thinking we see in politics today.        

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