Why do they do it?

“What is it that makes  people want to be politicians?” is not a question we often ask ourselves, more likely we might ask “Why would anybody want to be a politician?” in such a way as to suggest that  we already know the answer.

I have a long held memory that Tony Blair’s response to the first question was “I believed I could make a difference” but I couldn’t find it on the Internet. What I did find was his valedictory speech on leaving the Commons.

“Some may belittle politics but we who are engaged in it know that it is where people stand tall. Although I know that it has many harsh contentions, it is still the arena that sets the heart beating a little faster. If it is, on occasions, the place of low skulduggery, it is more often the place for the pursuit of noble causes. I wish everyone, friend or foe, well. That is that. The end. “

That hints at bravery under fire, an adrenaline rush and a purposeful idealism. Recognising that the general public associates politics with deceitful and unscrupulous behaviour, and that his speech was being televised, he cleverly seduced his Commons audience with the insider argument of we know better. And of course they cheered him to the rafters.

Having identified  idealism how about ideology. What if you are fundamentally driven? You have a range of choices from the godless Marxist- Leninism with its “scientific” principles  right through to the “religious right” where Marx and Lenin  are replaced by the Koran, the Bible, L Ron Hubbard?  In between there are other political doctrines, nationalist  tuggings,  racist dogmas and sectarianism.

Here’s another reason, dynastic. If you want to become a politician it is more likely that you come from a politically committed family. Roughly one tenth of cabinet members between 1868 and 1955 were themselves sons of Ministers (political variety) and over half of the last fifty Prime Ministers were the children of MPs. Apparently there’s also a strong correlation between lone or lonely children and subsequent  political careers, and sadly almost half of all Prime Ministers have lost a parent before they have reached eighteen.

What of the idea of public service, of giving something back, perhaps best associated with a patrician class?  Alec Douglas Hume if anybody can  remember him, or more recently say Douglas Hurd. Not only public service but also public duty. Douglas Hurd served Ted Heath and also Margaret Thatcher, his presence serving as a recognition of a more traditional conservatism.

How about self interest where people enter politics for financial gain, power and influence or other benefits for themselves, family or friends? “ Politicians are only in it for the money. “ is a cry often heard; after all politics is no longer a vocation but a professional career. “There is no such thing as an honest politician, how can there be?” is the argument; everybody carries baggage and with public life the baggage gets bigger as political, social, organisational and public service  orbits intertwine, there are always conflicts of interest ergo anybody wanting to be a politician should be automatically disqualified, which of course would have ruled out Heseltine immediately he sketched his route to 10 Downing Street on the back of a fag packet at Oxford.

Finally there’s destiny . Taking up politics is merely fulfilling one’s destiny. De Gaulle, Churchill, Thatcher are perhaps examples of where circumstances and fate have combined to propel them to  a position where they tell their people that there is no alternative, that they are being governed in their own best interests, our time and your time has come.

So, where do our local politicians fit into this very crude categorisation?  Some perceptions of local politicians fit very easily and it is possible with some of the more complex personalities (again I am relying heavily on public perceptions) to see an amalgam. Then there are the ones who appear to have undergone a Damascene conversion, where do they fit in? And of course  this crude categorisation could well be incomplete. Some wit said we get the politicians we deserve but that is only half the story. Anybody prepared to stand tall. Given that most of us by virtue of being Sluggerites are interested in politics it will be mildly interesting to see whether negative or positive viewpoints prevail, my money’s on the latter.

  • JoeBryce

    Trimble as man of destiny. Sacrificed his career, his seat, his party, and risked his and probably his family’s life, all to do the right thing.
    Captain O’Neill was the last of the patricians. I suspect he had a breakdown when the horror was unleashed, but perhaps someone can comment.
    Garrett Fitzgerald, Conor Cruise O’Brien, John Hume, Jim Allister, all idealists.
    Paisley and McGuiness, both motivated by religion.

  • wild turkey

    I am sure there are, and have been, many principled men and women who, over the years, in many countries and jurisdictions have initially been motivated by idealism and a noble committment to the civic good.

    but…… in the current media age of the 24 hour news cycle

    “Politics is just showbusiness for ugly people”
    … Gore Vidal

    evidence? any tory member of the current UK cabinet. Mitt Romney, Michelle Bachman, etc. etc.

    as for local politicos and their indulgence in “Narcissism of small differences”, why bother commenting and then face the inevitable shitstorm?


