The price we pay for envy and selfish ambition in politics

Tony Blair Gordon BrownI have to admit that I am naive. I’m well aware that politics can be a dirty game, but the revelations from Gordon Brown’s former spin doctor’s memoirs that have been released over the past few days have shocked me. Damian McBride’s stories of smear campaigns and attempted character assassinations against those in Brown’s own party who were considered to be a threat to his ambitions talk of a party that was hugely dysfunctional at the highest level. There may still be a debate over how much Gordon Brown knew of what his press officer was up to, but that doesn’t distract from the fact that his activities further stirred mistrust and destabilised the work of the Labour cabinet during a time when the Blair-Brown feuding was at its most intense. When Jesus talked about a house divided against itself not being able to stand, he wasn’t wrong. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s personal war was inevitably going to doom the Labour party to failure of government.

In theory the calling of a politician is to serve the electorate, putting the interests of the country before personal ambition, but in McBride’s eyes the exercise was power and control at any cost. His frank disclosures of what went on behind closed doors is a reminder that whilst the majority of politicians enter into politics for the right reasons, seeking power always has a corruptive side that can be hard to resist.  As Dan Hodges in the Telegraph writes when discussing the Blair-Brown years:

‘Anyone who thinks Tony Blair or Gordon Brown or those who worked for then were quintessentially evil doesn’t understand government, and how it really works. It is not populated by political innocents. It is a car crash of power and ambition and jealousy and hope and pride and bravery and cowardice and triumph and failure. In other words, it is populated by ordinary men and women, with all the flaws that implies.’

Damian McBride’s frank openness in his book Power Trip might help us to go some way to understanding the effects of desiring power, but it doesn’t make them any easier to stomach. Somewhere along the line party leaderships appear to have lost the plot, with the case of Blair and Brown being (hopefully) an extreme example. The control games at the top and even policy formation now often have little connection with the wishes of the parties’ grassroots membership or even the electorate at large. It’s no wonder that voters are disillusioned and party membership numbers have plummeted even in the last decade. Charles Moore wrote about this at length, again in the Telegraph on the day that the McBride story broke:

‘In the case of both Tory and Labour, [the modern consumer-citizen] will see that the central control of the party, in a culture when other leadership structures have flattened out, is more top-down than ever before. Those early 20th-century party conferences may have taken place in an age of deference, but they were genuinely run by the members, not by the leaders. In the Labour Party, the National Executive ruled. In the Conservative case, the leader attended only by the invitation of the National Union and appeared solely to make a speech on the last day. He was not supposed to manipulate its deliberations.

‘Tony Blair and David Cameron both noticed that their party activists were becoming more and more detached from the wider population, but they responded in the wrong way. Instead of finding means of widening and growing their memberships, they decided to attack the residue. Nowadays, the big party leaderships are not the authentic expressions of the wishes of hundreds of thousands of supporters. They are more like coups in banana republics, in which a small band of ambitious people storms the main public buildings and starts playing martial music on the state radio.’

It’s not just journalists and commentators who see the political structures as out of touch. A handful of MPs have been brave enough to challenge the system. Sarah Wollaston is a Conservative who was the first ever MP to be selected through an open primary. In a recent interview she raised a number of concerns over the way parliament is run:

‘There’s no training at all to be an MP.” Which, she quickly discovered, is why “professional politicians” who’d been special advisers and parliamentary researchers tend to get ahead. “Nobody needs to sit down and explain to them how it all works.”

‘”The thing that’s really valued here is loyalty, absolutely unquestionably loyalty,” she observes – but she can’t see why she can’t both support and criticise her leadership.

‘”I think government would be far better at all levels if actually there was more of an understanding that you are a better member of a team if you’re prepared to tell the team captain that he’s made the wrong decision. I come from a culture within the health service where debate and disagreement is welcomed; it’s seen as a good thing.

‘”Who am I to come in and start telling people that some things should change? I can see that argument. And yes, if it isn’t broke don’t fix it. But I’m afraid the public do, kind of, think it’s a bit broke and I think if you come into here from outside, sometimes you notice the things that seem a bit odd.”

‘If Cameron has his way he won’t have any more MPs like Wollaston to deal with, for having promised to throw open the selection process to primaries all over the country, that plan has since been quietly shelved.

‘”Which is a shame. The whole point of this place is the executive tries to get its way. But that’s why I think people should demand more of them.”‘

Wollaston is willing to imagine a different form of parliamentary politics. When you learn about what Damian McBride was up to, it doesn’t take much effort to sympathise with her line of thinking. What could our parliament look like if politicians from all backgrounds looked to respect each other, where the focus was so much on good policy, rather than personal glory that the destructive infighting of the Labour government would be deemed so unnecessary and pathetic that such behaviour would not be tolerated?

