Photo by Leon Neal

Why are British politicians such utter bores?

Mediocre people for mediocre times

Artillery Row

One of Boris Johnson’s final, whimpering acts of power in his premiership was to appoint a new cabinet. Fatally wounded by a team of ministers made up of those with little charm, intelligence or experience, who was actually left for Boris to replace them with?

A veritable who’s-that of the worst unknowns that can be found down the side of parliamentary benches, was swiftly conscripted in. I tell a lie — Johnny Mercer MP achieved mild public recognition for defending elderly soldiers accused of war crimes and getting very angry at certain risqué insinuations made in the comments section of the Plymouth Herald.

None of these figures are budding Disraelis, but at least Johnson’s most loyal cabinet minister holds a certain charm. Limply rapping on tiktok, immediately voted out in the first round of a kangaroo anus-eating reality show, writing some of the worst sex scenes known to man — the platonic form of Nadine Dorries exists as a sort of semi-endearing (and easily ignorable) Loose Women panellist. But why on earth is she in the cabinet?

Perhaps the 20th century spoiled the voting public

There is nothing unusual about this class of minister, however. They are representative figures: dim, without verbal sparkle, frequently light on narrow policy insights and wider understandings of social and economic history. The median British politician has been like this for decades now. Tony Blair would bemoan the shoddy material he had to work with at every reshuffle, and David Cameron likewise found himself struggling for a front bench neither too hateful nor too stupid. The difference in political acumen and sophistication from the most forgotten of ministerial interviews from fifty years ago reveal a steep decline in both the eloquence and elegance of our politicians. 

Perhaps the 20th century spoiled the voting public. Pick any decade and you will discover frontline politicians with vast hinterlands. Harold Macmillan recited Aeschylus — in the original Greek — whilst lying shot in the trenches. Enoch Powell rose from private to brigadier during the Second World War, after becoming the youngest professor in the empire. When Winston Churchill was attempting to stay solvent in the face of decades worth of excess, he maintained financial buoyancy by being the highest-paid journalist in the world. Publishers adored him. He could be trusted to write a million-word definitive biography of his relative, the first Duke of Marlborough. Roy Jenkins would in turn distinguish himself as a biographer of Churchill — as well as Gladstone, and the Chancellors of the Exchequer at large. Second-hand embarrassment is the only proper response when comparing such authorial endeavours to Boris Johnson’s biography of Churchill.

It’s not a matter of our politicians not being able to write anymore. Compared to the recent past they can barely speak. Political debates have succumbed to an entropic, deadening mediocrity. Recent discourse between a patronising, bland Sunak and a po-faced, blank Truss was not a nadir: it was standard fare.

Look upon this 1970 debate between Jenkins and Powell. Both men hold articulate and intelligent positions, arguing intricately and considerately, with a commitment to truth rather than point-scoring. They agree where relevant and have an ability to articulate clearly and fluently. Half a century on, political debate of such quality seems unrealisable. When watching vintage ministerial debates, the viewer is struck by the level of knowledge and attention that the speakers assumed their audience would possess, whether on the finer points of tackling inflation or whether IRA bombers deserved the death penalty.

The slightest glance at cabinets fifty years ago demonstrates a far higher set of standards and abilities than those found today. Harold Wilson — always keen to consolidate as much power as possible — nevertheless packed his cabinet with the best and brightest, even if he kept them in positions in which they wouldn’t be able to outshine him. Wilson himself was a subtle and clever debater, not above using cheap PR tricks (such as his much-perfected pipe smoking) but always as a tool to realise his political vision.

Mediocrity requires mediocrity in order to survive. When judged against excellence — or even simple competence — the insufficiencies of today’s politician become intolerable. It is this which leads the public to distrust politicians more than their policy choices.

