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Last Updated: Friday, 17 March 2006, 17:19 GMT
Why become a politician?
Brian Walden
By Brian Walden

What drives people to pursue a political career? Is it idealism, ideology or because they enjoy being bossy? And how much can politicians expect to influence events?

Though I'm sometimes asked about politics, rarely do the questions have anything to do with famous figures.

Most questioners want to know why people make politics their career? Or whether life in politics is enjoyable and if it isn't why politicians put up with it?

In my experience, the aspects of politics that arouse some interest have practically nothing to do with ideology, or how a country is governed and administered. What seems to matter to the public isn't what politicians say they believe, but how they behave.

It makes sense that the grass roots want some evidence of common humanity from politicians, whose whole business is devoted to exercising power over others.

To tell somebody that you wish to govern them in their own best interests is surely a rather odd thing to say. Undeniably, politics is a somewhat peculiar activity that has a strong appeal only to a few.

Regular guys?

It's perfectly rational to wonder what goes through the heads of these few. Obviously they don't all think alike, but I believe the assumption often made in western society that politicians are much the same as everybody else is seriously misleading.

Stalin abducted the wife of a close political colleague

Back in the early days of his premiership, Tony Blair famously said he was "a pretty regular sort of guy". Don't you believe it. "Regular sorts of guys" don't end up being prime minister with the political wiles to stay 10 years in the job.

The claim that there's an inherent similarity between politicians and the people is a democratic myth. It's meant to be helpful, because it reduces resentment.

But by making the relationship between governors and governed sound simple, when in reality it's complicated, the myth does more harm than good.

This week has been dominated politically by such issues as an effective code of ministerial conduct, whether honours are given in return for financial loans and a split on state education that cuts across party lines.

Molotov's cocktail

None of this can be understood in terms of what people have demanded. We have to admit that politicians are different and ask the difficult questions. What motivates politicians? What keeps them on track? What divides them in outlook from the man and woman in the street?

Are politicians driven by ideology or an interest in "cutting a dash"?

In case you feel that you ought to be offered evidence that some politicians really do have an attitude to life that's abnormal, I give you the case of Stalin and his devoted follower and fellow politburo member Molotov. In his time Molotov held every top Soviet job.

He was editor of Pravda, premier of the Soviet Union, foreign minister and a host of other positions. He sat on the politburo with Stalin for 27 years. Apart from his dedication to Bolshevism, his only other interest in life was his Jewish wife, Polina, whom he adored.

But Stalin was anti-Semitic and came gradually to detest Polina Molotova. In 1939 he gave serious thought to having her kidnapped and murdered. For some reason he changed his mind, but 10 years later in January 1949 he had her arrested.

Molotov had no idea whether she was dead or alive, since Stalin didn't choose to tell him. Beria, the head of the secret police, occasionally whispered to Molotov at politburo meetings, "Polina's alive."


Stalin died in 1953 and Molotov spoke at his funeral on 9th March. The next day Molotov was reunited with his wife in the Lubianka and took her home from that frightful prison.

Tony Blair
Tony Blair promoted an image of being a "regular guy"

For four years he'd worked for Stalin, even though Stalin had whisked his wife away to the Gulag, or to death, for all Molotov knew for sure. And that isn't the end of the story.

To their last days, Molotov and his wife were the most passionate Stalinists in the USSR. Even after Khruschev's denunciation of Stalin, Molotov and Polina wouldn't hear a word against the old tyrant. Incidentally, if Stalin had lived just a little longer, he'd almost certainly have murdered them both.

Nobody has ever suggested that Molotov suffered from a mental illness. He wasn't mad, it's just that he thought ideology was much more important than human relationships. What was his wife's life worth compared with the onward march of Bolshevism?

You don't have to be a Bolshevik to exalt ideology and dogmatic belief above life and love. I've known quite a number of democratic politicians who were besotted with dogma.

Crooks or fanatics?

