the first people's politician
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When the Traffic Lights Stopped by Martin Friel


Chapter 3


I’ll be honest with you. I didn’t put any effort into this and nor did any of my colleagues in the civil service but we had to go through the motions, appearing to make every effort to get this project off the ground - that we really wanted it as much as the politicians. At best our efforts were half-hearted but that is a way of life for the civil servant.

Despite this, it still managed to get off the ground. We out-sourced the format and organisation of it to the BBC, let them regurgitate the usual talent show. I won’t go into the details – you know what these shows are like and if you don’t, take the effort to Google some examples and then catch up with the rest of us when you are ready.

Whether it was a fault in the concept or our lack of application I don’t know, but we had to go through three winners of the People’s Politician before Seth won it. That’s when I woke up and started paying attention but it took others, particularly the politicians, longer to understand what his winning meant. But then I was working closely with him and could see there was a difference. I’d worked with them all, trying to brief them on the world of politics, what they needed to do every day, educate them on the machinations of the press and essentially trying to make sure that they didn’t fall on their faces. Three times I failed on that last count and to be honest, it wasn’t until Seth won that things started to work and in retrospect, it was probably Seth that guided me through the process rather than the other way round.

I’m getting ahead of myself though. Three others graced the post of People’s Politician before he arrived and their role in this fable deserves recognition. Is it really a fable? Did it happen? When you hear the story you will doubt me, most do. It did happen and it is still happening but as you wander with me into this story, it does feel like I am recounting a fairy tale, a lesson from the past or from another world and time. It is all of that but there are moments, when I think about how we arrived in our here and now, that it is just unbelievable – what happened that is, what still happens and perhaps most of all, what used to happen. The way we lived is the most extraordinary part of it, the life that you will be most familiar with so take a look around yourself, read the newspapers watch the news, listen to what the politicians are saying, how and why they say it. Take a look at the lives you and everyone else lead, why you live it the way you do, why you have devolved your right to self-determination to a political elite who understand only the concept of your existence and why you so gleefully trade your rights for shopping.

Take stock of now and keep reminding yourself of it as we go along because it all changes and don’t ever forget, this actually happened to us. It is possible.

Those first three winners were disasters in their own unique ways. The first winner, Sian, was a predictable failure. She was all smiles and giggles, faux stupidity and humility. She was standard reality TV victory fare and the viewers, who watched the first series in record numbers, voted her in despite the protests, even pleadings of the judges not to. You’ll know from these talent shows (if you don’t and you didn’t Google it like I asked you to, just do it, it will save time) that viewers often go against the wishes of the judges. So they did that, their behaviour a faint trace of a time when people actually did kick against authority, refusing to be told what to do. It’s in the DNA; we still wanted to resist but the landscape in which this would be possible had been eroded and the only outlet left to the people was the playpen of reality TV.

Sian won despite what authority told viewers to do and the public felt good about that. I’m not sure they had any real understanding of what the People’s Politician would be doing and I think Sian was an experiment – chuck her in there and see what happens. If it’s good, we were right to vote for her. If it’s bad, then she knew the risks when she put herself up for this. Either way, sit back and enjoy the show.

I took Sian into Parliament on her first official day, to parade her in front of the mildly interested politicians. They were nice to her, at least the ones who knew who she was and why she was there were, and the PM in particular lavished praise on her, calling her the “embodiment of a new politics where the people have their wishes expressed and acted upon and you Sian, have been voted by the people to represent those wishes. I hope the House will join me when I say that Sian has our full support and confidence as she takes the lead in this exciting new chapter in our democracy”.

You could never be sure with a politician but it looked for all the world that he actually believed what he was saying.

Of course the House joined him and the adulation of Sian and the ruse that she represented, carried on for an hour, each party, each region clamouring to show their support and position themselves as the ones who truly supported the People’s Politician. Inevitably, they fell into their habitual squabbles and Sian was all but forgotten among the point-scoring so I led her out of there to begin representing the people. Nobody noticed.

So yeah, Sian was a disaster. She had no interest in ‘representing the people’ only herself and taking the well worn path to post-TV stardom. She didn’t want to be a politician and she certainly didn’t want to be with the people. She’s had her whole life with them and was ready to leave them behind. When we did manage to persuade her to do her job, she was so obviously disengaged, like a truculent teenager, that even I, who hated the whole charade, was embarrassed.