People are naturally attracted to the good and fine, delighting in wit and daring and accomplishment. Clement Attlee may have been “a modest man with much to be modest about”, but he was also a capable political operator with a transformative vision of what he wanted his nation to look like. Like Wilson, he filled his cabinet with outstanding individuals who shared this vision and who were deeply engaged in the philosophical and historical debates of their time. In Labour’s heyday, party leaders could choose from intellectual heavyweights that included Denis Healey, Michael Foot and Tony Crosland. No party interested in doing the best it could for the country would allow Claudia Webbe to be selected as a candidate.

Look across the front benches of parliament and gaze upon a sea of individuals who seem to lack any enchantment with the world, goodness of spirit, or basic charity to the other. Television debates become feats of endurance. The politician’s mediocrity makes him churlish; the mediocre individual is half-aware of his shortcomings and thus bitter towards the opponent — to tip the balance to his favour he need not be better, but to only focus on hobbling the opponent. 

Britain has suffered through three mediocre prime ministers

Denis Healey once complimented a backbench opponent’s speech as having “all the moral passion of and rhetorical force of Demosthenes”. Such high praise to parliamentary opponents now only materialises when a tragedy occurs.

Instead, an increasingly one-dimensional audience is subjected to endless soundbites so deadening that even their owners can’t pretend to care. New Labour may not have been the first to introduce simple slogans and spin, but its fixation on them exacerbated political decline and the resulting alienation of the audience. The calibre of our politicians drops year by year. The calibre of their audience does, too. If we carry on at the same rate of decline, elections will be won by whoever can announce an NHS for dogs manifesto commitment first in the Love Island villa.

Such fine sentiments wouldn’t have saved Boris though. It takes a distinct lack of ability to turn an 80-odd seat majority into a failure within three years. It takes a fundamentally stupid man to attempt to emulate Churchill and manage to fumble his equivalent of a war, to risk every political manoeuvre for golden wallpaper, and to enter the highest office in the country with no real positive vision for the future, as if the office itself were the reward rather than the job.

And his replacements? As Russia prepared to invade Ukraine, our then foreign secretary couldn’t be trusted to quite remember the difference between the Baltic and Black seas — a gaffe so transparently stupid that it allowed the Kremlin to label British diplomacy “absolutely worthless”. Was Liz Truss ever going to dissuade Putin from his invasion? Probably not. But could we have selected a politician to serve as our top diplomat who wasn’t most famous for delivering a speech on cheese? Elsewhere the former Chancellor of the Exchequer failed to anticipate that having a non-dom wife might be vaguely unpopular, thus demonstrating the political nous of a squid.

The Conservative party has been in power for twelve years now, and Britain has suffered through three mediocre prime ministers, each perpetually reacting to events which have come to define their premiership. Thatcher, Blair and Wilson had the sufficient twin forces of personality and ability to mean that they could manage without stars in their cabinet (and frequently would have preferred to have had the option to have never appointed them). These prime ministers had unique and ambitious positive visions for the country, enacting policies with the explicit aim of realising those endpoints. With an absence of vision or strategy, better-quality ministers could have brought about a more improved, prosperous or safe country than the one we find ourselves in.

But which came first, the poor education system or the poor education secretary?

The Blair and Cameron years succeeded in bureaucratising the UK, suffocating enchantment and encouraging the state to be run like a mid-sized business. Decades of misguided or ideologically hostile educational policies resulted in a plethora of state schools unable to engage or excite children, used as day care centres by parents or run as mini-corporations by academy trusts. New Labour’s dire goal of having half of Britons go to university devalued degrees by flooding the market with needless graduates — encouraged to distinguish themselves with even further needless study.

The 20th century contained both triumph and decline for Britain. It was also an era of ideas. Its politicians were individuals of ideas. It is no coincidence that Britain’s prosperity is slowing as the individuals at its helm demonstrate no real political vision other than to punish the young and keep pensioners voting for them. In creating a nation run by and for middle management, we have both disenchanted the people and fostered a painfully average ruling class. Our schools are mediocre. Our prospects are mediocre. Our politicians are mediocre. They reflect the mediocrity that they have forced upon the rest of us. 

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