Analysis | We Live in an Age of Political Shamelessness – The Washington Post

Enoch Powell famously pronounced that all political careers end in failure. These days we need to modify his aphorism: All political careers end in failure — followed by extraordinary acts of shamelessness. Britain is currently chock-a-block with failed ex-politicians telling us how to fix everything that is wrong with the country that they mysteriously failed to fix when they were in power.

Liz Truss almost wrecked the British economy in her 49 days as prime minister, and is now working on a book, Ten Years to Save the West, to be published in April next year. Margaret Thatcher was initially reluctant to join the international speaker circuit following her 10 revolutionary years in power. But the shortest-serving politician in British history recently pocketed some £90,000 ($112,230) for a five-day trip to Taiwan during which she delivered a speech about the importance of standing up to Chinese aggression.

Truss differs from other politicians only in the degree of her shamelessness. Take Britain’s abundance of ex-prime ministers. Theresa May played to the hard Brexit crowd when she succeeded David Cameron as prime minister in 2016, committing to “Brexit being Brexit” and dismissing “citizens of nowhere.” Now she is hawking her new book, The Abuse of Power, in which she presents herself as a social justice warrior. Boris Johnson was forced to resign because his fellow politicians were no longer willing to lie on his behalf and his government collapsed in a shambles. Now he writes a highly paid column for the Daily Mail in which he pronounces on misgovernment and calls on erring colleagues to resign. 

Some of the bit players are also pushing the boundaries of shamelessness. Matt Hancock was laughed off the political stage when he was caught breaking lockdown rules with a female political aide. He then tried to rehabilitate himself by appearing on a vulgar television show, I’m A Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here, which specializes in humiliating its guests. Nadine Dorries, a soon-to-be ex-MP who hasn’t been seen in her constituency for months, spends her time either fulminating against the establishment or complaining that she hasn’t been given a peerage. Iain Duncan Smith was the Conservative Party’s second-worst leader after Truss, though he never made it to Downing Street, but that hasn’t prevented him from donning the mantle of “senior Tory” and criticizing his government whenever it “goes soft” (aka compromises with reality).

The root cause of this epidemic of shamelessness is the end of “politics as a vocation.” When Max Weber wrote his great essay of that title in 1919, politics was dominated by two sorts of people: members of the traditional ruling class (whether liberal or Tory), who went into politics out of a sense of public duty, and socialists who wanted to change the world. Neither group cared much about money — the traditionalists because they had private means and the socialists because they were idealists. (British MPs weren’t paid a penny until 1911.) Most serious politics took place in private, and the newspapers published parliamentary speeches verbatim.

Today, politics is an odd mixture between a profession and a branch of entertainment. It’s a profession in the sense that most of these officials depend on their positions for income and get richer the further they climb up the political ladder. (Rishi Sunak is unusual among modern politicians in being independently wealthy.) It’s a branch of entertainment in that they need to keep themselves before the public eye if they are to have any chance of succeeding.  

Politicians are preselected for shamelessness. At the very least, they have to be willing to live in glass houses. But most today go out of their way to court publicity — indeed, politics is as much the art of self-promotion as it is the art of governing. Some of the most successful go so far as to turn themselves into brands — Johnson deliberately transformed into a cross between Bertie Wooster and Just William, while Jacob Rees-Mogg became a parody of an Edwardian toff with strangulated vowels and double-breasted suits.

A growing number exploit television and social media — not just appearing on political talk shows but also on entertainment programs (the leader of the House, Penny Mordaunt, performed a spectacular belly flop on a diving show years ago) and on internet platforms (Truss was more famous for her addiction to Instagram than she was for her robotic personality). “Being out there is what matters,” as May puts it in her book.

Most politicians also end their political careers with a burning desire to make money. They spend their lives earning significantly less than their peers at the top of other professions. They also see the vast fortunes piled up by the most successful members of their breed, such as Tony Blair and Barack Obama, and wonder “Why not me?”

What Enoch Powell called “failure” gives them a chance to jump on the money merry-go-round. There are companies that will pay politicians £100,000 or more for a speech. The bonus is that these speeches then offer a chance to explain away one’s mistakes, settle scores with past colleagues, reminisce about accomplishments, and relive the thrill of holding an audience in the palm of one’s hand.

But how do you grab those lucrative speaking spots when there are so many people competing for them? Politicians retire much earlier than they used to: David Cameron (now 56) and George Osborne (now 52) were barely in middle age when they left the House of Commons. You write a book in order to give yourself something to flog. You make news by revealing the secrets of your former administration. You keep your name in the press by writing regular columns. If shameless self-promotion is the way into politics, then shameless self-exculpation is the way out. 

The other vital ingredient in the shamelessness soufflé is partisanship. The more partisan that politics becomes, the more you have an incentive to blame all your mistakes on your enemies — “externalize blame” in the language of psychologists — while at the same time playing up to the worst instincts of your supporters.

Truss is doubling down on her mismanagement of the British economy because she has a coterie of supporters who blame everybody but themselves for the disaster of those 49 days. The Daily Telegraph runs frequent columns explaining how the near collapse of the economy under Truss was the fault was of “the establishment,” meaning civil servants, Remainers and squishes of all sorts, rather than the bond traders who actually brought her down. She has an amen corner in the US, with the Heritage Foundation inviting her to give speeches, Regnery Publishing producing her book on saving the west, and Sunbelt billionaires longing to relive their youth by watching a Thatcher tribute act.

It’s easy to throw your hands up in despair at all this. But what can you expect in a world in which I’m a Celebrity gets audiences of millions, Love Island is producing a new edition featuring middle-aged contestants, and fully-grown men wear shorts to work? Victorian England got dignified politicians because it was a dignified age. We get shameless politicians for exactly the same reason.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

• John Lewis Is Losing the Battle for Middle England: Andrea Felsted

• Billionaire Ratcliffe’s Man Utd Cash Fountain Is Sputtering: Chris Bryant

• Can Britain Learn From Its Era of Disastrous Politics?: Adrian Wooldridge

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Adrian Wooldridge is the global business columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. A former writer at the Economist, he is author, most recently, of “The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World.”

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