Are politicians clever?
Einstein would have made a dreadful politician and yet he was one of the cleverest people alive at the time. Volodymyr Zelensky,the stand-up comedian who was elected President in the Ukraine last May, is doing quite a good job by all accounts. Most politicians are clever in one way or another. But it is not always in a way that will make them successful. Boris Johnson is said to be clever. I dare say he is, in some way(s). He doesn’t look very clever at present, does he? I don’t know him, but I suspect that he is clever in the razor-sharp way that Oscar Wilde was. The way that attracts the sobriquet ‘smarty-boots’.
You actually don’t want a smarty-boots as your Chief Minister. Smarty-boots people are all about themselves. Politicians cannot afford to be. They must be about the people they represent. Surely that only applies in a democracy? Ask Carrie Lam about that. In fact, even have a word with Vladimir Putin, if you can catch him when not having another Botox. His country is in the grip of a revolution only they don’t brag about it. I think Xi Jinping is clever, partly because he keeps his cards so close to his chest. Frankly, to have presided over the amazing development of China in such a statesmanlike way, and to have kept control, must make him a supreme politician.
And so we turn, somewhat wearily again, to Britain and (at the last count) Boris. You will by now have forgotten Mrs May. She was the previous Prime Minister. She set herself up as a Thatcher but turned out to be a woman of straw. When she was Home Secretary she had many faults including the disarming tendency to castigate her staff, just at a time when even the most savage employer was discovering that people find many ways to sabotage a brute. She carried her perpetual disappointment into Downing Street and the cat left. Well, I cannot swear to the accuracy of that last statement, but consider it metaphorical.
Boris, as I don’t need to tell you, got his knickers is the biggest twist of all. Having seen the danger of absolutes in a country split down the middle on Brexit, he promptly repeated the performance. It makes him look like Theresa May’s understudy.
So what do politicians need, to be clever? Does scholarship guarantee progress? Is a torch handed on by a member of the family the answer? Is street experience the way to an electorate’s heart? The answer to all of these questions, including the first one is ‘no’. Obviously a certain reasonably high level of intelligence is desirable. But there have been good politicians who didn’t even have that. They had the ability to read people, not like a book or a spreadsheet but like a wave at sea, as a storm surge, a weather front, fickle, ephemeral, tricky, given to emotion.
It is no wonder the umbrella is such a political symbol. It protects you from the rain but, more importantly, from the extreme sun. For it is in the searchlight of sunshine that politicians fall. Their ascent to high places is watched as a rabbit watches a weasel, mesmerised by the antics they adopt and the lengths to which they will go to reach the top. Once there they are the perfect target for everyone seeking a bit of fun or simply something to pot at. Outside America it won’t be with guns but beware – words are infinitely more powerful than pistols.
Reading people is a declining art. The era of what we can call Billboard Advertising (Mad Men to you) set up the concept that the way to communicate is to shout. Certainly the bull in the stockyard bellows his supremacy and mistakenly believes he conquers his harem. But, as every lover knows, it’s not the noise in the street that leads to happiness but the whisper in the ear. So it is with reading people. Observation and asking questions is the way to communicate.
Unfortunately, politicians often become obsessed with their deified status and dispense rules and orders as though the people will lap them up. Emperor Haille Selasse of Ethiopia used to take his Rolls Royce car out on a Sunday afternoon and dispense five pound notes through the slightly opened window. The people took the money but not the insolence. What they wanted was food.
Politicians don’t need to be clever in 2019. They need to be sensitive.
When they are, they can lead.
When they are not, they fall.