The art of politics | Steve Richards | TEDxHousesofParliament

Translator: Emma Gon
Reviewer: Kim Key One of the things I do,
apart from political journalism, I write columns and do stuff for the BBC, is that I go around touring the country. –I’m a bit like Bob Dylan
on an never-ending tour except that I’m not quite so wealthy,
or well-known, or legendary, but apart from that, we’re very similar. (Laughter) And I do this tour with a show
called Rock ‘n’ Roll Politics, –it’s a metaphor for politics
being all shook up– and the reason I do it
is this weird theory I have that politics is more interesting
than it seems. I’ve got a lot of friends
who tell me quite openly: “I don’t know how you cope, Steve! It’s so boring, they are all bribing,
they are the same…” I say, “I think it is really interesting,”
and they look at me as if I’m off my head. But here is why I think it is interesting. Politics is full of people, human beings facing nightmarish dilemmas day in, day out. And when you recognized
the kind of dilemmas they face, politics become partly a thriller, partly a moral escapade, partly something that touches a soul. I remember seeing Blair, when he became Prime Minister in 1997. He used to invite columnists to see him
about once every 10 minutes. He was obsessed with the media. I went to see him,
it was about the summer of 1997, he was about 50 points ahead in the polls,
is that period when he walks on water. And at the end.
–I knew him quite well in opposition– at the end, I said to him
over this coffee: “Just out of interest Tony,
what is it like being Prime Minister?” “What is the human experience
of being Prime Minister?” And Blair was sort of getting up: “Ah, it’s interesting,
I’ve never thought about it, actually.” Lie. (Laughter) And then, he said: “I’ll tell you,
I’ll tell you what the difference is. I find out that every hour
I have to face and make a decision, and the decision comes down to:
“Do I slit my wrist or cut my throat?'” And then he paused and said,
“I quite like it actually.” (Laughter) But what he was saying is, all the time, he faced decisions
where there was no easy win. And in that mindset, by the way, –I don’t have time to go into it today– you start to explain the tour he took
to the nightmare called Iraq. But that’s what makes it interesting. Even in a era, where there is not
much charisma around, you can’t help but be interested
because of these human dilemmas. Take two current examples, Ed Miliband. He has been much mocked and vilified
for having that photograph. [Do] you know the photo I am referring to
with The Sun newspaper, backing England in the World Cup? [Do] you know what I’m talking about? Well, anyway, those of you who don’t, Miliband, last Friday, was photographed holding aloft The Sun
backing our boys in the Word Cup. People said: “What a disaster!”
“He is anti-Murdoch, he is anti The Sun.” “He’s condemned The Sun in the past.”
“What’s he doing?” “This is like Iain Duncan Smith
at his worst. He’s lost it.” But just think about it for a second. If he had refused the request to back
our boys as they approached the Word Cup, imagine what would have happened to him? “Geek refuses to back our boys,”
“Unpatriotic Ed Miliband refuses…” So he would have been in agonies
about this wretched photo: “What do I do? If I don’t do…” As a result, you get into a complete mess; he apologised for the photo having taken,
the worst of all words. But the alternative was also a trap. And the same with Cameron today. He’s in the European Summit,
he’s going to try and veto unsuccessfully the next President of the European Union. And a lot people said,
the big mistake Cameron has made, has been to do this noisily. As if an option available to him
would be to sort of whisper quietly: “Do you mind if you veto
the EU President?” The moment you set out on this course –and incidentally he had no choice
but to set out on this course because his party
would have crucified him if he didn’t– you have no choice but to do it noisily. You can’t whisper to Merkel:
“Do you mind, very softly, if we rack the entire plans
of the European Parliament and all of you?” You have to do it noisily. But he’s been condemned and he would have been condemned
if he hadn’t tried to do it. He was trapped. But we, journalists,
do not see the dilemmas. We assume they are mighty and strong, and in the gap between the two, tragedy and comedy collide
