September 11 2010
Public life for politicians does not seem to get any easier. Have, as a male, a close male companion, and if the tabloids are not after you, the posh papers will attack you for your insensitivity in pointing to your marriage and desire for a family to demonstrate that you are not gay—disgusting! Enter a coalition, and all disagreements will be disasters. In his ‘Rules for Politicians’, the Greek essayist Plutarch (c. AD 46-120) gives sensible advice about all this.
Any decision to enter public life must not be based on ‘an inability to think of anything else to do’; nor must one do it to make money, or with emotional urges to do good or a desire for fame. If that turns out to be the case, the politician will find himself like someone who sails in boats for the fun of it and finds himself swept out to sea, hanging over the side being seasick. Rational conviction that the work is noble and right for you is the one reason for entering politics. For politics is like a well: if you fall in thoughtlessly, you will regret it, but if you descend gently and under control, you will get the best out of it.
Once in, the politician must first get to know the character of his fellow citizens and adapt to it; otherwise, he cannot hope to shape and change them. Since he is living on an open stage, he must also modify his own behaviour: ‘men in public life are responsible for more than their public words and actions: their dinners, beds, marriages, amusements and interests are all objects of curiosity…since people think highly of government and authority, you must be entirely free of eccentricity or aberration.’
Plutarch is especially good on the usefulness of disagreement. It carries conviction among the voters, he argues, when in large policy matters party members should at first disagree and then change their minds. It looks as if they are acting from principle. In small matters, however, they should be genuinely allowed to disagree, because then their agreement in important matters does not look pre-concerted.
So there is something to be gained from controlled party splits. The coalition is surely in prime position to exploit this advantage.