Purely coincidental timing of course, no reason why I should be thinking about the country having the wrong politicians at the moment. But, for whatever reason, I did find myself opening this book by Isabel Hardman, a political journalist at the Spectator, whose writing and contributions I’ve always found on point. She’s also (rightly) earned even more respect for her openness about her mental health, and her attempts and efforts to stay healthy.
Which is all by way of saying that I was looking forward to reading this book, and I was a bit underwhelmed by it in the end. I think it’s partly the title: actually, the book feels much more like “What it’s like to be a politician right now” or, more accurately, “What it’s like to be a Member of Parliament right now” as there is little about local government councillors, police & crime commissioners or city-region mayors. So I guess I was expecting something slightly different.
What the book does do very well is really give an insight into the true life of being a member of parliament: the cost of campaigning, the strange early weeks of starting the new job, the challenges of actually making any sort of difference, the growing demands in constituencies, and the fallout amongst families and relationships. I think I had a sense of some of this (for example, it’s always struck me how particularly cruel it must be to lose your job in an instant without any warning and with nothing planned), but not the richness and real-life detail that Hardman brings to it here.
There are also fascinating insights into the reality of how Parliament works, although ‘fascinating’ does depend a bit on how interested you are in the world of committees, who chairs them and how they really work. This detail also gave me significant pause over what legislation gets scrutinised, in what way and at what point. Fairly terrifying.
For all that, though, I wanted more on why we get the wrong politicians, not so much on why the place they work in is so dysfunctional or how the job really works. Of course, these are connected issues, but the practical conclusions or recommendations on how we could change the situation seemed fairly thin to me (and little new). This may reflect the fact that Hardman herself is right at the heart of this world, and perhaps therefore lacks the true objectivity or ability to step outside sufficiently to pose more radical, challenging suggestions on how politics can be more fit for our current age. In the end, I learned a lot about Parliament and being an MP, but not a lot about how we might make things better.