Like most political hacks I tend to be a bit of a professional pessimist – if not a borderline depressive. The world of public affairs is not a sunny one, and the reward for optimism about politicians is generally ridicule. So this is one column I will probably regret writing.
For, at the close of this political year, I feel compelled to say that I feel more positive about our political culture and leadership now than I can recall in almost three decades of observing the political game. And it is all down to personalities.
Political enemies they may be, but in Gordon Brown and Alex Salmond we have two astute and even visionary politicians at the very top of their game. They have clear ideas about where they think the country is going and the political skills to make things happen. I may not agree entirely with the policies of either, but I’d have no hesitation in pronouncing them the sharpest tools to have come out of the British political box in the last half century. And no, this isn’t a wind up.
Both Brown and Salmond strike me as more humane and grounded than Margaret Thatcher, more principled than Harold Wilson, more intelligent than Tony Blair. None of the other post war leaders since Churchill stand comparison, except perhaps the late Donald Dewar, who lacked elementary political and presentational skills.
Gordon Brown, had of course already shown himself to be a politician of the highest quality during his ten years in the treasury. But in the last few weeks he has revealed an entirely new dimension of himself in the sure-footed and intelligent way in which he has taken over in Number Ten.
Brown has made a philosophical and political break with the tawdry politics of Blairism without igniting civil war in his party. That took real class, after all those years of frustrated ambition. But there has been not one squeak of dissent from the remnants of the old regime, even as Brown has dismantled it.
The new PM’s sober handling of the attempted London bombings and the English floods was exemplary. He was right to recognise that housing is one of the great issues of the 21st century, right to scrap supercasinos, right to review drug and alcohol laws. He was right to ditch sofa government, begin to put an end the war in Iraq, address the defects in the constitution and promise to clean up party funding.
Yes I know that it sounds naive and even sycophantic to talk this way, but bear with me.For if we don’t identify when some politicians are getting it right, how can we expect the rest of them to raise their game
In his current visit to America Gordon Brown is showing that he is capable of achieving distance from the US Republican leadership without compromising diplomatic relations with America. Brown has already shown that he understands the imperatives of climate change and the importance of addressing economic failure in Africa and he is rightly determined to speak over the heads of America’s myopic political leadership to the thinking Americans who must be mobilised if these great global challenges are to be met.
And yes, I know Brown voted for the war in Iraq, but I don’t believe he would have gone to war on the basis of dodgy intelligence. And his contrition now is sincere. It is rare enough for leader to live up to his or her expectations; for them to exceed them is practically unheard of. But that is what Brown has done. And coincidentally we also have the makings of Scotland’s first great political leader in three hundred years in the shape of Alex Salmond.
The FM has shown tactical genius and real political courage in the manner in which he has run an effective government in Scotland with only 46 out of 129 MSPs and no coalition partner. When the Liberal Democrats boycotted the Salmond executive it looked as if Scotland’s nationalist experiment would be short-lived. But most independent observers believe that this administration has a lot of life left in it and may even go the distance. Certainly, if there were an election tomorrow, the SNP under Alex Salmond would likely be returned by a landslide.
Of course, no party’s success is down to just one individual, and Salmond has had able support from his subordinates. But there is little doubt in my mind that only someone with Salmond’s self-confidence, boldness and intelligence could have carried it off. Like him or loathe him, the first minister is a brilliant political operator. Just look at his conduct in parliament, the succession of executive initiatives, the al Megrahi affair, the handling of the trams defeat.
Above all it is Salmond’s sense of destiny that marks hin out from other Scottish political figures of the modern age. He is the real deal; the first genuine political leader in Scottish democratic history. A very different character, of course, from Gordon Brown – impetuous, more of an outsider,less pious, much more willing to take a gamble than the ultra-cautious Labour leader. But in a curious way, they are both the right men for the times. Scotland is clearly in the mood to take risks, live a little dangerously as it becomes more culturally assertive. England, on the other hand, is suffering from an excess of charisma and military adventures and wants to live rather less dangerously right now.
But they are polar opposites politically, so how – you ask – can I trust both of them at the same time? They can’t both be right. Many would say that it is reckless to applaud someone like the Scottish National Party leader who is widely regarded as an unreliable and devious egotist, or a Labour leader whom many in his own party believe to be a neurotic control freak. But somehow, I do Their positives outweigh their negatives.
Of course, all politicians are fallible; make promises they cannot keep; and are often corrupted by power. Promising leaders become diminished by the compromises of office, and as Enoch Powell put it “every political career ends in tears”. But just for now, just for this moment, let’s calmly celebrate the fact that we are in a rare moment in history which the nation’s leaders are actually doing the business.
And how extraordinary that both of them should be Scottish. What is it about this little country that it generates such a disproportionate share of British political leaders? For, of course the present and immediate past Lib Dem leaders are also Scots, and even Blair was a Jock of sorts. In celebrating the new generation of British political leaders we are also celebrating Scottish society and culture. That’s something surely to feel good about.