Britain’s Crisis of Authenticity


I have devoted the past decade of my working life to helping the leaders of British society express themselves.  I know, therefore, just how difficult it is for public figures to achieve authenticity in today’s world.

And that for politicians, it is especially so…

Constrained to watch their every word and deed with extreme care, too many politicians lose their ability to speak, or even think, authentically; which in turn gives rise to debilitating levels of self-doubt, anxiety about how they are understood, and uncertainty as to who they are, what they believe and what they are trying to achieve; and the beginning of a peculiarly vicious circle.

Too many politicians?

In reality, in my experience, it is most.

I believe British public life is suffering from a crisis of authenticity; and I believe it to be not only unhealthy for the individuals concerned but also dangerous for our political system:  dangerous for the free flow of information, freedom of expression and the quality of debate and of leadership; dangerous for our social and national cohesion; and dangerous for parliamentary democracy as we know it.

In Britain, awareness of “political authenticity” as an important political issue or concept is lower than it is in America; and usage of the term generally imprecise.  Even in America, though, where it has long been an evergreen staple of political punditry, its meaning tends to be left a little vague.

So, what is it?

At AGL, we see political authenticity as having four fundamental elements, or constituent parts, all interrelated; and the absence of any one of which ought probably to prove fatal to seekers after high office.

Firstly, there is personal authenticity…

To what extent, my political friend, does your outer reflect your inner self?  How much of your personality is hidden from view; and of that which is on view, how much is true and how much untrue?

Secrets, even secret gardens, are allowed – you don’t have to let the light into every hidden nook, every mysterious cranny – but not lies.

It’s all right to be an iceberg:  an iceberg may be 89% below water but its tip gives you a fair idea of what it’s made of.

It’s not all right to be a volcano.

Secondly, there is intellectual authenticity…

How much real thought have you given to your ideas?  Do you come at your politics with an open mind or a jerking knee?

Have you challenged the political opinions and allegiances you acquired at birth or had when you first caught the political bug or stood for election; or have you at least permitted them to evolve over time, as circumstances and society have changed, and you’ve grown in knowledge and experience?

As for individual policy decisions, how often do you listen, really listen, to the other side; or consider as fully as you could, and surely should, the people whose lives they will actually affect?

And how frequently do your opinions differ from those of your party?  It’s not good to be a Vicar of Bray but neither is it good to be a slave to dogma or party.

It is never good to stop thinking.

Thirdly, there is social authenticity…

However rarefied your background or bank balance, do you live in the real world or know what it is to do so?

Do you have what it takes to connect with ordinary people:  the drive and desire; the imagination and emotional intelligence; the need to know and understand; the ability to speak human but with conviction and authority; and, on occasion, passion?

Or do you speak like a talking cog in the party machine, as if a spin-doctor has taken a scalpel to whichever part of the brain controls your tongue?

Finally, do you know how to speak about yourself in a way that inspires others?  Do you have a personal narrative that dramatises and makes sense of your life and values, your notions of right and wrong?

And do you have the courage and humility, as all leaders must if they wish to connect with the people they lead, sometimes to expose your frailties, your vulnerabilities, your humanity…?

Last but not least, there is moral authenticity…

Are you honest?  Are you sincere?  Are you brave? 

Do you treat the facts with the respect they deserve:  the facts and the analysis of the facts; and tell the convenient and inconvenient truth, alike; and in bad times, as well as good, always play fair?

And are your beliefs sincerely held or tainted by calculation or convenience; and if sincere, consistent with your own private behaviour?

And are you, when it matters, and you know you’re right, courageous enough to defend them, even against the party whips?

Are you, in the end, in politics to help others or to look after yourself?

In theory, there is nothing so very difficult about achieving political authenticity…

It’s about defining and communicating the truth about yourself, your take upon the world and your vision of the future; and because political authenticity cannot be acquired overnight, doing it over time.

It’s about explaining honestly who you are, what you believe and what you want to do; and not being the political equivalent of a Stepford wife.

There’s nothing so very hard about any of that, surely; and yet, in practice, most politicians seem to find it very hard indeed.

There are three main reasons why.