It becomes for them a kind of cult religion. Most people judge by practical results, but some politicians judge everything by a theory, which, however often it goes wrong, they believe in implicitly.

Counting votes
Do politicians want to win votes or to implement their beliefs?

Dogmatic beliefs can be of the left or the right and even of the centre. Of course, quite a lot of politicians have no consistent beliefs of any sort. Their aim is to win elections and be given a job and they're rather inclined to regard ideology as something that gets in the way of honest ambition.

The great American lawyer, Clarence Darrow, was once rebuked for spending time with unprincipled politicians rather than those who cherished dogma. He replied that everyone must make their own choice, but he'd sooner vote for crooks than fanatics.

Though politicians can take very different views on the importance of ideology they have one characteristic that's almost universally shared among them.

No perceptive observer who sees politicians at close quarters can fail to notice their restlessness. Politicians don't like a quiet life.

Political power

If they're not battling against mighty problems what purpose do they serve? There must be struggles against someone and victories over something.

Politicians don't just want to hang around enjoying power. They want to enthuse society.

The opportunity for politicians to cut a dash on the national stage has gone on increasing as year by year the extent of private life relentlessly decreases.

I doubt if many people alive understand what most people 100 years ago meant by privacy and freedom.

The famous Oxford historian, AJP Taylor, pointed out that before the First World War "a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state".

He does these days. The state is neurotically worried about his health and safety. Not only is it eager to confront basic issues and tell him what to eat and drink, but it encourages police forces to buy high-powered cameras capable of reading car number plates from several thousand feet up in the sky. This is to prevent the sensible Englishman from endangering himself and others by exceeding the speed limit.

Political irrelevance

Obviously we see here a fairly common characteristic of politicians. They tend to be bossy. They like telling other people what to do. Some like it more than others, but those who like it least find the spirit of the age is against them.

If they decline to intrude into what used to be regarded as private life, they're accused of negligence. One can't heap all the blame on politicians if we insist that it's the duty of the state to protect us from ourselves.

Politicians are different from the majority because many of them are more influenced by theory, they are more concerned with controlling the lives of others and they get more satisfaction from exercising power than from relaxation and taking their ease.

But I think it would be a mistake to believe that in contemporary society politicians necessarily set the agenda. Just as the "sensible law-abiding Englishman" is now chivvied from pillar to post because some of his fellow citizens are worried and afraid and want everything checked repeatedly; so politicians are increasingly dominated by the same climate of opinion.

In a world full of military and natural dangers fear holds the whip hand. Ironically, this will bring governors and governed, politicians and people closer together.

Politicians have become like the priests of an ancient, primitive religion. They keep frantically blessing ever more sacrifices and offering up ever more prayers. But few people believe they're controlling destiny - and I doubt they believe it themselves.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Wanting to become a politician should be an automatic disqualification for actually being one. Those who "rule" should have to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into power. As Thomas Paine said: "That government is best which governs least." Pity more people don't think this way.
Huge, Bedford

It is unfortunate that in order to even want to become a politician you need to embody many of humanities worst traits, egotism, aggression and greed. The driving force behind feeling that your own chosen ideology is "right" and needs to be forced on all for the good of society is sadly lacking in any vision or in reality any common good. For what a politician means by common good is often only good for themselves or those who keep them in power.
Stephen, Liverpool

Politicians are in it for the money - plain and simple. The problem with the country today is that we have professional politicians who see it as a job and not a vocation.
Mountford, Sutton Coldfield

Though I generally agree that there are certain personality traits common to politicians and that they are similar to priests of an "ancient, primitive religion" I think this article fails to mention the role of the electorate in holding the politicians to account. It is very easy to put the onus on someone else for society's problems. But everyone in society functions as a part of an interdependent whole. When we elect a leader/political party, it is the job of the society to hold them to their promises, but most people ignore that civic duty because they just want to rest and relax after a hard day's work and feel that someone else should be responsible for running the country.
Rishi Agarwal, Toronto

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