The two politicians that have had more space devoted to them on this blog than any others – Presidents and Prime Ministers excepted – have been Liam Fox and Denis MacShane. Both men, since I began to write of their exploits, have resigned in disgrace: the first after allowing his friend, advisor and well-paid neocon lobbyist Adam Werrity extraordinary access to his official affairs and the second after filing almost 20 fraudulent expenses claims.
I am not suggesting that I contributed to their downfalls. (Though I also used to write about Brian Coleman and now that greedy thug’s career is no more. No, no – while I had to take a moment to celebrate that fact I am aware that it took only one man to disgrace Brian Coleman: Brian Coleman.) I can, however, say that both Fox and MacShane were representative of a certain type of political actor; political actors that, among other things, are more than usually liable to disgrace themselves. I call this breed the Pootercrats.
Pootercrats are not terribly influential themselves but serve the purposes of people who are influential. They are would-be intellectuals and sycophants: the hangers-on of men with bigger wallets; better friends and grander dreams for the advancement of their interests or ideologies. They sit on the advisory councils of think-tanks with swanky websites and portentous titles. They write columns that present ambitions of the powerful as if they are nothing more than splendid ideas. They jet off to conferences and might, if they’re lucky, have the chance to sit behind the jugs of water and say a few words.
MacShane, then, spent a career snarling and sneering at the people who threatened the ideas of men that he admired. Fox made a second career of flattering them with invitations to address, attend or receive jumped-up baubles from his little social club. Such men are not powermongers but, through the desire to be, reduce themselves to being the guard dogs and event planners of the people who are.
One needn’t be a politician to be a Pootercrat. Journalists and academics succumb to the temptation. Niall Ferguson (who is, I’ll grant, a real intellectual) writes lofty essays in Newsweek that give one the impression that he is a man to be reckoned with but then you read his shrill defence of Henry Kissinger and the blustering seems reminiscent of the kids that threw insults from the shadows of their stockier friends. The essays themselves, meanwhile, seem a bit try-hard: conveying not the bland assurance of a Kristol or a Kagan but a keen desire to win their arguments for their side. This is often a neat way of separating people that matter from those who support them: the latter act as if there’s an argument they have to win; the former act as if it’s won. It is not, I think, that they need have a great desire to prove their case but a great desire to prove themselves.
Lots of us, if we’re honest, have Pootercratic potential. Why do I write as if I’m addressing the nation? Partly because I’m influenced by writers that do but also, perhaps, because there is a part of me that would like to be significant. It’s an exaggerated sense of this that drives the Pootercrat: the desire to be a force in history. There is something almost endearing about this. While so much of politics is driven by self-interest and ideological fervour there is something far more human about yearning to be someone. There is something poignant, too, in their habit of self-destruction. Such is their desire to be highflying jet-setters, and such is the relative modesty of their positions, that they are liable to support their activities and lifestyles through lowly illicit means. It’s sort of relatable. Has anyone read the Adrian Mole book where he gets some credit cards and starts buying cappuccino machines as if they’ll turn him from being a sales assistant into a member of the literati?
These human qualities, however, are also why Pootercrats are of value to more influential men. They can rephrase their ambitions in more relatable terms. A Bruce Jackson or a Richard Perle could never have sold the Iraq war to the public. They needed people who would be more suited to conveying the fear and self-righteousness that would make their soulless ideas seem more attractive. Avoiding such a menial status demands that we carefully maintain the independence of our own minds. It’s an obligation: not only for the good of our societies but for the dignity of our souls.