In his fascinating 1981 article on the subject for the British Journal of Politics, the Canadian-born British scholar of government, Professor Anthony King, charts the path by which there emerged in Britain a certain kind of actor on the national scene best described as “the career politician”, a fiercely partisan and complete ‘insider’, whose adult life has been spent exclusively on scheming in a bid to rise within the ranks of a political party.
A careful reading of King suggests that it was not until the 1970s that this kind of civic actor assumed increasing significance in British politics.
In fact, were one to cast one’s eyes to 1870, the point in time when British GDP per capita was double the current level in, say, Ghana or Nigeria, one would be quite surprised to find that the leading political figures of the day and the majority of the Lords and Commons in Parliament, and at the helm of both the Conservative and Whig parties, were not individuals who could be described as either ‘professional politicians’ or ‘career politicians’.
Tom Mann, the great syndicalist, was actually an engineer. Applegarth was a mine technician turned trade unionist. Mushet was a steel baron. Wellesley was an infantry man. Perceval was a full-time barrister. Ashley-Coope was an educator. Even the seeming exceptions to this rule, the likes of Gladstone, Palmerston, and Disraeli were known for their massive forays into academia and scholarship.
In fact, as late as 1950, the Oxford Don Herbert Nicholas discovered after a detailed survey that only 2.5% of political candidates vying to enter the British Parliament were career politicians. That is 4 in every hundred.
An intriguing fact that stands out in works like Professor King’s is the recognition that career politicians tend to be fiercely partisan, are overly focused on ‘national stage posturing’ for quick recognition and promotion, rather than working to improve social conditions at the grassroots, and are, despite being skilled in grandstanding, more likely to be out of touch with the true values and aspirations of the mainstream society. They are thus incapable of producing the kinds of grand consensus necessary to get diverse interests in a nation to work collectively towards some unifying agenda.
This is all very interesting and raises the rather unsettling question of whether a country with a per capita income half that of the United Kingdom nearly 150 years ago can today afford to maintain a political system dominated by career politicians all eyeing a heavily oversubscribed tax kitty.
Of course, we use the British examples here merely because we are drawing on a subject of rigorous academic study and not because Britain is some contemporary paragon of democracy.
[This piece draws on a blogpost I posted elsewhere in 2013.]