Talking Politics

Warsi and Hunt are so amateur it’s embarrassing

By Dr Matthew Ashton

Every day there seemed to be a new scandal or gaffe engulfing the coalition. It's almost gotten to the point where you expect to see a sign hanging on the famous front door of 10 Downing Street proudly proclaiming how long they've gone without an accident or resignation.

In the space of a few days we've seen yet further revelations from the Leveson Inquiry about Jeremy Hunt's views on the BskyB deal; and just today it turns out Baroness Warsi, co-chair of the Conservative party, has failed to declare all of her expenses. In both cases the mistakes are entirely of the individuals own making and are indicative of a wider problem with our political system.

It's now clear Jeremy Hunt was broadly supportive of Rupert Murdoch's proposed takeover of BSkyB. What's more he wasn't afraid to let people know. However, when he was asked to be the impartial adjudicator in charge of the process it didn't seem to occur to anyone that this might be a problem. It's a bit like selecting a jury and high court judge who are all convinced of a defendant's guilt or innocence before the trial takes place. Vince Cable was removed because it was felt that he was biased against Murdoch. It therefore makes little to no sense to replace him with someone who was openly pro-Murdoch. This is such an obvious problem that you've got to wonder whether it was incompetence or hubris that it didn't set the alarm bells ringing sooner.

The Baroness Warsi affair is even harder to understand. It's not as if anyone in politics is unaware that expenses are more likely to be scrutinised these days. Each party should ideally have a team, or at least an individual, whose job it is to sit down with their MPs to go through their expenses with a fine toothcomb to make sure these sorts of mistakes don't happen in future. In many other countries this sort of vetting is standard; here we take a much more relaxed attitude.

It's not just the coalition government that has this problem. Labour have been equally shambolic at times when they were in power. All of this is indicative of a much wider 'this'll do' attitude to how politics is conducted. In Britain we've always taken pride in our celebration of the amateur. Certainly in some fields people's amateur status has allowed their genius to blossom. I'm not sure this is the case in politics.

That said whenever we've attempted to professionalise politics, we've always gone about it in entirely the wrong way. Take the case of political speeches. When you listen to Cameron or Miliband's conference speeches you get the feeling that they've been hastily cobbled together that afternoon by a few young people from central office. Alternatively we've seen the rise of a new class of slightly sinister 'political advisors', or SpAds. As a result most speeches you hear these days lack a set of coherent ideas, original thinking, or even any memorable phrases.

It's not unreasonable, considering the vast amount of money we pour into our political system, to expect a great deal more competence and professionalism. But whenever this point is raised MPs start complaining that people don't realise how hard they work or the good things they do. In some cases this is true; we certainly have people in parliament and at the local level from all three major parties who are both excellent representatives and very hard-working. However its interesting how quick MPs are to condemn other professions whenever they fail to live up to expectations. How many times have you seen a politician give a speech criticising an entire industry or workforce of 'not facing up to the new realities of the globalised world' or 'failing to modernise' or 'failing to provide value for money' or 'not being fit for purpose'.

Maybe they are, maybe they're not, it's just that you so rarely see politicians asking that question of themselves. Far too often we talk about 'our political rulers'; instead we should always remember that politicians are 'servants of the people', not the other way round.

Dr Matthew Ashton is a politics lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. Visit his blog.

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