The first is the neurotic fear of public opinion…  

Of course public opinion matters.  It should be treated with the greatest of respect:  not only because we live in a democracy; but also because the popularity of any measure, whether in the country as a whole or amongst those most directly affected, has implications for its workability.  As the Iron Lady was brutally reminded by the poll tax riots, politics is the art of the possible.

Governments, however, are elected to govern and leaders to lead; not fret over opinion polls that are as volatile as they are dubious; or trot along behind public opinion like a spring lamb in pursuit of its mother on some dirty sheep trail.

Government should be about trying to do the right thing; and leadership about leading:  leading debate; leading thought and opinion; explaining to people where you want to lead them, and why, and taking them there.

We do not elect opinion pollsters and focus groups.  We do elect leaders, governments and Members of Parliament.

The second is our round-the-clock news media, with its voracious demand for instant reaction to events, real and imagined; and its pitiless scrutiny of every angle of every story, every dot and every comma of every pronouncement…

Kate Adie has criticised twenty-four hour news coverage for valuing speculation, spurious commentary and flashes of thigh over authentic, carefully considered news reporting, in general, and war reporting, in particular.  I criticise it for the unreasonable pressure it places upon public figures.

It may be done in the name of accountability and open government but it has had a devastating impact on their ability to speak and behave freely and authentically.  Moreover, it is not just politicians who face these challenges.  The vice is starting to tighten around business leaders, too.

In a perfect world, any leader, of any kind, on any broadcast, would always ask themselves not “What should I say?” but “What do I want to say?” and “What is the right thing to say?”.

In the real world, alas, it is hard to resist the seductive comforts of the pre-ordained party line or the briefing lovingly prepared by your expert and nimble advisors; and all too tempting to take refuge within the strict but reassuring parameters of political or public expectations; or to slip, much as an exhausted navigator might switch into autopilot, into political- or corporate-speak.

The third is a party system that is not only excessively constraining but also wholly outdated:  a profoundly problematic cocktail…

It is constraining in the sense that party discipline makes free and open debate impossible.

It is outdated in the sense that the division of the political world into the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties no longer properly corresponds to the fault lines that matter within the electorate or even, frankly, Parliament.

They are like three outdated brands:  the Blue Nun, Sarsons Malt Vinegar and Heinz Salad Cream of political life.

And it’s never easy to express yourself authentically as part of an outdated brand. 

All of this would be bad enough, and certainly sufficient to explain the evident disaffection of the voting public, but it comes at a time when the Internet has politically empowered ordinary people as never before; and, above all, given them an ability to act and react independently of elected political leaders and established political structures…

Some people rejoice at that; and in different circumstances, so would I.  I’m a democrat; and I yearn for a more equal society.  In these circumstances, though, I find myself worrying how long we will put up with a broken political system; and wondering where its breakage might lead.

How long will it be before we have our Network moment?

Or hit the streets?

Or we’re tempted by extremism of the right or left because it feels real?

Or by nationalism…?

One of the hallmarks of the true statesman is the ability and willingness to shape and reflect our values and aspirations; to dramatise and make sense of our lives as moral beings and as citizens; to tell the country a story that resonates with people of all backgrounds, up and down the land, about where it is, how it got there and where it wants to go; and to give us a national identity around which we can unite.

However, to do this requires a powerful connection between leader and led; and connections of that kind require political authenticity of a high order.  Unfortunately, it is now clear that successive British prime ministers, over many decades, have failed, and failed catastrophically, to construct a national narrative that strikes a chord in the tartan heart:  that includes and embraces the people of Scotland.

They have failed in part because of their failure, north of the border at least, to establish political authenticity.

And their failure may yet lead to the end of Britain.

Senior politicians tell me they are aware of a public hunger for authenticity; but do they understand how high are the stakes; or how urgent is the need for change; or how radical that change has to be?

Do they understand that without a major injection of authenticity, and real political leadership, the United Kingdom might soon be disunited and in fragments?

Do they understand what grubby figures our elected representatives cut as, heads bowed, they drift meekly through the division lobbies approved by their party rather than those preferred by their conscience?

Do they understand the extent to which our political system is intellectually corrupt and morally bankrupt?

Do they understand how depressing they all are?

Do they?

Do they?

I wonder.