This week marks the 100th anniversary of one of the most influential lectures ever given on politics: Max Weber's 'Politics as a Vocation', first delivered in Munich on 28 January 1919. David and Helen talk with Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair's former chief of staff, about some of its lessons for the age of Brexit. Where have all the good leaders gone? Is the party system to blame? Are we suffering from an excess of conviction or a lack of conviction? And who will be responsible if we see a return to violence? Recorded before a live audience at Trinity Hall, Cambridge.
DAVID: Hello – my name's David Runciman, and this is Talking Politics.
Today we are going to use a lecture that was given in Germany 100 years ago as a springboard for a discussion with Jonathan Powell, who was Tony Blair's chief of staff, about the perils of professional politics, the risk of a return to violence, and yes, Brexit. Helen Thompson and I recorded this conversation with Jonathan Powell at an event to mark the 100th anniversary to the day of the lecture that the great German sociologist Max Weber gave in Munich on the 28th of January 1919. The name of the lecture in German is Politik als Beruf and it's normally translated in English as “Politics as a Vocation” but it has a kind of double meaning in German and in English. It's both about making money from politics, politics as your job, but it's also about politics as your calling, something that you actually believe gives meaning to your life. Weber gave it in 1919 at a time of complete political turmoil in Germany. It was the aftermath of the First World War. The entire country was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. And in Munich in Bavaria a civil war was brewing and a violent revolution. He was talking to students who were literally involved in the business of political killing. That was not true of the students I hope that we were talking to on Monday night. But the lecture is also about what politicians should do in these kinds of circumstances. It's about political leadership and it has a famous distinction in it, which we come onto in this conversation, between what Weber calls the ethics of conviction and the ethics of responsibility. So conviction is passion. It's believing that politics is about the ideas that you will live and die by. And responsibility is about taking consequences seriously, wondering what will happen if you live and die by those ideas. And Weber says that there are perils to both. Too much conviction and you forget about what might actually happen next. If you get bogged down in responsibility, you get so worried about what might happen next, you lose your passion, you lose your conviction, you don't know what to do. So this is also—even though we're 100 years on—about Brexit.
So one place we could start is with the role of political parties in contemporary politics. So one theme of Weber's lecture is that professional politics is always going to involve party machines, and the machine is an essential feature of it, and professional politicians will come out of the machine and they will depend upon the machine not least to win elections. But the great danger for Weber is that political leaders in particular would get trapped by the party machine. They would be unable to reach beyond it. They would constantly be referring back to it. Jonathan, is it your sense that our current political leaders are trapped by their parties?
JONATHAN: Well no I don't think they're trapped by their parties but their parties are disintegrating on them on both sides.
If you look at Theresa May she has a real problem in that she can't keep her party together on this issue of Europe. It’s ripping it apart in the same way that the Corn Laws did and Imperial Preference did earlier on, in earlier periods of history. So she has a problem where she's trying to corral her party and she has not got the strength of character or the political strength to lead her party having lost the election for them and had a miserable attempt at negotiating Brexit. She can't… has neither the charismatic power that Weber talks about to bring her party back together again, nor the mechanical method of doing so by being a winner. So she's really having a difficult time. And one of the interesting debates that appears to be going on inside Downing Street at the moment, which will be very familiar to me, is trying to decide whether they should reach out across party divides on Brexit and try and bring in the Labour Party and the SNP and other parties for some sort of agreement based around the customs union, or whether they should actually try and corral the party and bring it back together by appealing to the Brexiteers and the DUP, who have miraculously become the new moderates. And she seems to have opted for that, I think really just for reasons of her past as a fairly conventional party figure. So she's trying to bring the party back together again. I doubt she's going to succeed for reasons to do with the backstop that we can come to later if you're interested. [5:06]
DAVID: So we'll come onto Corbyn in a second but just to pick up on that. So she's not trapped by her party but Weber would think that, particularly at a moment of national crisis, the only option is to reach beyond the party because otherwise, in the end, a leader is going to be reduced to partisanship. Is that what you see is the central failure here?
