I went off politics in my early twenties because it was boring – or so I thought. Now that I’m a few years older and just that little bit wiser, I’ve realised it’s not politics that’s the problem, it’s the politicians. Parliament has always been both blessed and cursed with interesting and dull fellows alike – for every Pitt, there’s always been a Prat and for every Burke, there’s always been a Burke. But politics itself isn’t boring: there’s nothing boring about debating and deciding which laws and policies should be passed in order to improve society. The major political themes of this year alone – Afghanistan, employment, energy, the NHS, international aid, wealth and poverty, the future of the BBC etc – are all very important subjects which should excite and stimulate citizens of any age.
Politics is an unusual profession in that it seems to attract people who are both very interesting and desperately dull. I’m sure we could all compile our own Desert Island Discs list of boring politicians, but I’ve narrowed my choice down to two very tedious old bores, who do an awful lot to put me off politics: Vince Cable and Ken Clarke. I might have included Sir Brian Leveson and Sir Mervyn King (now Baron King of Pension Pot), men who are both closely connected to politics, but are not quite political enough for it to be fair for them to be included. By men, I also mean women: Diane Abbot and Harriet Harman are my lead contenders for the most boring woman in politics. At this point however, I would like to say that, while I find all of the above tremendously tedious, I have no doubt that most of them are hardworking MPs and public servants who serve their country and their constituents well – notwithstanding Ken Clark’s laughable views of Europe. I just wouldn’t want to be stuck in a broken lift with any of them.
There are various categories of political boredom – individual MP or peer, political party, government department, Parliamentary committee etc. For example, for me, UKIP is a much more interesting political party than the Lib Dems, while I find the work of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office much more interesting than what goes on at the National Audit Office (as important as the NAO’s work may be). I also want to dispel a myth that the House of Lords is boring. It isn’t. Some of its routine day to day work can be, but so too can the House of Commons’, to say nothing of the devolved assemblies. In an age of ‘professional peers’, when most members are ennobled because of what they can contribute to national life, many of their Lordships are jolly interesting people with jolly interesting careers behind them. And I say this as someone who used to work for one of them and routinely listened to their lively and intelligent debates in the upper house.
I suppose that boredom works both ways and that many MPs probably find quite a few of their constituents and the matters they bring to their attention very tedious. Hard luck – they’re paid handsomely to listen to it. The thing about politics is that, at times, it has to be dull. Wading through Hansard or a lengthy Energy and Climate Change Committee report can be mind-numbingly dull – the constitutional equivalent of watching paint dry. But compare reading a book on urban planning permission in Wales, to the excitement of watching a sharp debate on Election Day in a key marginal constituency and hopefully you’ll see just how thrilling politics can be.
Style matters, particularly in politics. It probably shouldn’t, but it does. Whether or not voters find their prospective MP, County Councillor or Police and Crime Commissioner personable and engaging can determine if they’re even elected to office in the first place. But if style matters, then boredom does too. The necessary tedium of many aspects of public office can be a good thing, as it helps discourage fly by night candidates. Like the proverbial accountant in Monty Python who wants to be a lion tamer, I want politics to be more exciting -but not at the price of honesty or integrity. In an age of increasingly dazzling PR and marketing, a little boredom might just be a good thing.
As to who the award for the most boring politician should go to…you decide.