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.

Britain is gearing up for what promises to be a super-important, transformative, and possibly even historic general election on May 6.

I know – it doesn’t look like that on the surface. There are no inspiring political leaders in the campaign, only the increasingly ashen-faced Gordon Brown, prime minister and leader of the Labour Party, squabbling with the fresh-faced but ideas-lite leaders of the Conservative Party (David Cameron) and the Liberal Democrats (Nick Clegg).

Also, as evidenced in last night’s televised debate, there hasn’t been any real, substantial debate on important issues such as the sluggish economy, liberty, and the disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There has only been technical, bank manager-style disagreements over whether public services should be cut by X amount or Y amount, and whether “Our Boys” should come back from Afghanistan in six months or two years. So far, it all smells and sounds more like office politics than real politics.

However, something else is taking place, too, something unspoken and unchallenged: the leap towards a new style of political leadership. It signals a new kind of Britain that will be governed, not by politicians made and shaped through democratic engagement with the public, but by professional politicians who learned their skills and developed their beliefs in private firms and aloof think-tanks, far from the madding crowds.

An important generational shift is occurring, which could mean that in postelection Britain there will be an even bigger Grand Canyon-style chasm between the rulers and the ruled.

In many ways, Mr. Brown, who took over as Labour Prime Minister from Tony Blair in 2007, is the last old-style politician of the campaign. He cut his political teeth through left-wing activism, community work, and a very long stint as a member of Parliament.

Whatever you think of Brown’s political beliefs (I, personally, am not a fan), there’s no denying that he is a political animal. The oldest of the three main leaders fighting for our votes in the current election campaign (he is 59, Cameron and Clegg are both 43), he started out as a left-leaning student politician, served as an M.P. from 1983 to today, and was Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1997 to 2007 before wrestling the P.M.’s crown from Blair’s jealous, clasping hands.

By contrast, the new generation of aspiring political leaders are professional managers rather than political animals. Their formative years were spent, not traipsing through the streets to talk to the masses, but in air-conditioned offices doing deals and working out “political angles.”

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.

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.

Brendan O’Neill, a journalist based in London, is the editor of spiked, an online publication.

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