British election: political animal Brown vs. technocrats Clegg, Cameron
To his credit, Gordon Brown cut his teeth through left-wing activism. Nick Clegg and David Cameron were groomed as professional political managers, insulated from the people.
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Cameron was a director of corporate affairs at a massive media company for seven years, before resigning in February 2001 in order to find himself a seat in Parliament. He was helped out by some of his old Oxford University chums and Conservative Party contacts.Skip to next paragraph
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Clegg started his career in newspaper journalism and at lobby firms, and later was physically as well as politically cut off from the British populace when he took a job in the European Commission in Brussels – an institution that a great many ordinary Brits feel alienated from and suspicious of. He has only been an elected M.P. since 2005.
The two Labour politicians currently battling it out to succeed Brown as party leader (it is widely predicted that Labour will do badly on May 6 and Brown will be forced to resign) had similar formative experiences.
David Miliband worked in think tanks and as an unelected policy researcher at Downing Street from 1989 to the late 1990s, only later deciding that he should try to be elected as an M.P. in order to increase his political clout in the Labour Party. Where the earlier breed of politician went out to discover what ordinary people believed and desired, Miliband stayed in, spending his early career fashioning policy proposals behind closed doors on the basis of evidence and research rather than experience or engagement.
Ed Balls, the other aspiring Labour leader, was an editorial writer at the Financial Times whose commentary caught Gordon Brown’s eye … and so he was helicoptered into Downing Street to work as an economic adviser, neatly circumventing the unruly masses as he made the leap from the F.T. to political power.
These new out-of-touch leaders are the product of some important political quakes over the past 20 years.
All of them were born in the mid- to late 1960s, and therefore came of age, politically and career-wise, toward the end of the 1980s and in the early 1990s -- that is, after the end of the cold war, and following the demise of the politics of left and right, and in the new era of technocratic, managerial, “Third Way” politics.
They embody the rather pallid, disengaged, cautious, and consensual politics that replaced the left-right clash that had, prior to the end of the cold war, defined Britain for a century or more.
Their focus on professionalism over political conviction, and their curious, dodge-the-masses route into politics, speaks to the emergence of a new kind of politics that is expert-driven and elitist rather than infused with the hopes, anger, and aspirations of the hoi polloi.
This is not to romanticize the old political leaders. Brown himself shows that it is possible to enter politics through traditional democratic means and still end up disengaged and disconnected from the public. But as a result of their engagement with the public, the old-style leaders did at least develop some real leadership qualities and an ability to empathize with, and sometimes even successfully represent, the outlook of the people they rubbed shoulders with.
My fear is that, after May 6, the new breed of leader will look upon the public more as a weird, inscrutable blob, best avoided.