I thought David Steel was rather good on Newsnight last night. I was half asleep, if woken by the shouting match between JP and Andrew Rawnsley, but Steel’s main point seemed to be a lament that this is the kind of thing that now dominates political debate.
There is always a danger, once you hit the back nine of life, as I did a few years ago, of old fartism setting in, sufficient to make you imagine things were different and better ‘back in my day.’
But, thinking back to the time I was a journalist covering Steel as leader of the Liberal Party, and his fellow panellist Roy Hattersley as deputy leader of the Labour Party, I don’t think my memory is playing tricks in recalling that debates really were much more about policy.
Yes, it is true that his predecessor Jeremy Thorpe’s career and legacy were destroyed by a sex scandal, and that personality issues between Steel and David Owen were the source of considerable strain and media comment, culminating in the Spitting Image depiction of Steel as a puppet inside Owen’s pocket. It is also true that ‘tabloid tales’ were always there or thereabouts, though the difference is that the divisions between tabloids, broadsheets and broadcast media as to what constitutes a ‘story’ are pretty much gone now.True too that with the Cold War forming the geopolitical backdrop to politics in most democracies, the differences between the parties back then were perhaps greater than now.
None of that negates the central notion that policy debates do tend more quickly to get drowned out now if a personality issue comes along. And whilst Steel mentioned changes at PMQs as being partly responsible, so is the changed nature of the media landscape.
There is not much point raging at Andrew Rawnsley for writing a book. He is a journalist not a politician, albeit for a paper that likes to put itself on the side of the progressives; and his book having been written, it would be odd to expect him not to want to promote it.
Hattersley also had quite an interesting take – that he had no evidence of the kind of behaviour GB is accused of, but felt that even if he did have what were being called ‘temper tantrums’, it did not make him any less fit to do his job. Steel echoed the point in what I thought was rather a good overall defence of the prime minister.
It also seems to me – and this often happens when a frenzy kicks off – that as emotions rise and positions harden, some fairly obvious truths get lost.
That GB is capable of getting angry is no secret to anyone who has worked with him down the years. I have seen him in a rage with TB, with JP, with Peter Mandelson, with me, with others. But I have never seen him grab staff by the lapels, hit anyone or throw inanimate objects around the place, which is the general impression created in recent days, especially since Mrs Pratt from the bullying helpline got involved, even if she has since said none of the alleged complaints from Number 10 concerned GB.
I have also seen GB be charming and funny. Above all I have seen him, in many different situations, be driven and determined and passionate about his beliefs and the policies he thinks Britain needs to embrace.
We are all complicated people, every single one of us, and as with any other high profile figure, there are many different aspects to GB’s character. As he said himself at the weekend, he is not perfect. Nobody is. He is strong-willed, impatient, can be grumpy, and could do with chilling out a bit more from time to time.
But having seen him and other leaders up close, I am in no doubt he is a better leader for this country, particularly in times like these, than David Cameron would be. Indeed, the last 48 hours, and the Tory leader’s handling of the issue, has made me more not less convinced about that. There is something pretty shameful about the extent to which Cameron’s Tories want to make the debate about anything but serious, thought through policies to which they might stick for more than a day or two.
GB won’t be enjoying the current brouhaha, which is why the Tories and a media which has invested too much in saying he has to go, are driving it for all it’s worth.
But he has seen off far worse than this and can be confident that when the debate does return to policy, which it will, his strengths and Cameron’s weaknesses – the likeliest reasons for recent narrowing of the polls – will be back on parade.
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