JONATHAN: I'm not sure it's the central failure. I think there is a failure of leadership earlier on, that the leadership she should have demonstrated in the Brexit negotiations is firstly, if she was going to negotiate something she didn't believe in and believed would do harm to the people and to the country, she should have done something about it right at the very beginning. If even then she decided to negotiate such a Brexit, even if she didn't necessarily believe in it, she should have shown the political leadership in saying, ‘I'm going to lead this sort of Brexit, a very moderate Brexit,’ and not have a series of red lines to appeal to her own party, which if she thought about it for five seconds she’d realize, ‘Well I’m the one negotiating with Brussels.’ So the failure was a failure to show political leadership earlier on towards her own party rather than necessarily the failure now to reach out, which is another failure built on top of it.
HELEN: I think it's quite difficult to separate out the question of Theresa May's failures as a political leader, and I think they’re undoubtable in any number of ways from the structural predicament that she's in in relation to both British politics and the state of the two political parties, plus the European Union, plus having had a referendum, because you're trying to mix what Weber thought of as plebiscitary politics with parliamentary politics with a supranational constitutional order of which Britain has been a part since 1972, and then you're trying to have a political leader who, whatever her other qualities, does not qualify as a charismatic political leader, trying to deal with this as a minority government. And you're gonna have the most vexed question of all that Brexit raises about the Irish border coming to the fore. And that gets to the heart in a number of ways of Britain's position on the other kingdoms issue, I should say, as a multinational state. There's a lot more I think going on here than just her position as a political leader of the Conservative Party and the need for her to act is more than a political leader of the Conservative Party. But I think that Weber would have thought that it said something about the nature of British parliamentary politics and the role the parties had historically played in it in some sense that she's got trapped in the dilemmas created by the Conservative Party part of that.
JONATHAN: Can I say something on the plebiscitary part of that—because one of the things that's happened here that’s rather odd is that suddenly we've got Brexiteers saying that the will of the people is absolutely paramount, that they have expressed their will through a referendum and it is an instruction to government to implement it. And if you try and run a plebiscitary system alongside a representative system it doesn't really work very well because the representatives may have different views than those that came out to the plebiscite. So those countries that have referenda as a normal part of politics usually have some way of reconciling these things like a threshold for the referendum or an advisory referendum. In Colombia for example where we had a referendum on the peace deal, we did it within certain parameters that allowed for a referendum within the Colombian Constitution because they had a written constitution. Here we don't have written constitution. If you try and run these two things alongside each other you're going to get into difficulties because MPS will say, ‘The people have spoken. I can interpret that. You have to implement it exactly as I think is right.’ And I would say, ‘No, no. We're representatives we should develop in a different ways.’ As I understand, I think Weber would not have been very happy with trying to run two simultaneously.
DAVID: No I think particularly in the British case the point of the parliamentary system which produces two party politics, it still does. I mean we are very much still a two party system. We may talk about that in a second. But the point of the two party system is to organize political divisions and to make them essentially binary. The problem with plebiscitary politics is that it introduces another binary set of decisions that cut across the party decisions. And you can see in British politics now that the huge challenge of political leadership is to lead a political party at the same time as seeing in the public divisions that don't belong in political parties but cut across them. I mean that seems like the nightmarish challenge in Weber's terms to try and do both.
JONATHAN: What is interesting, if you look at opinion polls, the identification as party member has gone down to 30 percent. Only 30 percent of the people in the country identify with political parties. 70 percent identify as remain or leave. In other words identity politics based around remain and leave have now replaced party politics as the main dividing line in this country, which will have very very unexpected effects on what happens next in our politics. [9:44]
HELEN: I think though you can't separate out the question from interjection of plebiscitary politics into our parliamentary system from the question of the European Union again. It's the European Union in a number of ways that creates the conditions in which more and more member states, not just Britain, though others haven't had it about staying in or out but have had about treaties, end up with referendums. And they do so because it's a moving target as a constitutional order. It's not there to stay the same. There's an expectation that the constitutional rules will change through treaty change, and that's what creates incentives for states to try to legitimate that through referendums. And yet those countries like ours that have parliamentary politics they just do not mix together.
