Politics is an ugly business for showy people where reputations get trashed – John McLellan

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Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once described power as the ‘ultimate aphrodisiac’ (Picture: Karen Bleier/AFP via Getty Images)

Democrat strategist Paul Begala is hardly a household name, but his pithy observation that politics is “showbusiness for ugly people” is arguably better known.

Maybe that’s why there is never a shortage of keen young people who want to enter politics, although it’s a universal claim on all sides of the political game that everyone enters it to make things better for their communities, whatever that may be.

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Few would take issue with the principle that parliaments should be made up of selfless, incorruptible people from all walks of life who are there for the greater public good.

Maybe the system changes people or, as the saying goes, power corrupts, because for all the protestations of essential goodness, the public perception is the opposite. In the recent Understanding Scotland survey by the Diffley Partnership, 2,000 Scottish adults rated trust in the overall political system at 3.6 on a scale of ten. Just ahead of newspapers on 3.3.

Who knows what that score would be now after a fortnight of unfolding scandal, whether it’s the catastrophic handling of disciplinary action against Owen Paterson MP for parliamentary lobbying for his clients or Sir Geoffrey Cox racking up thousands for legal work on the sun-kissed British Virgin islands. Several Edinburgh councillors I know, none of them Conservative, have worked from second homes in the Mediterranean; but in lockdown, so what?

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Then there were allegations that SNP MPs and a Labour colleague took full advantage of Ministry of Defence hospitality on a jaunt to Gibraltar, which were then turned into a counter-allegation of smear against Defence Secretary Ben Wallace. And yesterday MPs faced new accusations of profiteering by claiming back the cost of renting London flats while they rent out the ones they own. Never has the behaviour of representatives been so consistently in the spotlight since the expenses scandal of 2009.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak wasn’t wrong when he said on Thursday that, “for us as a government, we need to do better than we did last week and we know that”, but while much of the criticism is justified, sniffy sanctimony or brazen hypocrisy has never been far away, with the expectations of a standard politician apparently to be an unrealistic blend of Barack Obama’s oratory, Albert Einstein’s brainpower, Jeff Bezos’s business acumen and Mother Theresa’s lifestyle.

Like so many political targets, it might be an unachievable goal which is justified by being aspirational and ambitious, but instead results in a public pile-on when someone falls short and the fall-out is mishandled. The kind of tit-for-tat bickering we’ve seen over the past fortnight, with opposition parties continuing to ignore their own long histories of what might be politely described as human failure, erodes what little of that 3.6 trust in the political classes the general public had left.

It’s fair to say the Conservative Party has been under siege, particularly after the Sunday Times story about the £3 million Tory donor club for ex-party treasurers who have become Lords, and who can look at Westminster’s upper chamber and its appointment system and say without fear of howling derision that, like Goldilocks’ porridge, it’s just right?

The problem is not the end product, because the quality of Lords debate and scrutiny is outstanding, rather than how it’s composed and has been a lightning rod for attacks on “the system” for years.

But try to find agreement on change, like a new Senate of the Nations and it quickly becomes an argument against more elections or more in-it-for-themselves parliamentarians with snouts in the trough.

More limited-term appointments for leading professionals and academics in a technocratic extension of the old system of law lords and bishops? Unaccountable and undemocratic. Do away with it altogether? Look at the mess the Scottish Parliament makes of legislation with feeble and politicised committees instead of a revising chamber with independently minded people who know what they’re talking about.

We might not agree on much politically, but on the few occasions I’ve met Mr Hendry he’s always been good company, a regular attender at a Westminster reception I organised pre-lockdown for newspaper people and the Scottish political contingent to talk about issues affecting our sector over a few drinks.

An Edinburgh man, he used to run the Bunch o’ Roses pub in my council ward, played rugby for Boroughmuir and likes a pint. So we’ve a bit in common. I’ve never seen him “incapacitated”, as they are alleged to have become, and in any case, some SNP supporters will be more concerned about pictures of them happily wearing British Army uniforms.

I can’t pass judgement on an incident I didn’t witness but, as I have learnt, it doesn’t take much for those holding elected office to be the subject of complaints or public accusations based on unsubstantiated claims presented as facts, for opponents to take political advantage and maximise personal embarrassment. I presume ex-Labour MP Paul Sweeney genuinely believed former Aberdeen Conservative MP Ross Thomson was guilty of sexual harassment in a Commons Bar, and although three investigations cleared him, Mr Thompson’s reputation was trashed along the way.

Just like any occupation, when you reach the top the rewards can be considerable, but the road is long and dirty, and anybody entering it needs to appreciate the sacrifices are massive with no guarantees except that the slightest hint of a slip is someone else’s opportunity to stamp your reputation into the ground. That’s just the way it is: an ugly business for showy people.

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