Jeremy Paxman is known to British television audiences as an acerbic interviewer. He has crossed swords with a huge number of politicians over the years and is well placed to write about the species, which he does here with gusto. It has to be said that the picture which emerges is not encouraging. As Paxman says, politics matter, but we are increasingly disenchanted with it.
One of the principal changes that has occurred since 1945 has been the increasing professionalization of politics. In former times politicians had usually done other jobs before entering Parliament, but nowadays most have never known any other career than politics and in consequence have little first-hand experience of the "real" world. At the same time there has been a progressive trivialization of politics, and declining public respect for politics has, it seems, resulted in a corresponding decline in the quality of would-be politicians. One or two MPs appear to be actually insane.
Given all this, it is perhaps surprising that people still want to enter politics. It is an uncertain business at best, the pay is modest, and politicians do not enjoy much public respect, so why do they do it? Clearly there can be no single answer, but Paxman finds that most, when young, have a conviction that they, personally, can do something about the sorry state of the world. Later, there is also vanity and the desire to be applauded. There may be other psychological reasons linked to their early life experiences: a surprising number of Prime Ministers have lost one or both parents in childhood, particularly the father. Paxman suggests that this may engender an identification with the parent who died and an attempt to take their place. This does seem to work, for example, in the case of Winston Churchill, but Paxman rightly cautions against amateur psychological explanations of this kind.
Getting into Parliament is not easy. There are selection committees to impress and there is a lot of competition. And, when the ambitious new MP finally arrives in the House, he or she quickly finds that the job is not what it may have seemed. Paxman has a lot of fun with the arcane rules and rituals of Parliamentary life, including the requirement that if a sitting of the House finishes after midnight the policemen must take off their helmets as the Speaker passes, although no one can remember why.
And the importance of Parliament itself is less than might be supposed. Although, in theory, Parliament is responsible for all the legislation that affects the lives of British citizens, in practice most regulations are never debated in Parliament but are put in place by civil servants. Unless they become ministers (only possible if their party is in government, of course), MPs' prospects of making any real difference to anything are almost nil, and even ministers have far fewer opportunities to achieve their aims than might be expected.
Reaching Cabinet rank doesn't seem to be the answer either. We used to hear a lot about collective Cabinet responsibility, but the importance of Cabinet has declined progressively throughout the twentieth century and is now smaller than ever. More and more, power is concentrated in the Prime Minister, but even the PM's ability to influence affairs is in practice severely limited by factors outside his or her control. Hardly surprising, then, that nearly all Prime Ministers leave office depressed and exhausted.
It has to be said that this is on the whole a rather melancholy book - not in its tone, which is light and lively, but in its implications. (Incidentally, congratulations to the publishers for including on the back cover an adverse comment from William Hague, who found it "disappointing".) Though Paxman enlivens his account with a lot of humour and abundant amusing anecdotes, one is left in something like despair at the state of British democracy. The prospects are hardly encouraging. This is not, of course, an exclusively British phenomenon; voting at elections has declined in the USA and in most European countries too, apart from Britain, but some aspects of the problem are peculiar to Britain. In concluding his book, Paxman offers some suggestions for the future. These centre on reform of the House of Commons, and include reducing the number of MPs by a third and reducing the amount of speechifying in favour of more scrutiny of government. But whether any of this is likely to happen is another question.
In times of peace there is a temptation to regard politics as entertainment, a view that is regularly encouraged by the Press. But we ought to remind ourselves that it does matter. One piece of information I gained from the book has particularly stayed in my mind. When a new Prime Minister comes to power, one of his first tasks is to write a sealed letter, in his own handwriting, to each of the four commanders of Trident nuclear-armed submarines, instructing them what to do in case Britain has been annihilated and no further orders can ever be issued. An occasion for wise reflection, as the Buddha puts it.
11 July 2004