The Political Animal by Jeremy Paxman

10 Feb

Power doesn’t change you. It reveals who you really are.

Jeremy Paxman‘s book is a perspicacious insight into the way politicians and politics work in the UK.

I enjoyed his book about the English people and this book is bigger and better: more in-depth and better researched.

Before I go any further I have to shout at anyone who says ‘ah, politics, boring, nothing to do with me‘. Rubbish. Politics is about how we interact; it’s about the rules by which we operate with each other and how the government looks after us.

He looks at the kind of people that get into politics, and how this has changed over time: from families that have always supplied MPs, to the modern breed of career politicians. I definitely agree with his view that more experts in their field are needed in parliament.

He describes the varying motivations of politicians, and looks at how they have such an oddly disparate set of roles: from constituency support worker to legislator to party poodle.

Paxman gives Simon Hughes a lot of credit for his constituency work – one of the few stars among the cast. Hughes is someone who works very hard to ensure people with no one else to turn to are given help.

He looks at the amazingly unrepresentative way possible MPs are selected, then once they get in what they have to deal with: the ludicrous pomp, the allegiance to the monarchy, even the impracticality of the houses of parliament.

He looks at the influence political parties have – I’ve never liked them anyway – and the way individual views are steam rollered into submission by the whips, sometimes by physical violence, often by bribery. This is something that gets me very annoyed. In my uneducated view, the party system nullifies an MP’s ability to represent the views of their constituents, and means they can’t act on principle.

He looks at the price of fame, and how the path to power can sadly take away a person’s idealism. For example, a person will start off with a set of ideals by which they think the country must be run, for the betterment of the people. However to get into a real position of power, they must toe the party line and do as they’re told to get the promotions and even to get a better office at Westminster. The end result is that “the game becomes more important than the reasons for which they started playing”.

He discusses the immense difficulty of life after politics; it’s not an easy transition, contrary to the way it seems from the handful of stories we read about how the top politicians schmooze with big industry.

A lonely looking plus point is that (even taking into account Archer, Hamilton, et al) ours is one of the least corrupt governments in the world.

He calls for action when he says: “a society which loses faith in the way it governs itself is in danger of falling apart”.

I’m fairly cynical about politics, and have often been frustrated by the many faults of our democracy. Reading this book has made my view even worse by an order of magnitude! However, he does briefly offer up some ideas for improvement:

  • remove the anachronistic ritual and traditions
  • change the shape of the commons so it’s less adversarial
  • use it better so there is real debate
  • change the people in there
  • and give select committees real power.

If you want to understand how the UK government works, read this book. It’s well written, very informative and well researched, informed by years of being one of the most recognised reporters in the country.


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