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The bizarre fetish for “grown-up” politics

Is it enough to not be a child?

Don’t worry everyone. According to Piers Morgan, the arrival of Rishi Sunak at 10 Downing Street is proof that “the grown-ups are back in charge.” Personally, I’m not sure a 57-year-old man who spends so much of his life shouting, whining and attention-seeking is the best judge of relative maturity. 

Still, Morgan is not alone. Across the media, journalists are saluting the “grown-up” qualities of Prime Minister Sunak. Dan Hodges has praised his “grown-up” reshuffle. Julia Hartley-Brewer has applauded his “grown-up politics”. Even arch-anti-Tory and angry bulldog impersonator James O’Brien has said “it does look as if a grown-up is back in the building”.

Is this what we have come to? The best thing that can be said about the most powerful politician in the country is that they don’t have the mental age of a child? What an achievement! Truly, Britain is back in business.

People don’t just mean that when they say “grown-up” of course. They mean that somebody is calm and sincere in their speech. They mean that someone makes decisions that might be unpopular. They mean that people rise above radical ideologies of the right and left. They mean Nigel Farage hates you but so does Jeremy Corbyn. 

The first thing to say is how ridiculous it is that people are making such confident judgements about Sunak on the basis of two days in work. The man has done nothing except talk and give out jobs. It reminds me of how Man United fans will celebrate a new manager on the basis of a press conference and a transfer or two before their inevitable descent down the league.

Still, let’s put that aside and think about the premise. The ultimate “grown-up” in politics was Tony Blair. Here was a grown-up. He didn’t have the spinelessness of Cameron, or the silliness of Boris, or the weirdness of Truss. Blair, like him or loathe him, was an earnest and composed speaker. He made tough choices in the face of public opinion. He stood up to the Labour Left when he revised Clause Four but also disdained the likes of UKIP. What a grown-up! 

Here’s the problem: he made terrible decisions. He got us involved in ruinous foreign wars. He inflated higher education into bloated shapelessness. He radically expanded immigration while promising to cut it. Sure, these were all tough, unfashionable choices, presented to the public with calm sincerity, but they were still bad decisions. Being “grown-up” is not the same as being right. Tough choices need not be wise ones, after all. The space between different “extreme” ideologies need not be moderate. Calm, sincere speech is fundamentally PR — and need not be in the service of anything sensible.

Commentators value this kind of vague personal quality because we tend not to know much about anything that matters. Morgan, O’Brien and I are no more economists than we are lawyers, and no more lawyers than we are geopolitics experts, and no more geopolitics experts than we are contenders for gold in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. But instead of trying to comprehend and interpret policy, people get hung up on what gives them the feels — anxious feels or reassuring feels.

I would go so far as to say that being “grown-up” in politics can be actively damaging. If you’re a middle manager working in an office in Birmingham, just being “grown-up” might take you far. Let’s face it: a lot of adults do behave childishly. Organising your little team — Kevin, with his laziness, Sandra, with her narcissism, and Rob and Julia with their extramarital affair — might be your most important task. But being a middle manager in an office in Birmingham, as fine a thing as it is to be, is not the same as being prime minister. 

Being “grown-up” might just mean keeping everybody calm as the ship sinks

Michael Oakeshott said that the job of politicians is to keep the ship of state afloat on an even keel. With all due respect to the great philosopher, and in full agreement with his point that there is no final destination for the ship to reach, this is vulnerable to the conclusion that what matters above all is a steady hand. A “grown-up” captain. But what if the ship has sprung a leak? What if you’re running out of food? What if there are other ships that mean to do you harm? Certainly, it is good to be composed and collegial. But you also need spirit, and devotedness, and ingenuity, and intelligence. Being “grown-up” might just mean keeping everybody calm as the ship sinks.

The British state is not drifting along in calm waters beneath sunny skies. The nation is beset by housing shortages, inflation and institutional failure. The world, of course, is facing the prospect of a local war escalating with global consequences. The call for “stability” is disingenuous on its face because the UK has been set on large-scale social, cultural and demographic change for decades, and so “stable” politics are “stable” in the sense that a speeding car can maintain a steady course. Yet it is also silly because Britain doesn’t just need sober management. It needs change. It needs reform. That takes more than being “grown-up”. It takes imagination and intrepidity.

It would be remiss of me not to dwell for a moment longer on the irony of Britain’s commentariat being the judge of who and what is “grown-up”. It is British journalists and commentators who flip their lids at unexceptional policies, who catastrophise events without reflection, who obsess over trivial occurrences and who, as we are seeing, trust people less on the basis of their plans and record than their reassuring adult manner. Perhaps more grown-ups politicians, in the best sense of the term, demands a more grown-up media. But the media feeds off attention — and what better way to get attention than with childishness.

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