It once seemed easier to define the point of politicians. Historically this was done in three ways. Aristotle’s ideal politician was a virtuous and philosophical man, serving the city-state of Athens. He only required his politician to defend Athens, to rule it justly, and to beautify it; not to change it. For Ancient Romans, and Medieval Britons, the emphasis shifted from preserving domestic harmony to fighting for victory, and they admired most, those who led in war. Caesar was celebrated for hammering the Gauls, just as Edward I and Henry V were admired for hammering the Scots and the French.  Finally, the revolutionaries in 1789, forged a new purpose for politicians, as revolutionary leaders, committed to destroying the old state in the name of equality.

Gladstone is perhaps the most powerful example of how, in the nineteenth century, a member of parliament could combine all these three ideas of a politician. He was an immensely wealthy man, and a scholar of Plato, who served – like all MPs until the 1940s – unpaid. He invested great time and effort in the composition and delivery of his speeches, and in all-night sittings. He flung himself into the moral case for intervention in Bulgaria, and against intervention in Afghanistan. He did not leave politics when he ceased to be prime minister but instead continued to serve, becoming ever more prescient and radical as he grew older, finally wrecking his career on the profound dream of Irish Home Rule. He was deservedly the Grand Old Man of Victorian Britain.

But different times breed different rulers. Seven decades of uninterrupted peace across Europe, has removed the necessity for war leaders. The economy and living standards have grown steadily across the Western world making each generation better off than its parents. Our politicians have become paid professionals. Values and beliefs have come to seem almost entirely personal and relative, and our society no longer wants the government to tell us who we should be, or how to live, still less how to fight. At the same time, although citizens still disagree on how to grow the economy (through taxation, privatisation, and government spending) – they almost all now agree that the purpose of the government is to grow the economy and invest the proceeds in the welfare state – in particular state-funded education, pensions and health-care.

So although all these three historical models of politicians remain in the back of our minds, we increasingly talk as though our ideal politician is not a man of virtue, a warrior, or a revolutionary, but instead a competent manager. Every department of state now uses language lifted from 1970s business schools, and competes to demonstrate its use of data, targets and ‘measureable outcomes.’ The focus is on how to do things, not on what to do. In the last election, most of the disagreements in the manifestos were about whether to spend an extra seven or nine billion on the NHS, and whether to spend an extra three or four Billion on education. And the long conversations I had with Labour voters seemed to be increasingly not about our objectives, but about how to raise and allocate money.

And yet, is this all that we really want from politics? The media pays less and less attention to what is said in parliament (and therefore parliamentary speeches seem to matter less). There is more and more nostalgia for figures of the 1970s, such as Enoch Powell or Tony Benn, who appeared to stand for clearer ideological positions. There are increasing examples of young talented, and successful politicians – take David Milliband or William Hague – leaving politics. Some desire for a different style may also be reflected in the Brexit vote for a bold, clean break with Europe, or for Corbyn’s more radical socialism.

Many of us feel that a human, or a politician, or a nation should have a purpose – some arc of meaningful life – some virtues – some aim beyond the efficient management of everyday affairs. We might even like to find ways of discussing pride and tradition, history and beauty, meaning and national character again in political debates. But politicians cannot make this happen on their own. The problem in politics reflects deep problems of confidence and meaning across our culture. And it cannot be mended just by an act of arbitrary will.

We cannot build a contemporary politics on nostalgia for Athens, Rome, revolutionary France, or even nineteenth century Britain. We cannot build optimism from a culture, which we no longer honour, or which is no longer alive. Our challenge, therefore, is to settle on a truthful, living modern identity, and build from that foundation a real purpose, which can energise our politicians, and mobilise our nation. Or we will be condemned to an ever emptier politics, seasoned with a diet of books and films about Winston Churchill.


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