Why politics should be about personalities

Tony Benn’s lament that politics should be about issues, not personalities, is one echoed even by many who would struggle to find any issues on which they agree with him.

But it’s not a view I share. Why? Because the detailed policies of election manifestos or conference speeches frequently get swept aside in power by events. It’s not just the unexpected new event, it’s also the fallibility of forecasts which mean that decision making is often made from a very different perspective from that used to draw up pre-election policy promises.

Take the economy. It’s hard enough to know whether it is growing or shrinking in the first half of this year, let alone what its size and growth rate will be in the middle of the next Parliament. So while a party’s general election manifesto should have sums that add up and give a sense of economic policy, the details on page 12 of exactly what is planned to be done will almost certainly be swept away by reality being far less predictable than required for that level of policy detail to really mean much beyond the first few months in power.

Immediate post-election budget plans certainly do matter – and any party deserves criticism if they try to get through an election without say much on that score. But beyond that?

The details of what Alistair Darling, George Osborne or Vince Cable say they would do two years in to the next Parliament may sound good but it’s principles which will be the surer guide to what ends up happening. Their principles and personalities are what will generate new policy as events unfurl and predictions turn into inaccuracies.

That is nothing new. It’s related to a point, in fact, which Charles Kennedy often made. The issues on which he, William Hague and Tony Blair campaigned in 2001 turned out to have very little relation to the major issues that dominated politics in 2001-5. Tuition fees and Iraq most notably were major issues in the Parliament but almost completely absent from the preceding election.

Understanding Tony Blair’s personality – and the moralistic sense of duty fuelled by his religious beliefs, as evidenced over Kosovo – would have been a far surer guide to Labour’s subsequent foreign policy than the details which happened to be highlighted on page 39 of the 2001 Labour manifesto about Labour and the UN. (“We support a more modern and representative Security Council, with more effective peace-keeping” since you ask).

Tony Blair’s religious beliefs take us in to uncomfortable political territory. Few criticised him (or Alistair Campbell) for so determinedly keeping his religious views out of political discussion – and indeed many preferred it that way. But understanding how he saw intervention in Kosovo and Iraq as being a moral imperative, regardless of how others say their morality leads to very different views, matters far more than the incidental detail of one policy paper or another.

Recognising the importance of personalities and beliefs shouldn’t mean open season on anything a politician has done in the past – but understanding the person, their personality and the judgements it will produce, is a surer guide to whether or not you’ll get the policies you want over the full Parliamentary cycle than the putative decisions laid out in a policy paper as if the future will be predictable and unsurprising.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Antony Hook Antony Hook 9th Feb '10 - 3:06pm


    Forgive me for not being able to recall the source but I’m sure I saw or heard numbers recently to the effect that Nick Clegg’s public recognition and rating has been steadily rising since the Gurkhas issue and is now quite good compared to the other leaders and past Lib Dem leaders.

    I agree with you the grassroots Lib Dem attitudes to Nick Clegg is not unadulterated hero worship but the fact that it is not is arguably a healthy state of affairs?

  • You are right Mark. And so is Tom’s wife. And so is Tom (about ideology being important, not about his wife’s most attractive feature – not met her so couldnt comment on that).

    Policies are crafted for the moment. What matters is the direction you think the politician wants to move the world and how they will react to events – its about instincts.

    Benn believes this because he is still wedded to the policies that failed when he tried to introduce them in the 1960s. And like most socialists he is too conservative to notice that the world has moved on.

  • Edmund Burke’s speech to the electors of Bristol, which is a classic statement of the theory of representative democracy, points explicitly to electing people on the basis that they are sensible, intelligent and likely to make fair and balanced decisions; he argues quite forcefully against the idea of MPs as delegates, mindlessly pushing set policies, and points out that the whole virtue of having a chamber full of the people’s representatives is that you have 650 people whose job it is to become well-informed about issues so they can take the time to do what other members of the polis don’t have time to – come to a thoroughly well-informed decision on all the major policy issues of the day. It’s well worth reading:


  • Of course Burke lost his seat at the subsequent election.

  • Matthew Huntbach 10th Feb '10 - 10:22am

    Forgive me for not being able to recall the source but I’m sure I saw or heard numbers recently to the effect that Nick Clegg’s public recognition and rating has been steadily rising since the Gurkhas issue and is now quite good compared to the other leaders and past Lib Dem leaders.

