There’s an interesting interview in my paper this morning when Joe Shute quizzed two well known people from the past who know a great deal about power and corruption. One was Lord Dobbs who, as Michael Dobbs, . . . was the Tory’s chief of staff between 1986 and 1987 and the Tory party chairman between 1994 and 1995 when Margeret Thatcher was Prime Minister. He then went on to write the original House of Cards, the popular television exposee of everyhthing that’s dark and nasty about politics.
The other was Denis McShane, a former Labour minister who fiddled his expenses to the tune of �13,000, and was found out in the notorious MPs’ expenses scandal exposed by the Daily Telegraph (and an anonymous whistleblower) in 2009 which several other newspapers didn’t have the courage to reveal (editors fearing to go to prison, one presumes). Quite why Dobbs and McShane were having an enjoyable lunch together — individuals of quite opposite temperaments and leanings, one would have thought — when Joe Shute joined them for the interview, is one of those intriguing observations one notices from time to time about people who’ve been in environments where powerful people have their being.
(On one occasion when negotiating with a government minister — for some desirable legislation about toxic pollution — we sat facing each other in his office across a beautiful Chippendale table of, probably, astronomical value [well . . . let’s say �100,000 or thereabouts!]. After staring at me fixedly for some long time to see whether he could stare me out [which he did] he then proceeded to consolidate his relative power further by putting his feet on the table — none too gently — in front of me. I didn’t dare do that so he doubly won the power contest. [Though I have to state also that my environmental colleague, Noel Newsome, who was with me on that occasion, and I, actually won over the slightly longer term, because the legislation we wanted was actually passed some six months later.] )
Apparently Michael Dobbs had a row with Margaret Thatcher when he was her chief of staff and a week prior to the 1987 election. “We had this row and I knew it was going to change my entire life in politics. Everybody had one row with Maggie. It has been a long time coming. Politics is a rough, tough business . . .” The crux of the row (about advertising) was really about teh inabiloity of once-great leaders to relinquish power. “She was a Prime Minister who had govne beyond her sell-by date. It had taken many more years than most, but when it comes to it, every Prime Minister you can think of (Stanley Baldwin and Harold Macmillan aside) has had to be thrown out. They never knew when to go.”
(Strangely enough, David Cameron is one of those exceptions. He’s already said in public — unprompted, too — that he wants to retire during his present, second term. But then, he has never had the real power. That has been, and still is, exercised by George Osborne, the Chancellor. But he, from the sound of it, is not going to give up power, even if he has to become Prime Minister himself next time to make sure that someone else else whom he may not be manipulable, doesn’t have the job.)
Michael Dobbs went on to say that there are two rules in politics. The first is that when you grab power you make sure you never let it go. The second is never to be afraid of lying and being a hypocrite. Denis McShane agreed with him and then said that, beside money, sex is a “huge driving force” for a politicians. “It cannot be overstated. All these men in particular, away from their normal environment,the drinks, surrounded by . . . ” Here he tailed off, then resumed: “It’s the most troubling, difficult thing in politics, the male and female relationships, the male and male relationships.” He added: “Some of the worst fornicators and worst expenses fiddlers have been some of our best political leaders.”
Dobbs came in subsequently now with the observation that what unites people at the top is to never, on any account, be nice. Do you have to lie and screw other people? The answer to that is actually, yes. Politics is not about honesty and openness and truth, it’s about getting things done.” The most distinguishing characteristic of them all is the desire for greatness. “There is, inside great people, a worm turning inside, that comes often through pain or something else.
So those are the quotes from the lunchtime chat. Who am I to gainsay them? But a couple of palliatives might be in order. The first is that the internet is, indeed, becoming very powerful. We are getting to know politicians in a way that we’ve never been able to do before. The become almost next-door neighbours. We may not know everything about them but we get to know a great deal about them than we have never been able to do in the past. This ought to have a moderating influence on politicians in future years and decades.
The other, as I’ve mentioned before, is that our MPs ought to live and work in their constituencies in order to concentrate their minds on the job for which they were elected — their electorate’s concerns. And, as a by-product, by keeping them at home for most of the time, it would also help to reduce the temperature of the House of Commons, “the hottest sex-pot in the country” as someone (whose name I’ve forgotten) once observed.