I was in Hyde Park on Friday watching an open-air Pixies show with very great delight when somewhere between ‘Vamos’ and ‘Debaser’ one of my companions bid fair to harsh my buzz by asking what I reckoned to the Tory leadership contest. Well, goodness. I mumbled something about not really having a dog in the fight but thinking that, whatever his other shortcomings (the visible self-love, mostly, and maybe that thing with his wife’s tax status), Rishi Sunak seems to more or less have his head screwed on.
‘But he’s a multi-millionaire,’ my friend said. ‘Isn’t he just going to be hopelessly out of touch?’ And there it was, the worst, most fatuous and most unanswerable charge that can be levelled at a politician: that they are out of touch. The charge proceeds from the idea that unless you live them yourself, you can’t understand the day-to-day troubles of the ordinary working stiff.
Senior politicians are very keen to see that charge off. So, if you’re Sunak, you make much of the struggles of your parents and speak with bashful pride of how they gave you opportunities that they never had themselves. (Did Sadiq Khan’s dad drive a bus? I think he may have mentioned it.) If you’re lucky enough to have grown up in actual poverty, you’ll go on and on about it – even though the experience of poverty in the 1980s won’t especially equip you to understand the experience of it in 2022. And by the time you’re running for high office, in all but a vanishingly small number of cases, you’ll be living a pretty comfortable life.
Some of us still laugh to remember the Labour MP Michael Meacher suing Alan Watkins for libel after Watkins teased him about being more middle-class than he pretended to be. Faced with the dreaded charge of being ‘woke’, Penny Mordaunt yesterday tweeted crossly that she couldn’t possibly be because she was ‘elected by the no-nonsense, down-to-earth people of Portsmouth North’. If I were one of Plymouth North’s whimsical intellectuals, I might take some umbrage at my MP stereotyping me in that patronising way.
But they can’t help it, bless them. All this is what the ancients of rhetoric called ethos, meaning roughly: how an orator presents him or herself to the crowd. ‘I’m just like you’ is an evergreen pitch. It’s why, around any US election, you see presidential candidates (none of whom are ever anything like normal people) ostentatiously doing normal guy things – throwing out a pitch at the baseball, drinking a beer on a tailgate, eating a hot dog or, for red-staters, getting draped in camo netting and annihilating a duck with an automatic weapon. It’s why the price of a pint of milk has since time immemorial been the go-to catch-them-out question for political interviewers in the UK.
Here’s the thing, though. We’re all out of touch. We all see the world only through our own experiences. Privilege is one set of blinkers; lack of privilege is another. There isn’t a ‘real world’ you only have access to if you’ve been on welfare, or run your own company, or whatever it is that people claim puts you in touch with reality. You can learn about experiences beyond your own if you can be bothered to put in the work. And if we fall into the idea that it’s impossible to understand the difficulties of someone whose world you do not share (working class, small business owning, gay, BAME, female, first-generation immigrant, pensioner or whatever it may be), we fall down an identitarian rabbit-hole that makes politics – as in, people trying to figure out how to improve things for everyone – impossible.
The idea isn’t to experience it yourself but to be the sort of person who takes an interest in, and is willing to listen to, those who do. You don’t need to be Rishi Sunak, come to that, to have no first-hand experience of what it is to have to choose between heating and eating: most modestly middle-class people will have been fortunate not to share that experience. The business of government is, among other things, to minimise the number of people who do – and you do that by understanding what causes problems like that, and fixing it, not by starring in your own remake of the Four Yorkshiremen of the Apocalypse.
My sense – though it’s no more than that, I admit – is that you’re no worse off being a zillionaire than anyone else. The trouble really comes, I think, with politicians who are very interested in money and hang around with people who have much more of it than them. Those are the ones who are vulnerable to temptation and will make fools out of themselves – think of David Cameron’s humiliating post-prime-ministerial shilling for Greensill and bombarding ministers with anxious text messages – or worse. Someone with Sunak’s megabucks isn’t going to be quite so impressed by oligarchs with Tuscan villas or two-day-a-week pretend jobs on the board of companies in search of influence.
But there, I digress. There’s something, I’m sure, to the psychological finding that very wealthy people tend to overestimate the extent to which it’s a reward for their own excellence and that might shape a worldview. We all know, or know of, people who seem almost dementedly interested in cash even though they already have lots of it and we all need to keep an eye on their tax affairs and their expenses claims. But the idea that a more modest background automatically confers salt-of-the-earth wisdom and proletarian honesty on its owner is just nonsense.
What we need in candidates is not identity with ‘ordinary people’ but an interest in them. Intelligence (ideally honed by useful experience or education or both), conscientiousness, human curiosity, the willingness to understand and solve complex problems, and integrity – these are, to adapt the words of outgoing Prime Minister, desirable attributes that are evenly distributed through the population. Lack of empathy, ignorance, stupidity, laziness, greed, dishonesty and being a sex-maniac likewise. Nobody by background has a monopoly on either set of qualities. Give the zillionaires a break.
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