    Doesn’t this indicate the problem? If the best that can be said for Clegg is that he did well on the Gurkhas issue, that’s damning. It just reinforces the idea that the Liberal Democrats are some insignificant party which occasionally brings up small but important issues that the other ones have forgotten. I want the leader of our party to be known and respected in this country for his or her understanding of the major problems we are in, and clear view of how we are to get out of them. The Gurkhas are not one of these major problem, are they?

    Look – what we are seeing now is all the shit that has been thrown since 1979 hitting the fan big time. The over-concentration on the elitist finance industry and the running down of other industries. The encouragement to take on over-large debts puffing up house prices to unsustainable levels with some sort of weird idea we can all get by selling houses to each other. Encouraging us to take private pensions and insurance sold to us by clueless salesmen whose only real knowledge is the commission they’ll get from the sale. Burning off the North Sea oil and gas to keep us going temporarily, while selling control of energy resources to overseas suppliers who see the UK as a place to make a quick buck rather than long-term strategic investment for the needs of the country. Spending billions on unusable weaponry to stop the Russians from marching in with snow on their boots, while leaving the back door open for them to march in, buy up our newspapers, make us dependent on them for gas supplies etc. Selling off council housing and not building more because “the market will provide” (yes – same houses, three times as much rent, paid to profiteer private landlords in housing benefit). Imposing rigid bureaucratic state control of school teaching under the supposition that schools competing in league tables ranked by box-ticking tests will “drive up quality”. Private Finance deals which are the rough equivalent of taking on a mortgage where you tie yourself down to using whatever gardeners, decorators, and other workmen the bank decides you should have for the duration of the mortgage. Contracting out cleaning and maintenance work in the NHS etc to the lowest bidder, which is roughly like sacking the gardener who knows and cares for your garden and bringing in the bloke who knocks on your door and tells you he’ll do it for a fiver. Creating a social and cultural atmosphere in which a dog-eat-dog attitude in which rising to the top by pushing down others is treated as the highest value, and then moaning about a “broken society”. Smashing up everything that used to bring us together and make us proud of our localities and our nation but doesn’t make a profit for a big businessman.

    Look, I’m just throwing out a few ideas here. Is it really so difficult when the choice otherwise is a return to the party that gave us all of this and has apologised for none of it, or the party which made such an inept job of opposing it that it gave in and won power by accepting it and doing it to more extremes, to make a name for oneself politically on some more central issues than the Gurkhas?

  • Matthew Huntbach 10th Feb '10 - 10:40am

    Geoffrey Payne

    I think however the relationship between Tony Blair’s faith and his policies are even more complex. After all, it was the same religious faith that led Martin Luther King to be a pacifist, and the Pope to oppose the war in Iraq.

    Indeed. So far as I recall, every senior Christian figure in this country spoke out against the Iraq war, as did every senior Christian figure in most other countries apart from a few in the US Southern Baptists and the like. Yet still we get this “huh huh, Tony Blair went to war in iraq because he’s a Christian, and it’s all about his god telling him to go and kill the Muslims”.

    Sure, you can see why the sort of Trots dressed up in Islamic togs who seem to have replaced the common or garden Trots in universities these days might be keen on that line. But why do we also hear it so often from so many people who really ought to know better?

    Why is it that Blair’s sense of what is morally right, however much he messed up because he was too thick to work out that toppling Saddam wouldn’t see democratic government rising up instantly in days, is considered something to huh-huh about, when essentially moralistic arguments are commonplace amongst us? Don’t we have a moral force telling us it’s bad that for the state to tell us what we should do in our private lives? Or that it’s bad for people in this country to go hungry or homeless of the like? Would any of us put so much time into politics if there wasn’t some moral force driving us? Or is it really what they say, we are all in it just for what we can get out of it?

  • I’m still laughing at the comments by John Selwyn-Gummer last night in the debate on electoral reform;

    “If God was a LibDem he would have given us the ten suggestions”


  • Malcolm Todd 11th Feb '10 - 10:16am

    “If God was a LibDem he would have given us the ten suggestions”

    Yes, and just think how much happier we’d all be now! Bugger Downing Street; it’s time to support Nick Clegg for Pope.

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