DAVID: Because in a way that gets to the deep issue here, which is if we are… and it's a it's a big if. Maybe it's not that big an if. If we are seeing a failure of leadership, is it because of the leaders we have, or is it because of the dilemmas that they presently face? Trying to reconcile these almost irreconcilable forces that are roiling our politics. So we've done Theresa May and we'll come back to her. But looking at Jeremy Corbyn, if you look at the Labour Party now, is this a party that with a different leadership would be in a much better position to get past some of these tensions and dilemmas? Or is this now baked into the structure of British politics do you think? You take Corbyn out, do you get a much better outcome very quickly?
JONATHAN: Well if you had someone demonstrating real political leadership you might have a different outcome.
DAVID: So just say what you mean by real political leadership.
JONATHAN: Well in our system we have a government, and if the government fails or is incompetent, you have a loyal opposition that is supposed to be competent and supposed to be ready to take over and ready to oppose. What we have is an opposition that is clearly not competent to take over government, not my view but in the views of many of the employees who support in inverted commas the leader of the party. So he's not exercising leadership sufficient to bring his MPs with him. Many of the more moderate MPs would not like to see Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister. So he's not exercising leadership in that sense. He's also not opposing… no one, no party leader of the two major parties is opposing Brexit. Theresa May is in favour of Brexit. Jeremy Corbyn is in favour of Brexit. So there isn't anyone actually doing the opposition that's required of the loyal opposition. So our system has broken down from that point of view. You neither have a government nor an opposition fulfilling their functions because in large part the failure of the leadership of the two politicians leading them. And then thirdly you don't have anyone appearing out of the political system to challenge them as a third sort of political leader. You don't have Churchill in 1939 appearing in our system and showing himself ready to raise the standard for something different the people can rally around. That isn't there either. So we really have had a collapse of all the parts of our system that are supposed to work in these circumstances.
DAVID: So does the logic of that point to the need for a new party or a new leader or both. I mean is it a new type of leadership we need or is it a new political party that we need, on your analysis?
JONATHAN: I hadn't read Weber’s speech before you invited me to do this. I'm very glad that you did invite me and gave me a chance to to read it. And what it’s very useful at is pointing out some of the difficulties, some of the faultlines in our political system that are causing the crisis that we have now. Things like the professionalisation of politics. What it’s much less good at is pointing to what the answers might be to come out of the problems that we have at the moment. I think there needs to be some sort of different sort of thought. But what I find quite interesting is taking Weber’s lecture together with opinion polling at the moment, so people's disgust with politicians. Now people have always been fed up with politicians. But at the moment if you look at opinion polls the figures are quite staggering. The numbers who are discontented with politicians, think there's no chance of them sorting anything out, think they are all as bad as each other, and the numbers who want them to do certain things like work together. You get 90 percent want the political parties to work together to solve the problems of the country. 89 percent who think the politicians should treat us as adults and actually explain the difficult decisions that face us rather than, as they put it, lying to us. So the public appointing together with Weber I guess in one direction, which is to have a more moderate sort of politics, particularly in a constitutional system where we don't have a written constitution. We have a constitution that’s made up of habits, customs, precedents, which is very delicate. And if people decide that they're not going to be moderate, they are going to play to the extremes and as Weber says the end justifies the means. People are going to do the sort of things we see Brexiteers and some non Brexiteers doing. The system will not withstand that. There needs to be some way of bringing people together either by a government of national unity of the sort that Atlee and Churchill formed in the Second World War or the needs to be some way of the people from the two parties who've established a habit of working together in the chamber on European issues coming together to form a new party, a or sensible party, or a new party appearing to fill the hole the Liberal Party seems unable to fill. Certainly if you look at the opinion polls there’s a huge demand for that. The question is whether it will actually happen and what form it will happen.
