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On friendship in politics

Last week I attended a party to celebrate David Blunkett’s 65th birthday and 25 years as an MP. I worked for David for a number of years when he was education and employment secretary and then home secretary. Almost everyone from that period in my life was at the party: fellow special advisors, personal assistants, departmental ministers, PPSs, civil servants, government car service drivers and personal detectives. Estelle Morris and Paul Goggins gave lovely speeches in tribute to David. It was a joyous occasion, full of friendship, respect and love – all of it heartfelt and real, not affected.

Now as Estelle pointed out in her speech, David could be ‘a right bugger’ to work for, as well as a truly inspirational man. He was a demanding boss, to be sure. But he inspired loyalty and commitment, which is why the party was such a happy, well attended occasion. Not many politicians could host a party like that. Sure, the wine was superb, the catering was done by fantastic Westminster College apprentices, and the company was great. But David’s real secret is simple: he understands the importance of friendship, a much underrated virtue in politics.

In the Machiavellian tradition which informs so much of the Western political imaginary, politics is an instrumental business. Politicians utilise others for their own ends. They build networks of supporters through their patronage, cultivate favours and reciprocal obligations, and manipulate public personas. Friendship rarely features in the politicians’ annals of statecraft. It tends to be viewed with suspicion in politics. We decry favouritism; meritocracy demands that politicians should eschew the ties of friendship for advancement on the basis of merit alone. Or we demand service to higher ideals, rather than the tardy practices of ‘chumocracy’, as Fraser Nelson put it last week in his column on David Cameron.

In contemporary politics, you can’t get to the top without knowing the tricks of the trade. David Blunkett has been around long enough to know most of these. Yet the fellow feeling and warmth on display at his celebration party would have been inconceivable without real friendship. When you make lasting friendships in politics, you build more than temporary, expedient alliances. You create bonds of loyalty and affection that sustain you in your work, engender respect and admiration, and sometimes even arouse passion. When a politician is stripped of power, only the friendships are left. Alas, lots of politicians are left naked at that point.

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