On the face of it, Zac Goldsmith and Peter Watt are two very different people. One thing they have common however is that they are high stakes rollers in the game of politics who claim to not be politicians.
Writing in today’s New Statesman, Peter Watt bemoans the fact that:
Working in front-line politics is like working in a goldfish bowl: everything you do is a potential story, good or bad. Elected politicians rightly have their say, argue their corner and defend themselves. It’s different for the staff of a political party. As a political staffer, you know there’s a risk that one day you could, however inadvertently, become a bad story yourself.
You know, too, that if and when that happens the “machine” will protect you as best it can. It is an unwritten but understood insurance policy andgoes to the heart of how and why political staff will go the extra mile.
I think it would be hard to deny that Labour did not treat Watt at all well and that Gordon Brown ratted him out at the first opportunity. So much for Gordon Brown. But it isn’t quite a simple as Watt would have us believe. After all, he was not strictly speaking a member of staff but an elected official. We was not there simply to do his political masters’ bidding; he had a political mandate of his own (from Labour’s National Executive Committee).
I think that failure of insight on his part explains a lot. If his agenda from day one as general secretary was merely to carry out instructions, it is no surprise that he failed to get Gordon Brown to commit to an October 2007 general election. If he failed to appreciate the political nature of his role and the importance of watching his own back, it is no surprise he was caught unawares by the Abrahams donor scandal.
Meanwhile on the other side of the political spectrum, we have Zac Goldsmith in the Evening Standard today airily announcing that:
“I hate politics. I hate the game of politics. I don’t want to get involved in this childish Punch and Judy. I have seen enough of politicians to know that it is not a class of people I particularly want to spend my time with.
“I don’t like career politicians. I don’t like what they stand for. I look at a politician who votes 100 per cent with his party and think: why did you do that? It’s all about career.”
There are several problems with these claims. First of all, Zac Goldsmith is by any rational definition a career politician. He started as editor of the Ecologist magazine back in 1998. I got the magazine for a few issues, discarding it because it had a distinct weakness for tinfoil hat theories regarding things like “electrosmog.” The other thing that used to wind me up were Goldsmith’s often polemic – and highly political – editorials, especially the ones where he bafflingly claimed that the EU was actually bad to the UK’s environmental policies (we would almost certainly be less green without the EU to prod us and a European Economic Community to enable us). The sort of pointed criticism he has received in recent months is exactly the sort of thing he has written himself, only on a different subject. And even if you ignore his former role as an environmental commentator, the simple fact is that he has been a party politician for four years now.
The only sense in which Goldsmith can be said to not be a career politician is that, as a dilletante, it is arguable that he does not have a career at all. His aversion appears to be less towards politicians per se and more towards those who lack the sort of financial independence he does. In short, he is waging class warfare here, pure and simple. For “career politician” read “oik”.
Either way, this whole “politician, moi?” stuff annoys me tremendously. I hated it just as much when Brian Paddick tried it on during the London mayoral election in 2008 with his “a policeman not a politician” posters et al. Paddick had a much better claim to not being a politician than either Goldsmith or Watt but his biggest problem lay in the fact that in his shiny suit he looked more like the consummate politician than any of his rivals (be it “regular bloke” Ken Livingstone, “toff” Boris Johnson or “hippy” Sian Berry). There’s a lesson to be learned there: if you indulge too much in this populist anti-politics mood then the ultimate victors are not “ordinary” people but consummate politicians who have enough cunning to hide it from view. The 2008 mayoral election was a great taster for what we might see in 2010: an election dominated by personalities, haircuts, tactics and name calling where the issues take a back seat. Neither Peter Watt’s book or Zac Goldsmith’s above-it-all act will exactly help in this respect.