I wasn’t disappointed when it quickly fell apart. Her lack of commitment to the role was matched by my lack of enthusiasm so I let her flit around the nightclubs, store openings and award ceremonies to her heart’s content and waited for the inevitable backlash. It didn’t take the press long and it was a pretty straightforward execution job for them. Run of the mill. They had brought down much bigger beasts than Sian.

“Where is the People’s Politician?” they asked with some restraint but as the months and parties went by, they started to show the public just where their Politician was – stumbling out of nightclubs, attending film premieres – the usual haunts of the reality TV star. Then the attacks started coming in from the columnists and in debates on the late night news programmes.

She refused to defend herself with the defence of “why should I?”. Why should she indeed? Why should she apologise for her behaviour when every single one of those criticising her would no doubt have done the same and in the case of her more privileged detractors, did. But what she failed to realise was that since she had won her position, she ceased to be a private individual. It was open season and the old routine had to be played out – the adulation “isn’t she just so refreshingly normal?”, “she is just what this country and politics needs”, gradually morphing into “who does she think she is”, “why am I paying for her to swan around having fun” and finally “she’s a national embarrassment, a disgrace”, and once it gets to that stage, it’s all over.

Sian didn’t see it coming or developing and even when I explained to her that it was all over, that the project had failed, she refused to believe it. She had developed some kind of conviction that as she was the People’s Politician, voted in by the people, that it was not for the newspapers or any other commentator to tell her when to go.

And of course she was right but she had completely missed the point that the papers’ opinions, those of the commentators, were in effect, the people’s opinions. A mass of people can’t have an opinion so those commentators who have a bit of a flair for writing or polemics voice their own claiming that it represents public opinion and as they had taken against Sian, she was done for. I’m not sure that they did actually dislike Sian – her destruction probably owed as much to habit as anything else.

It appeared that the PM’s project had failed but his lack of self-awareness meant that rather than quietly bury his still-born project in shame, he demanded “more effort and greater rigour” in finding a replacement for Sian. He even had the nerve to suggest that it was we in the civil service who were to blame for the failure, not the fact that it was a stupid idea, a stupid fucking idea. No it was the lack of support that Sian received.

“This is what the people want – the record number of viewers for the People’s Politician shows that very clearly,” he told Parliament.

“I’m sure the House will agree with me that Sian’s inability to handle the pressures of her position and the unique focus of our nation’s press is a source of great regret to all of us and indeed, not a little shame too. There are few who sit in the House who would not sympathise with her troubles.

“However, we must ensure that whoever is given the privilege of taking on her role is properly supported by our civil service. It is simply not good enough for them to trip along behind our People’s Politician and hope that everything works out. I want to see proper guidance and support from our civil servants.

“In fact, I want to see more behaviour reflecting the term ‘Civil Servant’. They are servants, not leaders. Increasingly it feels as though they are the tail that wishes to wag the dog ...”

And so he went off into one of his rants about the civil service. He expected us to simply do as was bidden by the politicians and have no view or insight into what it was they were proposing or doing.

Of course we were policy executors, not formers but we weren’t idiots – we could see when something was going to be a disaster and we saw it as part of our duty, in our role as servants of the state, to discreetly protect the nation from politicians.

After all, we were the political experts. Ours was a true political institution. The House, as we saw it, was a stage for narcissists and sociopaths to play out their masturbatory little fantasies of grandeur and importance. All brightly coloured plumes, bombast and sleights of hand. It was our job to ensure that most of the half-baked, off the cuff policies didn’t get far enough to do any real damage. We were the gatekeepers and in many ways we were the ones who ran the country as the toddlers in the House mimicked the real thing.

Anyway, the PM had a pop at us for not supporting Sian properly and of course we took the scolding seriously, providing reassurances to his private secretary that we did in fact recognise the inadequacies of our performance and would ensure that the next iteration of the People’s Politician would be one that the PM could be personally proud of and one that the nation could embrace. And yes of course, every resource would be immediately poured into the project. Nothing would be left to chance. On to it right away. No slacking, no. Taking it perfectly seriously this time. Nobody will leave this building until the PM is satisfied, working through the night if necessary. Of course secretary, whatever it takes.

Shortly after he left, we went to the pub. Standing just across the road from our offices, I saw the private secretary making an awful job of pretending he wasn’t witnessing our mockery of him and his master. I tried to feel shame or pity but it just wasn’t coming. I felt good. It was our version of ignoring the judges and we enjoyed our little rebellion as much as the TV viewers.


On to Chapter 4



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