As my friends will tell you, I’m not a political animal. I tend to vote for a different party at each election, and I often make up my mind when I’m actually in the polling booth, typically using some highly-sophisticated reasoning like, “Big majorities are bad – they’re like big monopolies – so I want to support the little guy”. Well, it’s often not far from that. And that’s assuming I actually remember that it’s polling day.
Now, it’s not that I don’t care about what happens to the country, or that I don’t value democracy.
It’s partly that I feel insufficiently informed to make a judgement. I don’t have time to follow the news, I’m highly sceptical about most of what I read in the papers, and like all well-brought-up Englishmen, I know that politics is not a suitable topic of discussion at the dinner table. (I remember amazing some American friends by telling them that I had no idea how my parents voted and that I certainly wouldn’t dream of asking them.) To raise the topic of politics is to invite an argument or to assume that others think the same way as you – neither is very polite, though in some circles you can get away with it if nobody present has any strong views.
Meanwhile, back at the polling station, there’s generally so little to differentiate the candidates and parties that it’s hard to make a judgement unless you believe very strongly in a few specific issues – always, I feel, a bad basis for electing a government that may be in power for a long time and is unlikely to worry too much about its manifesto once they’re there.
What I really long for is interesting politicians. You could have an opinion about Margaret Thatcher or Neil Kinnock; you could guess what they might say or do differently on a particular topic. But William Hague or Gordon Brown or, well, anybody recent really… in hindsight some of them may have been better choices than others but not really in any way that could have been predicted in advance.
Where are the old rogues, the wits, the orators, the rebels, the great statesmen? People you could applaud, curse, or admire? People who have the balls to make big gestures and risk big mistakes. Have they really gone, or is it that we and the press have just got more sceptical, more risk-averse?
Anyway, whatever you may think about London’s choice of mayor, both the departing and the arriving one, Londoners do at least have an advantage over the rest of the country in having politicians who can be readily distinguished from each other. Much more interesting..