in a kind of Shakespearean way. It’s what I explore in my fall show. But, what has to happen
as a result of this collision is these nervous leaders
have to become inauthentic. They have to pretend
that they are what they are not. To give one example. Cameron and Osbourne are posh. It’s not their fault that they are posh.
They are posh, they were born posh. (Laughter) But in modern Britain, you’re not allowed
to be posh, it’s a big change. Macmillan used to show off
about how posh he was. The biggest crisis Cameron and Osbourne
have faced in this Parliament, was whether or not
they’ve ever eaten a Cornish pasty. (Laughter) You may remember,
Osbourne in one of his budgets, put the tax up on Cornish pasties. It was a weird comic moment: “This is going to be
a historic tax reforming budget.” Pause. I am putting a penny on Cornish pasty.” He thought what? History in the making? But from that moment, the burning question
of British politics was, “Had Cameron or Osbourne
ever eaten a Cornish pasty?” (Laughter) In Cornwall, they’d say: “I bet those posh bastards
have never eaten a Cornish pasty.” (Laughter) Miliband and [Ed] Balls
were filmed in Greggs. (Laughter) Miliband looked as if ha’d never been
in Greggs in his life, I can’t think why. Balls looked entirely at ease
and ate two Cornish pasties on the spot. (Laughter) But Cameron and Osbourne didn’t know
how to deal with the question not because there wasn’t an answer,
there was, I bet they’ve never eaten them, but the symbolism was dangerous, it would show that they were too posh
to have eaten a Cornish pasty. So Osbourne disappeared for months,
didn’t appear in front of the media. Cameron had not such option
as a Prime Minister, and the next time he appeared in public,
while this question was ragging, was a joint press conference
with the Italian Prime Minister in the midst of the euro crisis
in number 10. And they walked out to the podium together
for this joint press conference. Cameron talked for 5 minutes on the euro, the Italian Prime Minister 5 minutes
for the euro, and then Cameron said: “Right, any questions from…?”
“Yeah, Nick Robinson, BBC. “Prime Minister, have you
ever eaten a Cornish pasty?” (Laughter) Well, at that point, the Italian Prime Minister
has a heart attack, because he doesn’t even know
what a Cornish pasty is and whether he’s meant to have eaten it, and Cameron, you might have remembered, said: “Well, what a question Nick,
but since you’ve asked, I thoroughly enjoyed a Cornish pasty
at Leeds Railway Station.” This was the planned answer
that they’d spend about 3 weeks preparing. (Laughter) Cameron went back to his office, sat down
with all of his advisers, and said: “Thank God, we’ve got the Cornish pasty
question out of the way.” And then he looked up
at the rolling news TV screen, –the modern tyranny for leaders– and there was Adam Boulton from Sky News, who looked as if he had eaten
about eight Cornish pasties that day, (Laughter) talking about the pasty crisis. And underneath,
was the strapline “breaking news”: ” A spokesman from Leeds Railway Station has said that the Cornish pasty shop
closed nine years ago.” (Laughter) “Cameron could not have eaten
a Cornish pasty.” Huge crisis, I’ve got a call
from Newsnight: “Will you come up and talk about
the future of the coalition?” And on it goes. Now, the reason why
someone who is quite a skilled politician, whatever you think of him, got into such a mess over Cornish pasty
is because he could not be what he is. Similarly with Ed Miliband, when you see him speak in public,
he tries to be like Tony Blair, because he hasn’t got
a confident public voice. I saw him speak once, he does that white shirt
wandering around the stage, and he said the last time like Blair: “I tell you what’s wrong
with this country, it’s got good people and a bad government. I want to achieve the reverse.” He said, what?
(Laughter) You can’t be what you are not. But, because we, the media,
and perhaps all of us, do not accept
that they have these dilemmas, they cannot tell us
they have these dilemmas. They cannot go on a state program and say: “Well, actually, I feel really in a bind
about this, I am not quite sure what to do.” That would be authentic,
but they opt for inauthenticity instead. And in that is a treasure trove of tragic, comic and significant material. Thank you very much indeed. (Applause)

Maurice Vega

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