I ponder on this question every so often, and it came up recently when I went to a Cambridge Sceptics in the Pub talk by my local MP Julian Huppert. Richard Taylor has provided everyone with a very comprehensive write-up of the event, which I’ll leave you to read through without me adding to it.
After the event, I bumped into one of my local councillors, Cllr George Owers (Lab), who happened to be there with a couple of Cambridge Labour Party activists who I met for the first time on that same evening. Earlier that afternoon, I happened to bump into a different local councillor from a neighbouring ward – Cllr Paul Saunders (LD) – who I regularly bump into along Mill Road. Alongside all of that, the person who has commented most on my blogposts is Andy Bower, a Conservative Party activist who stood against George Owers in the recent by-election. Followers of Puffles will also be aware of local Green Party councillor Cllr Adam Pogonowski who regularly appears in Puffles’ Twitter feed and on retweets.
Which then begs the question:
How is it possible to remain on cordial terms with all of these people who have strong views from across what I call the political compass matrix? (My take is that the traditional left-right political spectrum is ‘so last millennium’).
Interestingly enough, it was former Conservative MP Julie Kirkbride who gave me an insight into some of the answers when she briefed a group of us young up-and-coming civil servants a few years back on the PGCS course convened by the National School of Government. She said that a number of political friendships formed between politicians from different parties and were far more numerous than most people outside of the Whitehall jungle probably realised. It was in that same week that I saw former Conservative Defence Secretary Lord (Tom) King in relaxed conversation with Dennis Skinner MP. Kirkbride also commented that just because two people are in the same party, does not mean that they will necessarily like each other.
This was something Ben Elton referred to in his material from the 1980s when he tore into Margaret Thatcher’s administration – accusing her of treating the system of cabinet government with contempt. Elton reeled off a list of Prime Ministers who appointed political rivals to their cabinets – Lloyd George and Winston Churchill, Harold Wilson and Tony Benn, Edward Health and Margaret Thatcher, stating that the principle of cabinet government was one that was more important than trying to spite political rivals. Elton then reeled off a list of tory grandees who resigned or were forced out, before listing a number of people who he saw as political non-entities taking up cabinet posts. This was in 1989 but one of those was John Major – who he described as a ‘vacuum’ – who ‘if he stood still for long enough he’d suck the carpet up his trousers.’ Ben Elton’s reference to the old grandees was something along the lines of
‘They may have been ‘barstards’ but at least you’d heard of them!’
(I, on the other hand have to be careful with political jokes as I used to work for some of them – no, take that back!) [I hope no one takes that last line too seriously lest they end up becoming a joke themselves].
On my side of things, there are a number of considerations that I’ve thought about carefully in terms of what to do and how to proceed in my post-civil-service days. The manner of how the civil service cuts have been managed – and the manner in which my civil service career came to an end is something that will stick with me. Hilary Cooper – who I once worked with put this brilliantly earlier this year.
The other consideration is that my general disposition is one of being interested in politics and current affairs. For the past seven years I’ve had to be careful about what I have said and done in terms of politics due to the restrictions of the Civil Service Code. Apart from the duties that remain with me as set out in that Code, I’m now in a position where I am much more free to say what I like about politicians and politics. Yet old habits die hard. One of my former directors said to me that when you have been in a policy team under more than one administration and/or more than one political party, it is very difficult to become politically tribal. That is because your job at various points involves trying to pick holes in other people’s arguments while trying to patch up arguments in your own – or vice-versa. Civil servants are some of the few people in the work place where they can spend months and months tearing something to pieces only to be told by their boss (the minister they work for) that actually that something is a great idea and that they are now charged with telling all and sundry why the government of the day will be proceeding with it.
Having also been a moderator on a couple of internet forums, I discovered very quickly that being rude seldom gets anyone anywhere. Hence the ‘house rules’ on this blog and Puffles’ original House Rules (though please note rules 1 & 7 have been relaxed.)
…and they seem to have worked thus far.
Coming back to things locally, one of the things Dan Ratcliffe of Cambridge Labour told me was that some of the roles of party political activists are such that the only other people who can relate to them are those of other political parties in the same role – such as election agents. Perhaps this is even more so at a time when the standing of politicians and of party politics in general is at a very low level in the public’s esteem. Only a couple of weeks ago a couple of old friends from my school days and my first workplace who I’d not seen for several years, said to me that ‘all politicians are the same’. From their standpoint – occupied with work and families and with little time for traditional politics, I can see why. Irrespective of which political party you’re supporting, how do you convince the general public in a time of ‘anti-party-politics’ that you, your candidate or party are different?
As human beings, there are lots of things that bring people together – from things like supporting the same football clubs and charities, attending the same places of worship/adhering to the same religious belief to a common interest in a niche subject. With some it might be a case of “well, I don’t agree with his or her politics but actually we have a shared interest in …” – something that is reflected in the membership of Parliament’s “All Party Groups” (That said, these groups have been tarred with accusations of impropriety)
There will inevitably be some who take the view that they cannot be friends with someone who is in another (mainstream) political party. They’ll have their own reasons why and that’s their call. Just as when I see debates between Twitter followers outside the party-political world that I respect degenerating into personal insults, I also feel a little uncomfortable when the same thing happens between party activists and elected representatives of all parties. But then party political spats (between and within parties) can be vicious even at the best of times – local government politics has a reputation for being as fiery just as local government finance is complicated. I would appeal for people to keep things polite, but that’s about as likely as ending all of the world’s problems – something we can aspire to but will never actually achieve.