Saturday, December 11, 2004

Low Skilled Politicians, Low Skilled Blogging...

Er, my last post was just a little bit on the silly side, so I threw it into the cyber bin. Let's try it again. My basic point was that Northern Ireland's politicians couldn't make a deal even if they wanted to because, as well as lacking the will to do so, they don't know how.

But let's try something a little bit less petulant.

It's good to start by saying that I'm not a big fan of personality politics. The idea that the story of politics is a story of individuals seems a little bogus to me - individuals, even political leaders, are hugely constrained by circumstance and so can only have a limited influence on the world in which they work. That said, the individual's skills in addressing events as they find them seems to me to be of crucial importance. We all know the tales of political triumph (say Kennedy during the Cuban Crisis) where wile and wisdom has assisted some leader or other to negotiate a way through a crisis. Even though, as I suspect, these stories are a little over-done, there's something to the idea that the skills of influential people can make the difference.

We tend not to hear so much about the bad luck, stupidity or downright incompetence that drives other events in politics. I don't suppose that politicians tend to concentrate on these things in their memoirs, but they do happen. New Labour made some play of the fact that only two members of the 1997 cabinet (Margaret Beckett and Jack Cunningham, I think) had ever been in government before. This lack of experience did show, both in terms of unseemly silliness (Peter Mandleson anyone?) and a certain political naivety (it took Labour a while to fall out of love with the principles of freedom of information and learn to love secrecy and intrique).

Anyway, the point is that the business of government, as with any other job, takes some skill and if you've never done it you'll have to learn how.

Apart from having to learn how to master their briefs as ministers, politicians have to learn how to negotiate in the public eye. And this ain't easy. After all you have to keep your base happy, not piss the other lot off too much and reach a conclusion that you can live with and can commit to.

This requires your learning how to do the vision thing but to leave space for the fact that you'll have to work with people who have profoundly different ideas of how the world should be. You need to prioitise your objectives and, just as importantly, let your base know that you're not going to get everything you want no matter how het up they are. Whipping them up into a frenzy will do you no favours, although it may get you some votes at the time. That's not to say that the vision thing is not important. I'm just saying that politics is about getting as good a deal as you can get in the circumstances that you face, not the circumstances you'd like to face.

In the post that I haven't left up for your amusement, I indicated as to my low opinion of Irish politicians. In fact, there is only one politician on the island that I can think of (it's Saturday morning so I'm not thinking very hard) who can play the game of politics very well and that's the Irish Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern (for a good biographical note see here).

I have to say that virtually nothing the government that Bertie1 heads meets with my approval. Also, he's managed to mess a number of things up and certainly can talk shit at times. Still, I just admire his skills. If you want a deal done, Bertie is the best person to get it for you. Incidentally, he learned this skill in as a Trade Union negotiator. He does seem to lack the vision thing, but he's a terrific negotiator (maybe the two things are connected). His brightest moment so far has been his concluding negotiations on the EU's Constitutional Treaty, retrieving it out of the shambles that was the Italian Presidency. He won the admiration of his fellow European leaders to the extent that they seemed to want him as head of the New European Commission, a job he didn't want.

Now, back to last week's mess in Northern Ireland. Of course, you can only negotiate with people who actually want to agree, something that is patently not the case here (as Malachi O'Doherty pointed out, falling apart over something trivial like photos is not a sign of emotive stupidity, but simple political tactics).

The relatively trivial point of this post is to point out that doing actual real-life politics, the sort that gets things done and is oriented towards influencing people's lives, requires personal skill. And that is something severly lacking among Northern Ireland's politicians. They may not have been all that interested in doing a deal, but they don't even know how to break it off with any significant skill. Appealing to your base is simple. All you need to do is jump up and down and shout about the threats you face and the treachery of your enemies. Appealing to your base without either alienating your opponents or providing them with a handy excuse to take the easy way out (by which I mean jumping ship but blaming you) requires slighly more nuanced thinking.

Of course, politicians here are hardly challenged by the environment. You wander down to East Belfast and everyone will tell you that Paisley is right. Then take a step up the Falls and everyone will extol the virtues of Adams. So long as two elections happen here on election day, parties don't have to worry about the people they have to negotiate with. They just spend their time employing the other side as a weapon to kick their opponents in their own sides of the community.

So this lot know how to get elected, but they don't really know how to do much more than that.

I'm not really being entirely coherent here, so will probably revisit in a week or so, after a trip to the States. For one thing, my Bertie and Blair examples don't have much to do with the pathologies of Northern Ireland's politics. Still I'm onto something - I suppose what I'm saying is that being a politician requires your actually wanting to translate social and political will into action, being an author of law rather than a narcissistic poster boy for your constituents. Expect a little more nuance in the run-up to the holidays!

1 FYI, I don't actually know Bertie - it's just that everyone calls him by his first name. Go figure...

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