Who would be a politician? It’s a serious question. At the best of times politicians face an unpleasant set of challenges. They work ungainly hours. They have to live under permanent public and media scrutiny. And they have to smile and nod while members of the public address stupid remarks to them. In Britain, even the manner in which a party leader might eat a bacon sandwich has opened up as a potential avenue for criticism.
But if the lot of politicians has always looked poor, the situation has just got a whole lot worse. Because having lived through an age of comparative political indifference, we now seem to have entered an era of anti-politics. Across Europe people are casting their votes, and an increasing number of votes seem to be going to anti-politics politicians. This leads to several conundrums, not least: what does an anti-politics candidate do once they become a politician themselves?
But the bigger question is for the political mainstream. Because it is no good for mainstream politicians to condemn the public for not voting for them, or to say that the public are voting for the wrong people for the wrong reasons. In recent years the whole relationship between politicians and the public has suffered a number of terrible blows. Some, like the British Parliamentary expenses scandal, are specific. Others, are the result of too much being promised and too little being delivered. But whatever the cause, an increasing number of people are showing themselves willing to vote for absolutely anyone, so long as they promise to be opposed to the mainstream political class which they rightly or wrongly deem to hold sway.
Of course relationship breakdowns of this kind cannot be rectified overnight. But this one is too important to leave broken. One way to start mending it is for politicians to be far more honest about what they can and cannot achieve. From Barack Obama and other Western leaders, the world can hear many lofty speeches. It is sometimes even possible for a moment to be carried aloft on their words. But then, when it turns out that the new Jerusalem hasn’t just been ushered in, the elected politician may hope that nobody has noticed, but we do notice. And remember.
In this age of globalization it is especially necessary to say what is simply not in our control. This may be a humbling process, but it may prove more and more necessary. Politicians could improve their lot significantly if they were more frank about the world that we live in. It is a world where a mortgage financing problem in America can trigger a worldwide recession and where a law may have been passed in Brussels without ever having come before any politician in Westminster. It may sound like a risky strategy, but it is a vital one. Anti-politics comes from a sense that politicians are lying to the people. One solution for that problem is for politicians to tell more truths to the public: especially difficult truths. And among the unpalatable truths they may venture to say is, ‘You know what, we’re not always in charge.’ At the very least it might return politics to being what it is meant to be – a masterclass not in the politics of fantasy, but in the art of the possible.