When I hear reports that many Christians are preparing and training to become parliamentary candidates, I am excited. It’s not because I want Parliament to be dominated by Christians, but the expectation is that this would increase the number of MPs who come with a strong moral grounding, desiring to serve others beyond themselves. Watching the way the political parties’ Christian fellowships work together, you get a taste of what could be. They have their own distinct political flavours, which they are not afraid to stick to, but at the same time they are willing to support and encourage each other with a genuine mutual respect and friendship.

In the book of James it says this:

Two Kinds of Wisdom

Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.

But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness. (James 3:13-18)

I wouldn’t go as far as to say that our political system is broken, but it certainly isn’t functioning as well as it could be. Damian McBride is on a big publicity drive to sell his book, but he also says that he is trying to highlight the errors of the past in the hope that they will not be repeated in future. Maybe it is a sincere sign of contrition and acknowledgement of the damage he caused?

Whether he is being completely honest or not, there certainly are lessons to be learnt, but as long as the insecurities of those in power are manifested through the need to control and manipulate the system and others, we’re likely to see little change. Politics could and should be so much better. Ironically there is a good chance that those party leaders who attempt to tightly control things from the top would be much more likely to win favour with the electorate if they took a genuine interest in what goes on outside of their inner circles demonstrating a servant attitude towards those they are meant to serve rather than displaying an air of detachment and disinterest.

Is this too much to  ask?

Categories: Integrity, Morals & ethics, Party politics

Tags: , , , , , ,

10 replies

  1. Thank you Gillan for your time and trouble researching, reading and writing about this. As with many of your commentaries, my quick scan shows its worth running off a hardcopy for savouring later.

  2. Thank you for this analysis that does seem to reflect reality.

    I am a Christian and a politician in local government. Knowing that a significant number of candidates for Westminster make this step from the position I currently hold as a city councillor, I think it is crucial to acknowledge that the power motives and symptoms you speak of begin right there and, fanned into flame, they “progress” to national level.

    I speak from personal experience as one who has been on the receiving end of a dysfunctional Green Administration here in Brighton & Hove that, more than a year later, continues to behave in a similar manner to Labour with Blair and Brown, only even more overtly so!

    Since this is the human condition we’re talking about here then the first whiff of power (political or otherwise) is where, I believe, we should address more of the debate, or at the very least acknowledge where it probably starts.

    As the sole independent now I look around at my 53 other colleagues and see more clearly how party machinery works in such a way as to make those who are tempted to grasp power that much more difficult to resist.

    • Thank you. It’s so much more helpful to hear from people who are having to deal with this in their roles and jobs than from people like me who are observing from the outside. Praying that you will stay strong in your position and be a good witness for truth and justice against opposition.

  3. Reblogged this on matt's musings and commented:
    Great Blog. We need to reclaim more of the humanity, heart and soul of/in politics
    “Ambition makes you Look pretty Ugly” Radiohead, Paranoid Android

  4. How the likes of McBride get to where they are and behave as they are come down to a no of factors

    A desire to win and feeling that the opposition have all the running. That in some cases the opposition are smearing and that they need to fight back

    Lack of faith in justice

    Lack of faith in voters (especially when many voters will vote out of selfish desire and prejudice than out of informed opinion and wanting what is best for the country)

    And most of all, a sense of angry cynicism

    We are all, sadly, capable of being McBride’s, but equally we are capable of being like Wilberforce and we must aim for that and for politics more like The West Wing than The Thick of It, or House of Cards

    • Thanks Paul. We all have the potential to do good and evil. Some are seduced by the dark side and some actively pursue it. Shining a light on these things is probably the best way to counter them. I really don’t believe politics has to accept this way of working and thinking.

  5. I’m not convinced that having more Christians in Parliament “would increase the number of MPs who come with a strong moral grounding”. It doesn’t seem to work in the American equivalent, where some of the apparently most cynical power hungry politicians run on an openly Christian platform, for example Senator Ted Cruz, a Southern Baptist and the son of a pastor.

    • Yes Peter, you are right (as usual!) I instinctively have more faith in Christians in this country than I do with those in the US, which may or may not be foolish. Both Blair and Brown are Christians (in some shape or form) and their politics left a lot to be desired. Being a Christian doesn’t guarantee anything when it comes to moral behaviour, but what I’ve seen of many Christians involved in politics in the UK at different levels, I have some hope.

    • Surely the best way to discern the beliefs of a politician, or anyone else, is to look at the fruit that is evident in their lives and work. This tells us a lot more than the labels they choose to give themselves.

      The clearer the examples of Christ-like attitudes are (in politics and in the public realm), the more people will be able to make a distinction for themselves between those who call themselves Christians and those who live the lives that Christ calls us all to live.

%d bloggers like this: