Labour MP Frank Field arrives in Downing Street on October 13, 2010. Picture Credit: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Why we all feel let down

Reflecting upon the corrosive power of disillusionment in politics and why our leaders are virtue vacuums who lack both competence and character

This article is taken from the July 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The German word for “disappointment” is Enttäuschung, which strictly translates as “disillusionment”. It is the word chosen by Thomas Mann as the title of one of his earliest short stories: an encounter with a stranger in the Piazza San Marco. The nameless stranger (“For some reason I mistook him for an Englishman”) is a kind of forerunner of Gustav von Aschenbach, the world-weary protagonist of Mann’s Death in Venice. 

In Disillusionment the stranger tells his life story as an unbroken catalogue of disappointments. Contemplating the sea, he asks: “Why a horizon, when I wanted the infinite from life?” He concludes: “And so I dream and wait for death. Ah, how well I know it already, death, that last disappointment. At my last moment I shall be saying to myself: ‘So this is the great experience — well, and what of it? What is it after all?’”

Underlying this story is the oriental concept of the veil of maya, illusion, which is gradually lifted to reveal the meaninglessness of existence. This idea, common to both Hindus and Buddhists, was introduced to Western philosophy by Arthur Schopenhauer, whose pessimism exerted a profound influence on the young Mann. Indeed, the disillusioned stranger in Venice may indeed be a stylised portrait of Schopenhauer himself.

Political disappointment generally falls into this category of disillusionment. That is because politics is always a calculus of expectations, suspended between hope and despair, in which the politicians try to persuade the public that this time, this time, their promises will prove to be no chimera. By the time voters have had time to be disillusioned, the world has moved on.

Seldom have the governed been as disappointed by their governors as the British in the early 2020s. The heady hopes, the barnstorming bullishness, the valedictory vindication of that bleak midwinter in 2019, when Boris Johnson led the Conservative Party to triumph over a shrivelled, malevolent Labour Party, have long since dissipated. We have been confronted with the hideous reality of power. Now, with Labour seemingly purged and eagerly anticipating a landslide, the veil of illusion is about to descend again. 

Disillusionment dogs the footsteps of every political career. Even Churchill knew it many times and must have struggled to avoid bitterness after his unceremonious ejection from office in July 1945, even before victory over Japan had been secured. 

It was the same for Margaret Thatcher — though in her case at least there was sympathy from across the party divide. On that fateful night in 1990 before she resigned, Frank Field (then the Labour MP for Birkenhead, above) came to No 10 and was eventually allowed in by Norman Tebbit. Here is his account: 

“‘Why have you come?’ she asked. ‘I believe you are finished, Prime Minister.’ ‘It is so unfair.’ ‘I have not come to discuss fairness, Prime Minister. You cannot now go out on a top note, but you can go out on a high note. You must resign before you face the Commons again. Otherwise those Tory creeps will tear you apart in public.’ ‘But it is so unfair. I have never lost them an election.'”

Frank Field as director of the Child Poverty Action Group in his office, 1973

Eventually she agreed that she too thought she had no choice but to resign — but others were not saying it to her face. “Why have you come, Frank?” she asked again. “Whenever I have asked you for help for Birkenhead you’ve tried to help. And I feel I owe it to you.”

At Frank Field’s funeral at Holy Trinity, Sloane Square, earlier this summer, I thought about the meaning of political success and failure. By the usual criteria, Frank’s long life at Westminster had been a disappointment: he was never in Cabinet and his ministerial career lasted less than a year before the then Chancellor, Gordon Brown, forced him out of his ill-defined role “thinking the unthinkable” on welfare reform. 

As a result of Frank’s defenestration, the Labour governments from 1997 to 2010 never even attempted the task of restoring the original Beveridge vision of a self-funding welfare state based on insurance rather then taxation — a task the Tories, too, have funked. Like Moses wandering in the wilderness, Frank spent 40 years in the Commons as a backbencher, then four more years in the Lords as a crossbencher. 

He ended by being excommunicated from his beloved Labour tribe and was ennobled by his opponent Boris Johnson. Neither Rishi Sunak nor Sir Keir Starmer attended his obsequies. It was the day the election was announced. Someone said: “They’ve got the podium out in Downing Street!” As word spread through the bar of the Royal Court Theatre, where the wake was held, the politicos fled.

There is a hackneyed Enoch Powell adage that “all political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure”. Looked at from the perspective of achievement rather than ambition, Frank’s career was a shining exception. He piloted no fewer than 14 major reforms through Parliament. He probably changed the welfare system more than anyone since Beveridge. 

One example: before entering Parliament in 1979, Frank ran a “pressure group”, the Child Poverty Action Group; my mother was his deputy. As a young man I helped them campaign for the novel idea of “child benefit”, replacing family allowances. Crucially, the new benefits would be universal, would include the eldest child and would be paid to the mother, so that the cash would not be spent in the pub or betting shop. 

There was resistance to this principle from the trade unions: in the 1970s their leaders were both all-powerful and all-male. But in 1977 we won them over. Child benefit has been a cornerstone of the welfare state ever since.

Disappointment is, however, intrinsic to the political life. As an eight-year-old child, I was allowed to go canvassing with Frank during the 1966 election campaign. He was the youngest candidate in the country, but South Bucks was also the safest Tory seat. At one door, we were greeted by a couple who seemed ancient to me but were probably only the age I am now. 

Frank made his pitch and then turned to me to offer them a leaflet. “Oh no, thank you,” the husband replied. “We won’t be needing that.” Puzzled, I hesitated. “We don’t read,” he explained patiently. It dawned on me that these grown-ups were illiterate. I could read what I liked, but they were excluded by their lack of education. As we left, Frank noticed that I was stunned by this revelation. “That’s why I am in politics,” he said.

Frank Field was a saint. I don’t say this lightly: he was an exceptional example of self-sacrifice. The conclusion I draw from his example is that for politics to be a worthwhile pursuit, it must be driven by what Catholics call the three theological virtues: faith, hope and charity. 

Politics for Frank was faith in action. The Greek word that is translated as “faith” in the New Testament is pistis, which is not so much a synonym for religion as a word for trust and reliability. One reason why the Conservatives have run such a lamentable campaign this summer is that they have been exposed as untrustworthy, unreliable and often guilty of making promises in bad faith. 

As for hope: unlike the English word, elpis, the word in Greek that it translates, implies a strong expectation that it will happen. The old cliché “a triumph of hope over expectation” would not have made sense to an early Christian, for whom hope was more like certainty than doubt. Those who know the true meaning of the Cross do not cross their fingers. In politics, it is vital to radiate hope of this firm, steadfast kind — all the more so when the odds are against you. Think of De Gaulle’s appeal to the French in the darkest days of their defeat and occupation.

Charity, from caritas in Latin, is no longer the word commonly used to translate agape. We prefer to say that “God is love”, but this kind of love is all about self-sacrifice. When Paul says that this is the greatest of all virtues, he implies nothing less than the imitation of Christ. Love in this sense is the readiness to give up everything, including life itself, for the beloved. It is rare indeed for a politician to demonstrate that kind of devotion to the people to whom and for whom he or she is responsible. Yet if a leader is to demand sacrifices from the public, nothing less than total self-sacrifice will do.

As with pistis, faith, and elpis, hope, so too with agape, charity, there is a powerful connotation, a common denominator, of trust. Trust in turn implies credibility. Trusting a person who aspires to leadership to tell the truth is the minimum prerequisite to gain a hearing. Hence trust is often described as the most valuable commodity in politics. 

Once it is squandered, public support may quickly drain away. The Ipsos Veracity Index, which has been measuring trust since 1983, plumbed new depths last year: just nine per cent of the British electorate trust politicians to tell the truth. In London, the figure is three per cent. We have more or less given up on our ruling class.

Of course, actions speak louder than words. The Tory government of 2019 will leave a legacy of legislation — most obviously, it did what it was elected to do, by getting Brexit done. It has often been on the right side, most notably on the wars in Ukraine, in Israel/Gaza and some, at least, of the “culture wars”. 

The Conservative values are important — but they are not enough. Politics requires virtues as well as values. In the absence of these guiding virtues among most of those who presume to be our masters, even real achievements may not suffice to gain our trust, let alone re-election. 

Instead, the public — especially those who voted for them five years ago in such extraordinary numbers — has been left with an overwhelming sense of disappointment, not only in the competence but also in the character of our leaders. 

There are other reasons for this besides the vacuum of virtue. Inflation is always perceived by the majority as a moral betrayal by government, because it rewards vice at the expense of virtue, leaving the weak at the mercy of the strong. Even more intolerably, inflation inclines those responsible (politicians and central bankers) to preach self-sacrifice to the rest of us.

The dawning realisation that Brexit had not resulted in a reduction in unsustainable immigration, but an accelerating inundation, legal as well as illegal, was a bitter disillusionment for those who wanted reassurance that the authorities had indeed taken back control of our borders. 

