The Problem With Personality Politics

In the wee small hours of Tuesday morning the execrable Donald Trump and the much maligned Hillary Clinton will lock horns in a heavily trailed, televised debate.  (True to his classy form The Donald thought it a great wheeze to invite a former Clinton mistress, and true to her classy past she has tweeted her enthusiastic acceptance.) The event, one of three, may or may not be decisive in an election which has become a worryingly close call.  But it does underline the extent to which the most important job in politics has become embroiled in arguments about personality, with policies being something of an also ran in the public debates.

In part this is down to a Presidential system which, in theory, has more power invested in the holder of that office than in the occupant of Downing Street or Charlotte Square.  And in part it is a result of a truly shaming performance by an American media which, with honourable exceptions, has given an easy ride to a blustering bully  whose empty rhetoric  and dog whistle racism should have seen him hustled from the ballot in week one of the primary campaigns.  Any one of Trump's outrageous slanders and barefaced lies would, in normal times, have sunk his candidacy.  Contenders have been reviled historically in US politics for mildly offensive behaviour or perceived weaknesses. Instead seasoned TV interlocutors have bowled Trump dolly drops and failed to call him out on his serial ignorance of  geopolitical matters to his failure - uniquely in Presidential campaigns - to release his tax returns. Worse, they have bought into his boastful re-writing of his own chequered business history; one littered with bankrupties and re-possessions. The "great negotiater"   the "fabuous deal maker" has commercial feet of solid clay.

But an attendant worry is how much this brand of personality politics has infected the UK variety. Scarcely had Teresa May put her first kitten heel down on the Number 10 carpet then commentators and cartoonists were falling over themselves to question whether she could be the new Thatcher.  The latter's unshakeable self belief was a huge building block in retailing personality politics predicated on the nature of the leader, but at least, unlike Trump, she had actual policies to sell however dire these might have proved.  And, as of yesterday, we saw the same phenomenon improbably attached to the blessed Jeremy Corbyn, as his adoring faithful at a Momentum rally hailed their conquering hero in the manner of groupies at a Bruce Springsteen concert.

This all seems to me profoundly unhealthy.  For one thing the relentless focus on personalities diverts important time and attention away from issues which deserve the kind of forensic examination currently being expended on personal qualities and failings.  And there is a secondary problem with this scrutiny in relation to those put under the unforgiving micrsocope of the 24/7 media circus.  This week for instance saw Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour's relatively new leader, first of all embroiled in a comedy of accidental errors in the Holyrood voting process, then lampooned widely for earlier remarks about Corbyn and her stated preference for Owen. (Though as it happened, a majority of her party in Scotland took the same view.)  The stock response to wondering whether this degree of pressure is fair on a relatively inexperienced party leader is that those averse to heat should promptly leave the kitchen.  Yet, in former times, people were afforded more time to acclimatise to rising temperatures!

Nicola Sturgeon has reaped the rewards of serving a ten year apprenticeship as a deputy leader before taking over the top job; a period where she witnessed at first hand the perils and pitfalls of putting yourself out there to be shot down, caricatured, and being the butt of some truly unsavoury trolling.  Ruth Davidson, less experienced than Sturgeon, at least has the advantage of being media savvy and trained in the art of appearing confident in front of cameras.  But all three of these women have had their personal lives relentlessly scrutinised, often in areas which have absolutely no bearing on their competence to discharge their party duties.

The clock will not be turned back.  It never is.  We are destined to be served up our political choices with undue emphasis on personality, though in UK terms at least,  contentious policies still get a reasonable airing. All we can hope for, as that clock ticks towards the November election across the pond, is that The Donald will be exposed to that nation as the Toom Tabard he is.