By Andrew Gimson
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In Chambers Dictionary, the word
“authentic” is defined as “genuine: authoritative: true, entitled to
acceptance, of established credibility: trustworthy, as setting forth real
Our politicians are very often dismissed as a
bunch of proven liars: greedy, bogus, unreliable, untrustworthy and unentitled
to the benefit of the doubt. So one can see why they would prefer to be considered
But how does one attain authenticity? One
cannot go around saying “I am authentic”, any more than in former times one
could go around saying “I am honourable” or “I am a gentleman”.
The quality of authenticity has to be shown
rather than proclaimed. It proceeds from being seen to be true to oneself. But for
a politician, this requires the courage, or foolhardiness, to believe that
one’s true self is what the voters are looking for.
Ed Miliband is a north London intellectual.
If he wishes to sound authentic, he needs to speak like an intellectual: a
person who is fascinated by ideas and loves discussing them in abstract,
theoretical language, full of learned references to the work of other thinkers.
Mr Miliband very much doubts whether this
is what Middle England is looking for in a potential Prime Minister. So he has
played down his intellectualism, without finding anything to replace it. He has
failed to define himself.
My advice to Mr Miliband, which I offer in
the knowledge that he is unlikely to take it, is to be more intellectual. His
speeches should display the brilliance of a rising star at the London School of
Economics. To begin with, hard-bitten members of the parliamentary lobby will
mock him without mercy. But if he sticks to his guns, he might end by gaining a
degree of respect for being authentic.
David Cameron is an Anglican from a worldly
and patrician background. He too plays this down, on the assumption that it is
not what the voters are looking for.
When he makes moral judgments, he tries to
imply that these have nothing to do with the religious tradition to which he
belongs. When asked about Eton, White’s Club or the Bullingdon, he plays this
aspect of himself down.
My advice to Mr Cameron, which I offer in the
knowledge that he is unlikely to take it, is to be more patrician, and to take
a healthy pleasure in the ancient institutions with which he is fortunate
enough to be linked by birth. He should rejoin White’s and be known to dine
there occasionally with the Chief Whip. To begin with, hard-bitten members of
the parliamentary lobby will mock him without mercy. But if he sticks to his
guns, he might end by gaining a degree of respect for being authentic.
Nick Clegg is a multi-lingual member of the
European ruling class. He too plays this down, on the assumption that it is not
what the voters are looking for.
So although he stands up for the European
Union, he does so in as tactful and restrained a manner as he can. He holds
back the Tory eurosceptics, without doing much to advertise the fact.
My advice to Mr Clegg, which I offer in the
knowledge that he is unlikely to take it, is to stand up for the EU in a more
wholehearted way than either Mr Cameron or Mr Miliband ever dares to do. Mr
Clegg should present himself as the unfrightened, unembarrassed champion of a
United States of Europe. At first he would be mocked, but in the end he might
be respected for his courage.
As these examples show, being authentic is
not as straightforward as one might imagine. It depends on voters’ willingness
to accept certain forms of honesty, and on politicians’ willingness to say
things which might prove unpopular.
Nor is the attribution of authenticity as
straightforward as it may seem. Whether in private life or in politics, each of
us may decide to pursue a certain idea of how to behave. A coward may do
something which seems extremely brave, a humourless bore may somehow manage to
crack a good joke, and one cannot dismiss either the courage or the joke just
because it seems to be out of character.
Take the case of Boris Johnson. When I
wrote my biography of him, I found myself saying, while discussing his exploits
at the age of about 20: “He himself has a kind of genuine bogusness: a
ludicrous manner which has nevertheless become part of him.”
Mr Johnson’s Wodehousian manner was, in a
way, utterly ridiculous, because it was so out of date. But it was done with
such conviction, intelligence and humour that it became part of him, and
audiences were disappointed when he refrained from behaving in this way.
Hence his triumph during the Olympics when
he was left dangling on a zip wire. His public not only expected in this: they
revelled in it.
Yet Mr Johnson still found it expedient,
during his first campaign to become Mayor of London, to refrain for several
months from telling jokes. His need by then was to reassure voters that he was not
a clown, and was capable of being serious.
So although the authentic Mr Johnson was a
man who would not rest until he had told every possible joke a situation might
suggest, he proved himself fit for high office by pretending to be a dull dog.
Or take Jacob Rees-Mogg, the MP for North-East
Somerset. When first elected in 2010, Labour members listened to this
Conservative with delight because he corresponded to their idea of an
upper-class twit whose accent and dress would not have been out of place
several generations ago.
In due course, they found Mr Rees-Mogg has
worthwhile things to say on just about any subject on which he chooses to intervene.
Instead of being an authentic halfwit, he is an authentic parliamentarian,
thoughtful, courteous and sincere.
I feel a twinge of sympathy for any MP who
sets out to sound authentic. That way lies the telling of implausible anecdotes
about the “real” people one has met on one’s travels, and the tremendously “real”
things they said. Tony Blair managed for a time to sound authentic, but at
the ultimate cost of appearing entirely fake. The mind of a politician is better employed in working out what is worth saying.