HELEN: I think there's different things going on with the two different parties in the sense of whether they can cope with this crisis in their present form. I think if you look at the position of the Conservative party that's divided fundamentally about what to do about the European Union and what to do about Brexit, that fits a kind of longstanding or reasonably long standing pattern going back to the middle of the 19th century where British parties struggle with certain kinds of political issues. And they struggle with ones that either relate generally to Britain’s geopolitical position in the world: the Corn Laws, Britain's entry to the European Union in 1973, or the Irish question, which is what divided the Liberal Party. And I think you can expect at these moments like this that some new political formation in party terms will emerge. You can see actually out the Social Democrats coming out of in the early 80s out of the divisions in the Labour Party as much as anything else about the European question. I think the issue with the Labour Party is somewhat different and perhaps unprecedented. I'm tempted to say at least it's unprecedented. And that is is that you have a parliamentary party where significant swathes of the MPs in that party do not want the leader actually to form the next government. And I think that that is not something where we've really been before. And I think that there's reasons why that come about that aren't just actually about Jeremy Corbyn. They’re to do with a crisis of the left more generally that extends beyond Britain. But I think this is an unusual moment in the Labour Party in our politics. [16:10]
DAVID: Can I ask about another aspect of Weber's argument, which again falls under this broad theme of the risks in a professionalised system of being trapped in the machine or the iron cage as he sometimes calls it, that politics becomes mechanized and unthinking. As well as the party machine there is the bureaucratic machine, the civil service. Again, professional politicians are going to depend upon a professional civil service, but Weber is worried that politicians might become subservient to the bureaucratic mindset. And again, for him political leadership is about getting beyond the bureaucratic mindset. And Jonathan you've written about this in the essay that you're publishing in the New Statesman, there are also questions about the responsibilities of civil servants, and if you are a civil servant and you think that the politicians are irresponsible or incapable. What do you do? What are your responsibilities there? And you've seen these dilemmas from the inside. What do you think in the current context are the responsibilities of civil servants? Is it to inform and serve political leaders or is it to challenge them?
JONATHAN: Well starting with the professionalization point and then coming onto the civil service I find it very interesting reading Weber’s lecture and when he talks about the need for professionalisation of politics if it's to work and how in Britain it changed, he thought, with election agents in 1860 I think it was. But what's happened now is we've got to this sort of hyper-professionalisation where you can have a Ed Miliband who can go from university to being a special advisor to someone in opposition to being a special advisor to someone in government to being an MP to being a minister to being leader of the opposition to bein gex leader in opposition…
DAVID: To being a podcast host
JONATHAN: ...without ever actually setting foot in the real world. And on the other side David Cameron doing exactly the same same thing with five years as a PR for a television company. So I'm not sure he would recognise the kind of professionalisation that’s happened. And it is a problem. You want to have professional politicians. You want to have politicians who know what they're doing. You don't want to have unprofessional dentists and you don't want unprofessional politicians, but the politicians are supposed to be representatives. They have to have some engagement with the rest of the world that they're supposed to be representing. And the danger of this hyper-professionalization… and I spent my life as a civil servant and political appointee. If you get trapped in that and nothing else you can have a real problem that Weber would have identified with. In terms of the civil service it is more difficult. I think it's very hard to blame the civil service for the situation we find ourselves in now. They didn't cause this problem. They didn't recommend a referendum on Brexit. They didn't recommend the speech that Theresa May made it to the Tory Party Conference. This is not their fault. On the other hand the sort of the civil service that Sir Maxwell would have recognized of the Yes Minister kind of actually controlling the politicians, sometimes that might be mildly useful. I think if you think of the 1970s in British politics when we had revolving door governments, we had constant political crisis. It was the civil service’s continuity that kept the thing going. They actually held the fort when parties went one way or the other. We haven't seen the civil service able to do that in this particular crisis. This is, I think people would accept, one of the worst crises we've had