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Is modern politics a vocation or an entertainment?

Enoch Powell, the British politician, classical philologist, linguist and poet, once said that all political careers end in fiasco. His aphorism needs a little modification in the context of our times: all political careers end in failure, followed by extraordinary acts of shamelessness, Bloomberg reports.

Britain’s contemporary political stage is crowded with former politicians telling us what is wrong with the country, but what they themselves failed to fix for some reason when they were in power.

Liz Truss had been Prime Minister for just 49 days and in that time nearly destroyed the UK economy. She is now working on a book, Ten Years to Save the West, which is scheduled for release next April. Margaret Thatcher After 10 revolutionary years in power was reluctant to speak internationally. However, just recently, the shortest-lived politician in British history received about £90,000 ($112,230) for a five-day trip to Taiwan, during which she gave a speech on the importance of standing up to Chinese aggression.

Truss differs from other politicians only in the degree of his shamelessness. For an example, let’s look at other former prime ministers in the UK. Theresa May, when she succeeded David Cameron as Prime Minister in 2016, played into the hands of hard Brexit supporters by declaring that “Brexit will be Brexit” and rejecting “citizens of nowhere”. She has now published a book, The Abuse of Power, in which she has developed an image as a fierce campaigner for social justice. Boris Johnson had to resign because his fellow politicians were no longer willing to lie on his behalf and his government collapsed. He now writes a news column in the Daily Mail, where he talks about the mismanagement of the country and calls on delinquent colleagues to resign.

Some other politicians are also crossing the boundaries of shamelessness. Matt Hancock, British politician, Treasurer General and Cabinet Minister in Cameron’s second government, was ridiculed on the political stage when he was caught breaking the rules of locking up with a female politician. He then had an attempt to rehabilitate himself, taking part in “I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here”, which specialises in humiliating its guests, according to Bloomberg.

Former MP Nadine Dorries has not been seen in her constituency for months. The media reports that she spends her time either swearing at the establishment or complaining about not being given a peerage.  Iain Duncan Smith was the second worst Conservative leader after Truss, although he never made it to Downing Street, which hasn’t stopped him from donning the mantle of “senior Tory” and criticising his government whenever it “goes soft” (i.e. compromises with reality).

The cause of this epidemic of shamelessness is the end of “politics as a vocation”. When Max Weber wrote his great work of that title in 1919, there were two main kinds of people in politics: those who wanted to change the world – the socialists – and members of the traditional ruling class (liberals or Tories) who went into politics out of a sense of public duty. Money ruled neither: the traditionalists had private funds and the socialists were idealists (British MPs did not receive a penny until 1911.) Most serious political speeches took place in private and newspapers published parliamentary speeches verbatim.

Today, politics is no longer a vocation, but a strange mixture between a profession and entertainment. It is a profession because the income of most officials is influenced by their position and they become richer the higher they climb the political ladder. (Rishi Sunak is unusual among modern politicians in being independently wealthy). And it is an entertainment sector, because politicians have to be in the public eye to be successful, Bloomberg reports.

Politicians are preselected for shamelessness. At the very least, they must be ready to live in glass houses. Nowadays, politics is as much an art of showing off as it is an art of self-importance, so most officials go out of their way to attract publicity. For example, some turn their name into a brand – Johnson has deliberately turned himself into something between Bertie Wooster and Just William, and Jacob Rees-Mogg has become a parody of an Edwardian toff with strangled vowels and double-breasted suits.

Increasingly, television and social media are used not just for political programmes, but also for entertainment, (House leader Penny Mordaunt performed a spectacular belly flop at a dive show a few years ago) and on internet platforms, (Truss is more famous for her Instagram addiction than her robotic persona). «Being out there is what matters,” as May puts it in her book.

Politicians often end their political careers with only the desire to make money. However, they manage to earn considerably less than their counterparts in other professions. They also see the vast fortunes amassed by the most successful of their breed, such as Tony Blair and Barack Obama, and wonder, “Why not me? What’s wrong with me?”

However, just the “failure” on Enoch Powell is giving them a long-awaited opportunity to cash in. Some companies pay politicians £100,000 or more per speech. At such speeches, politicians explain their mistakes, settle scores with past colleagues, recall past achievements and experience the delight of the attention of a huge audience to their person.

However, how do you get to be in the right place at the right time to attend a speech? Politicians are now retiring much earlier than they used to: David Cameron (now 56) and George Osborne (now 52) had barely reached middle age when they left the House of Commons. You write a book so that there is something to publicise. You make the news by revealing the secrets of your former administration. You keep your name in the press by writing a regular columnist. If shameless self-promotion is the way into politics, shameless self-praise is the way out, according to Bloomberg.

Another important component of the composition of shamelessness is partisanship. The more partisan a politician becomes, the more incentive he or she has to blame his or her opponents for all his or her mistakes – to “externalise the blame”, in the language of psychologists – and at the same time play on the worst instincts of his or her supporters.

Truss is making her mismanagement of the British economy even worse because she has a group of supporters who blame everyone but herself for the disaster of those 49 days. The Daily Telegraph publishes frequent columns explaining that the near collapse of the economy under Truss is the fault of the “establishment”, i.e. civil servants, pro-conservationists and all sorts of “squishies”, rather than the bond traders who actually drove it to collapse. In the US, she has her own “amen”: the Heritage Foundation invites her to give speeches, Regnery Publishing publishes her book on saving the West, and Sun Belt billionaires dream of reliving their youth by watching a Thatcher tribute performance.

It’s easy to sigh in despair. However, what else would you expect from a world where I’m A Celebrity attracts audiences of millions, Love Island has a new episode with middle-aged contestants, and grown men go to work in shorts? Victorian England had decent politicians because it was a decent era. We get shameless politicians for the same reason.


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