The English and The Political Animal by Jeremy Paxman

3 September 2007

Two books in this installment of reposts, both by Jeremy Paxman of Newsnight and University Challenge fame.

The English by Jeremy Paxman

The English brings together a number of essays written by Paxman on the central theme of the English and Englishness, with particular focus on two questions: ‘What does it mean to be English? And why is “Englishness” so damned difficult to define?’ The span of topics covered by the essays range from the insular, in the form of the peculiar institution of the Church of England (‘The Parish of the Senses’), to the far-ranging, in a study of the repercussions of empire-building and empire-losing (‘The English Empire’). He even dwells on the simple questions regarding Englishness, such as ‘Why does England have no national anthem?’ The Scots have Flower of Scotland, the Welsh have Hen Wlad fy Nhadau…what about the English? God Save the Queen doesn’t really count, in his opinion, and he regards both Rule Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory as embarrassing in their Kipling-esque rejoicing in an Empire that doesn’t really exist anymore. The nearest Paxman can come to an English national anthem is Jerusalem (‘And did those feet in ancient time/ Walk upon England’s mountains green?’), but anyone who’s seen Blake’s poem in its entirely might shy away from later phrases like ‘dark Satanic mills’. And in any case, Paxman argues, Jerusalem feeds into what he sees as the Englishman’s unsettling and almost pathological glorification of the countryside at the expense of urban life. (Not that I’m saying that O Canada or The Star-Spangled Banner are any better as far as national anthems go, but at least the U.S. and Canada tend to have a vague idea of what they’re singing about. Most of the time.)

In essence, The English is a book intended to make the reader think about the ways in which a country and a culture can define, or fail to define, what it means to be ‘one of us’ vs. ‘one of them’. And with political rumblings about a new Scottish referendum and various demands for an ‘English’ assembly that would stand on par with the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, Paxman’s thoughts about the definitions of a healthy national identity have a good deal of relevance at the present time.

The Political Animal by Jeremy Paxman

First of all, it bears mentioning that where The English was oddly disheartening in its description of the English as a people without a nation, The Political Animal also happens to be oddly disheartening in a slightly different way. It poses a question for which there is no straightforward or even scientific solution: why does modern political life have such a strong appeal to a certain kind of public citizen, and why do so many of these public citizens seem make a complete cock-up of the whole thing once they actually get what they think they’ve wanted all along? And essentially, what Paxman seems to claim in The Political Animal is that a key prerequisite of being a British politician is being mildly insane, or having at the very least something approaching ‘functional’ (in the sense of still being able to function in day-to-day life) insanity that plays a notable part in driving their political ambitions.

Perhaps I’m being a bit too general or stereotypical here. Paxman does bring up some interesting points in his study of what might make an individual want to go into politics. One intriguing point of discussion is the fact that a majority of the British Prime Ministers of the twentieth century were children who grew up without a father figure — and conversely, of those who did have fathers, there was a definite sense of hero-worship and an overwhelming desire to please that particular parent figure at any cost. For example, Margaret Thatcher’s near-idolisation of her greengrocer father’s ‘Victorian values’ points to some deep inner longing to live up to the expectations of the strong image her father created, or possibly a desire to project that longing onto the voting public. Thatcher’s example is only one example of the many that Paxman recounts, and in the vast majority of the modern political figures he points to, he identifies a drive that when looked at from a certain angle would seem to be not quite mentally balanced. (Ambition, passion, crusader-ing, call it what you will, but politicians seem to have it in spades.) And Paxman hints that while it’s true that oftentimes genius and insanity are barely distinguishable, surely one would hope that we could point to our political leaders and cry ‘Genius!’ rather than ‘Basket-case!’?

Truthfully, if one ever wished to marshall facts for a solid argument against going into politics, The Political Animal would provide no end of quotes and examples to make even the most ardent politico shy away from the local council elections, let alone the House of Commons. Paxman specifically laments the growth of ‘professional’ politicians; that is, people who have had no other thought in their minds from their schooldays but to go into politics and to try and climb the greasy pole. Instead of Parliament attracting people who move into politics from another profession where they have some outside knowledge to draw upon — for example, former Labour Foreign Secretary and SDP co-founder David Owen was a medical doctor, which served him at least tolerably well at the Department of Health and Social Security — many modern politicians have moved steadily from their university debating societies to full-time political life without having had any experience of ‘real’ life. Paxman finds that trend disheartening, remarking that spending a lifetime in politics can all too easily divorce an individual from the reality of the life outside. If something should happen in Government (as it so often does), an MP can find himself or herself out of a job and with next to no marketable skills…having never thought about what exists beyond the Commons. The numerous Tory MPs who were ousted in 1997 would probably agree (if only privately) with that sentiment.

Though The Political Animal is primarily a book about British politics, I’d recommend it to anyone who is at all interested in what makes politicians tick. (If you take the author’s word on it, most of them are little more than barely stable time-bombs, anyway.) It’s a fluid and fluent look at a stormy subject, and I found it to be a very refreshing (if occasionally depressing) read.

One comment

  1. […] of Prescott’s struggles with public speaking — not to mention Jeremy Paxman’s The Political Animal, with its apocryphal quip that in recent years, prospective Hansard editors had to […]

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