"We say we want the truth, we say we want them to be honest; but we don’t really – we want them to make us feel good about ourselves..."‘The trouble with the public is they’re f*cking horrible’. That’s what Peter Mannion, the made-up – and rather sympathetic – Conservative in The Thick of It said after being confronted by the people’s ill-considered – some might even say bigoted - opinions about his own good self.
Of course a real politician would never express such a view. Not in public anyway. Not while they’re still seeking office. Yet, the only real shock about Gordon Brown’s ‘bigot’ comment is not that he said what he said but that so many claim to be shocked that he – or indeed any politician – said it.
Consider for a moment the situation. A hugely motivated individual whose every waking hour over the last months has been devoted to sucking up to people whose ill-formed views will decide his fate finally comes face-to-face with the beast. Actually she isn’t being especially unreasonable, but he cannot say he disagrees with some of her views for it’s her vote he needs. Instead he must smile, nod like an idiot and quietly die inside. No wonder he explodes in private. You don’t have to be psychologically flawed to do that, just a normal human being.
It has always been so.
Anthony Trollope used his own miserable time as a Liberal candidate in the 1868 general election to inform his depiction of campaigning in The Duke’s Children (1880). There the author says of canvassing that: ‘[p]erhaps nothing more disagreeable, more squalid, more revolting to the senses, more opposed to personal dignity, can be conceived’. For it casts, he stated, poor men and women as the ‘flattered’ instead of the ‘flatterers’, leading the ostensibly solicitous candidate to privately hate those whose rudeness he had to publicly indulge.
Of course Trollope wrote as a snobbish member of the upper-class – elections turned the world upside down he moaned - and he was, frankly, a terrible candidate.
Eighty-five years later however Dennis Potter’s 1965 BBC television play Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton mirrored the humiliation and physical discomfort sketched out by Trollope. Potter – a socialist and working class boy made good who contested a constituency in the 1959 general election - depicted the travails of a young intellectual Labour candidate. Barton’s cynical agent sniggers: ‘canvassing can make you throw up if you’re the sensitive type’. This Barton proceeds to do, in some poor soul’s front garden after meeting voters who are completely dismissive about politics; support his party, but for all the wrong reasons; or set a large dog on him.
When politician meets public anything can happen – which is probably why until this week Brown only met loyal party members. But if Brown’s episode says a lot about him it also says much about us, the voters, and what we expect from politicians.
We say we want the truth, we say we want them to be honest; but we don’t really – we want them to make us feel good about ourselves, and by the way we can be as casually insulting about them as we like. But if a politician lets the mask slip, then God help them. Potter’s play ends brilliantly – and disturbingly – when his agent turns to camera and addresses the television audience: why are our politicians so flawed he asks – it is, he says your fault.
Professor Steven Fielding