Let’s hear it for losers

It is often remarked that the best books about politics are those written by political  losers – people who have been less than successful in their political careers or people who failed to get to the top and were condemned to watch from the sidelines.

The first evidence cited of the validity of this position is always, of course, Machiavelli’s The Prince. Imprisoned, tortured and banished he ended up writing a tract still quoted almost 500 years later. Indeed, the list of illuminating texts by the unsuccessful is long – Cicero, Burke, Madison, Mill, de Tocqueville and Max Weber for a start.

A recent example is Fire and Ashes Success and failure in politics by the spectacularly unsuccessful Canadian Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff.  Ignatieff lost his seat and his party was trounced in the 2011 election. From the start he was up against it with the Harper Government mounting a massive advertising campaign – Just Visiting – based on his life as an academic who lived most of his life outside Canada. It was an effective pre-election campaign which largely deprived Ignatieff of ‘standing’ as he puts out. Just as in the legal sense you can’t get into the game if you don’t have standing and the Conservatives took that standing away from him. Ignatieff describes it as the factor which “accords respect to personal authority” and says the first job in politics “is to secure your standing, your authority to make your case and ensure a hearing”. Much the success of the Abbott-Murdoch campaign against Julia Gillard was to deprive her of that standing.

The biography of his time as leader, the campaigns and some reflections are fascinating and revealing. Some of the issues he discusses include the way great politicians have a strong sense of the local, or what the French call, being an homme de terroir , who “when they ask someone in the crowd where they hail from, they should be able to produce a story that neatly connects them to that voter with the jolt of human recognition”. He also examines the intense physicality of great politicians. He talks about Bill Clinton amazing him “at his ability to remember names – and just not names but whole family stories – as he squeezed this hand, leaned in to kiss that cheek, locked his gaze on another’s, and kept moving, bailing them in like a combine harvester.” In contrast Ignatieff recognises that “None of this came naturally to me. I had a bad habit of looking down and away when people talked to me. I’d always put my trust in words and let the words do the work, but in politics the real message is physical delivered by your eyes and hands.” He likens this ability to the concept of sprezzature from Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier which is, in English, roughly speaking the gift of making people feel at ease in your company.

There is much else of interest: the problem in partisan politics of adversaries becoming enemies rather than simply political opponents and the need to regard politics as a calling.  In a lesson relevant for the Abbott Government Ignatieff says: “A politicians who needs unite a country in a time of crisis may find, having vilified his opponents, that he has betrayed the trust he needs to rally and inspire. If you win ugly, you are unlikely to govern well.”

The recent death of another ‘loser’, Tony Benn, prompted the blog to re-read Dare to be a Daniel a biographical reflection on his life combined with a selection of his speeches. Now Tony Benn was a success in some senses – Cabinet Minister, MP for 50 years and community political organiser. But he was vilified by opponents, the British tabloids and some of his fellow Labour Party members. Ironically many of the obituaries were gentle and reflective – no doubt because he was now safely dead and couldn’t cause any more trouble along the lines of pointing out that the UK didn’t actually have an independent nuclear deterrent and that their nukes were really controlled by the US. Now in 50 years Benn made many speeches and it would be unnatural, even for someone as awkward as him, not to select the most prescient in a memoir. But prescient they are on subjects as diverse as the EU, the problems of inequality and the consequences of de-regulation of the finance industries.

It is not as amusing, nor as well written as Ignatieff’s, nor as hilarious as that of another UK ‘awkward squad’ member, Bob Marshall-Andrews. Marshall-Andrews revelled in being Tony Blair’s least favourite colleague. He ensured he had no chance of promotion by making comments in a speech at a fund-raiser which infuriated the Blairs.  He started off by pointing out that “never in the history of the Labour Party had Georgio Armani been so well represented” ; had a jocular poke at the Blair’s good friend , Derry Irvine (later Lord Chancellor) based on his love of food and good wine; and, was denied a parliamentary Select Committee because of an imagined insult of the Blairs. The book includes a great description of a Blair conference speech which convinced Marshall-Andrews that Blair was ‘dangerously delusional’. Blair talked about “my covenant with the British people” and followed it up claiming that “we all know that we can trace this great movement of ours…. (long rhetorical pause in which Bob wonders whether Tony will mention the Chartists, Keir Hardie, the Levellers and others)….we all know that we can trace this great movement of ours to the Prophets of the Old Testament.”

Perhaps Tony Benn could say something similar as all the four members of his family to serve in the House of Commons – grandfather, father, Benn and now Benn’s son Hilary – had a strong religious strain to their upbringing and political views. But he would have mentioned the Chartists, Levellers, Ban the Bomb, Greenham Common women and others, and never talked about ‘my’ covenant rather than ‘ours’.