  • This has already been beneficial to me, despite the crudity of the boxes, a couple of the names suggested by JoeBryce were definitely not in the same boxes I would have put them in. I won’t declare my hand just yet but thanks for the insight Joe, on reflection I can see your reasoning.

  • claudius

    Not sure why they get in to it but from experience its definitely ego that keeps them in it

  • Mister_Joe


    I’m pretty sure that most get in because they really do feel that they can make a difference for their immediate communities. As to why they stay, hubris probably plays a big part for many.

  • wild turkey

    “As to why they stay, hubris probably plays a big part for many.”

    Mr J, you’ve hit on something

    The final curtain of the ongoing saga of the peace process may well see First and Deputy First Ministers Hugh Briss and Vic Timn taking the curtain call. The roles are interchangeable

  • anne warren

    In the past there were undoubtedly principled politicians who worked for the public good.
    They were found in all parties
    Now we have got career politicians
    Many have never had any other sort of job or have had sinecures until elected
    Many were parachuted into constituencies
    A lot of people in the USA, Canada, Australia and EU countries no longer vote
    To say nothing of NI

  • DC

    Ego, appalling vanity and falsely self-identifying as change makers.

  • DC

    ^ the above could only really be negated by drawing down average/minimum wage, then idealism could be one reason.

  • BIGK

    A natural progression for a bully. And then getting paid is a bonus.

  • Alias

    In Irish politics it’s a means of attaining a level of authority and status that they could never attain through other career options. The leaders of FF and FG are school teachers, and the leader of Labour never had a profession. As for wanting to make a difference, only if the muppets think they can make a difference without sovereignty since they all support transfering the power to make a difference to the EU.

  • BluesJazz

    In July 1971 Chichester-Clark was created a life peer as Baron Moyola, of Castledawson in the County of Londonderry his title taken from the name of his family’s estate. He endorsed the Belfast Agreement in the 1998 referendum. Lord Moyola died on 17 May 2002 at the age of 79, he was the last surviving Prime Minister of Northern Ireland.

    Lord Moyola remained quiet about his political career in his retirement. Lady Moyola, however, has said that her husband did enjoy the time – contrary to popular opinion – and that he thought of life as an MP as akin to that of an animal welfare officer.

    That last statement is pretty much what Jeremy Paxman thought and right on the button. Captain O’ Neill and Major Chichester-Clark, both mentioned in dispatches as WW2 , were the last real politicians we had here.
    I can’t find Ian Paisley’s WW2 record anywhere. He was the age for service, maybe he worked down the coal mines as a concientious pacifist. That must be it. Otherwise he would be a cowardly hypocrite,

  • Mister_Joe

    New thread needed: What makes a real politician?

  • claudius

    I dont think a real politician, one who is devoid of ego and all the points other contributors have mentioned exists. They are a peculiar animal. The need to survive in any political world drives the hubristic nature. I’ve met many politicians who have done good things; but they constantly reminded me and others that they had done so!

  • Barnshee

    Sadly the gobshite count across the parties is too high to make any of them “real”

  • Greenflag

    They’re real enough and as necessary to the body politic of all democratic nations as excrement is to the body physical .
    I recall reading a thesis perhaps a decade or more ago in which it was argued that one of the best ingredients on which to build a political career was to be deprived or short changed of a mothers love and or milk as an infant . Thereafter the ‘pol’ is forever looking for the replacement ‘love’ denied by his or her birth mother .

  • Mister_Joe


    I also read a comment that the most important quality for a politician was sincerity, and, once you could fake that, you had it made..

  • andnowwhat

    A politician is someone so deluded, the think people give a toss what crap they say. We ignore such people in the pub but vote for them every 4 (5 years if they’re really trying to screw you) years.

    Hey, how about a blog on why the ConDems brought that 5 years thing in and why it went so unchallenged? As the Mexicans might say; Democracy me hole!!!

  • Greenflag

    @ mister joe ,

    ‘the most important quality for a politician was sincerity, and, once you could fake that, you had it made..’

    Indeed . Of course politicians have to be careful /cagy/diplomatic in enunciating the big lie masqueraded as truth and or vice versa .Show me a politician who speaks the unvarnished truth for one term in Parliament /Congress or Dail /Assembly and I’ll show you a politician that fails to be re-elected 🙁

    I’m not entirely certain but I’d guess that before the onset of mass media coverage and tv and now internet political saturation -politicians may have been of more substantial character but then that may be just wishful thinking on my part .

    Somehow I can’t imagine Churchill blathering and dilly dallying and being as evasive as either Blair or Cameron ?
    Perhaps that’s why he lost the 1945 election?