I can’t think of another period in British history where leading politicians were drawn from the ranks of professional journalists. Salisbury used to write (anonymously) for the press before becoming PM, but it wasn’t his main occupation. WH Smith – a cabinet member in the 1880s – sold newspapers. Karl Marx supported himself by writing newspaper articles, but he never made it into the British cabinet. Today, however, we have Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, both cabinet ministers, and both indeed vying for the top spot, whose only job before entering politics was writing ‘op. eds’ for the Times and Telegraph. In other words they came down from university straight into inflicting their clever young opinions on the British public in the Tory press, with no real experience of life or public affairs to back those opinions up. They and their editors thought they were entitled to do this, no doubt, because of the patina of ‘intelligence’ that surrounded them – in Boris’s case simply, I suspect, because he knew some ancient Greek – and because of their vaulting self-confidence. In both cases, when you analyse what they say, they hardly live up to that reputation. Gove is a simple-minded ideologue; Johnson an intellectual chancer.
It’s always been my opinion that a representative democracy ought to be represented by representative people, both in parliament and in the cabinet. At present the House of Lords is in this sense, and ironically, rather more representative than the Commons, because – apart from the minority of hereditary peers – it’s composed of people who have done things in their lives; that is, have had proper jobs. How many Commoners have? Most of them have been student union politicians who have later on gone to work for trade unions, if Labour, or, on the Tory side, young privileged men and women whose daddies are rich enough to have supported them in unpaid appointments in Conservative Central Office.
A few professions have done quite well, with plenty of lawyers in the House of Commons – OK, I think, if they have genuinely practiced Law – and a sprinkling of bankers. Again, I wouldn’t object to them if they really were just a sprinkling, proportionate to the total population they were representing, and were broad-minded. And I’ve nothing against Boris’s profession of journalism: a great profession, so long as it concentrates on reporting affairs that would be hidden from people otherwise, and even heroic, if it does this against pressure from governments, bankers and others. Neither Johnson nor Gove comes into this category. Johnson’s ‘reporting’, from Brussels at one stage, consisted in simply telling lies; apparently ‘straight bananas’ was one of his. Gove just vents his prejudices, confidently, backed up by selective reading. At the Leveson hearings much of his testimony, in an area I’m familiar with, was historical nonsense. Beyond these, what other ‘jobs’ are as well represented? I’m not pleading here for a chamber made up of hoary-handed men (and women) of toil, though a few more might make Dennis Skinner and his few hoary-handed mates look a little less isolated – and deter the Tories from mocking Northern accents. Simply for all MPs to have done some kind of ‘proper’ job before standing for Parliament. (Plus a few very young ones who won’t have had that kind of experience, but will know what it’s like to be young.)
Mere scribblers are unlikely to make good governors. How was it that Stanley Baldwin characterized the press of his day: ‘power without responsibility; the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages’? It must be difficult to shed that once in real power. Johnson and Gove show no signs of doing it.