At a recent conference, an articulate member of the international humanitarian bureaucracy explained how the glories of the old Ottoman Levant had been destroyed by religious and ethnic conflict over the past century, but had now been transplanted into Western Europe. “The Levant hasn’t disappeared — it has simply moved to Paris and London.” 

He had a point — most present were “anywheres”, in David Goodhart’s dichotomy, and we agreed how much we had benefited from this rich cultural diversity — but this had never been articulated as a policy, nor had the “somewheres” been asked whether they wanted the Levant to relocate to London. 

Now, it seems, we find that we have imported the hatreds, and perhaps soon the wars that destroyed that ancient culture, to our streets. Just as the creation of a tiny Jewish state immediately resulted in Jews being driven out of their quarters in the old cities of the Levant, so the same process is happening in London and other British cities — while officials are in denial. This record of insouciance and arrogance has not endeared the governors to the governed.

Disappointment over so many years has enraged the disappointed to the point at which they stopped listening. A manifesto that a few weeks ago might have gained an audience fell flat. Such contempt seems to have taken the Tories by surprise: they in turn were disappointed by what they saw as disloyalty. Yet how could they expect the public to pay attention to promises that had come too late in the day to be credible?

Disappointment, then, may be a corrosive force in politics. History is an unforgiving judge. My memory of public life only goes back some 60 years. The tides of time may have receded, but the political judgements of my youth remain in place, islands of certitude in an ocean of oblivion. 

I remember the hushed tones in which a disillusioned nation spoke of Anthony Eden, by then a political ghost, for having lied to Parliament about the Suez crisis. I remember how disappointed our Labour friends were with Harold Wilson, who had been lauded as the best qualified prime minister ever. 

Disappointments: Eden, Wilson and Heath

I recall the despair engendered among Conservatives by Edward Heath, who sacrificed everything on the altar of Europe and left the country in chaos. Who could forget the ever deepening malaise of the late 1970s? And yet with a few exceptions — viz. the rise of feminism and the decline of racism — it was eminently forgettable.

That interlude was followed by the supreme political experiment: the Thatcher government. With hindsight, the 1980s emerges as the most exciting and dynamic era of my lifetime, but at the time we did not know how it would end. And that end, when it came, was yet another disappointment: the revelation of ingratitude and perfidy by a Conservative Party establishment that had never quite overcome its distaste for a woman who had transformed the country beyond recognition. 

Not only was this shining example of virtue in politics defenestrated by her colleagues, but the spite of her defeated enemies has posthumously confined her to her own solitary circle of the intersectional inferno. Disappointment does not begin to describe my feelings about the treatment meted out to Margaret Thatcher by progressive posterity. Abroad it is a very different story. I have lectured on the lessons of her life in Washington and Jerusalem. What would other nations give to be able to boast of such a paragon? 

The only virtues in present-day politics are … virtual. Virtue itself is hidden. In a valedictory lecture to the Collège de France in 1978, Raymond Aron, that underrated sage of the Cold War, wrote: 

Today liberty is defined in our societies by repressing the reality principle and by the liberation of the pleasure principle, the liberation of eros. Whence, it seems to me, derives what one calls the moral crisis of liberal democracies. Indeed, every regime must define itself first by a notion of legitimacy, and then by an ideal. With respect to legitimacy, I think that our democracies have more or less succeeded … But what one no longer knows today in our democracies is where virtue is to be found. 

Given his hopeless electoral predicament, I wish that Rishi Sunak had long ago defied his tormentors and taken his stand on the defence of democratic virtue, just as Margaret Thatcher did in the Cold War. As Britain’s first Hindu prime minister, he might have shown his scorn for Nigel Farage, who denied his patriotism while making excuses for Vladimir Putin, the most dangerous enemy the free world has known for a generation. 

Sunak could have contrasted his own steadfast support for Ukraine and Israel with the wavering of his opponents on the left — in particular their excusing of the hideous anti-Semitism now disfiguring our streets. He could have excoriated those of all parties who have kept silent on Hong Kong, which a former judge there, Jonathan Sumption, now says “is slowly becoming a totalitarian state”. His Foreign Secretary, Lord Cameron, might have squirmed a bit. But Rishi Sunak has nothing to lose. 

If he is a man of virtue, as I believe he is, he might as well leave office with his head held high. That the Prime Minister has chosen discretion as the better part of valour will, perhaps, disappoint some — but few will be disillusioned.

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