since the Second World War. The civil service has been notable by their absence. They haven't held the fort in terms of this. They haven't been able to provide the continuity. I think there is probably a second failing as well, although I'd be fairly tentative in this criticism. But I think it seems to me from outside… and if you listen to someone like Ivan Rogers who was the EU ambassador for Britain until he resigned at the beginning of Theresa May's negotiations, the civil service have failed to be clear with Theresa May that she cannot get what she wants from her European colleagues. They’ve failed to tell her what the real position is of our European partners, and the one duty of a civil servant is to at least be honest with your bosses. You may go along with whatever they want to do but you should at least tell them the truth because otherwise they're operating on false premises. You can't be a yes man from that point of view and I think the civil service may have fallen down on that. The question of what they should have done when faced with a decision they didn't like is of course more difficult. And again Weber is interesting about this saying that the job of the arbiter is to implement what the politicians decide, they don't take responsibility. But he also says you shouldn't implement things that are going to be so crazy that they bring the end of the polity. And that's the danger here. I think you've got civil servants actually implementing things they know are going to cause real difficulties not just economically but politically for this country, and they've gone ahead with it without, on the face of it, much reservation. And I think that probably is a mistake too. [20:35]
HELEN: I think it's quite difficult to comment from the outside about the civil service issue. But I think just trying to… not knowing anything from the inside… looking at three observations that might be made. I think we could say there's something important to this story about the failure of the negotiations that Cameron engaged in prior to the referendum, and that the civil service appeared to have played their part in that in allowing him to have unrealistic expectations of what might have been achieved in that respect. I think the second thing that's really striking is the way that they simply accepted, or appear to have accepted, Cameron and Osborne saying that there should be no contingency preparations whatsoever for leave winning the referendum. That seems to me to be an astonishing thing for the civil service to have accepted. I mean maybe there was some resistance but it hasn't leaked itself out into the media if that were the case. I think the other thing that we should bear in mind is I think that the relationship between the politicians and the civil service since Brexit is changed. I think that the story at least that one could see from the outside in the year after the referendum was that the politicians were on top. And then what happened after Theresa May lost the general election, or at least I should say lost the Conservatives their majority and ended up as a minority parliament is is that the Treasury became significantly more important in the decision making them was previously the case. You remember that actually Theresa May had wanted to sack Philip Hammond as the political boss of the Treasury before the election and then decided that she couldn't do so. I think the kinds of arguments that the Treasury started to make had that influence on moving Theresa May to the Chequers position, which is not what she'd put in the conservative manifesto in 2017. And it's pretty clear that Ollie Robbins has paid enormous part in these negotiations, including over the backstop issue, so I wouldn't say that the civil service had been marginalised in what's happened since June 2017.
DAVID: There is also a case that will be made by many people who feel that maybe we're downplaying the reasons among the public for voting for Brexit that in contemporary politics it's easy for voters to get the feeling that civil servants and politicians aren't that different, particularly if you belong to groups of the population that feel for whatever reason that they are on the other side of some of the big divides. So one of those divides is the educational divide. So civil servants and professional politicians, one thing they almost all have in common now is they went to university, and we know that one of the big dividers in the Brexit vote was whether you did or didn't go to university. And so there is also that perception, which again I think doesn't really fit how Weber's saw it, that there is a political class which is in some respects uniform across the elected/unelected divide on some of these big questions. Do you think that's a feature of our politics that makes it different from what Weber was talking about, that for many voters. Civil servant, politician. They're the same.
JONATHAN: Well I think for many voters not just politicians civil servants but also journalists and other members…
JONATHAN: Certainly Cambridge academics would be regarded as part of the part of the elite. So I don't think they make any distinction at all from that point of view. They think there's them and us…
DAVID: The political class is not just the politicians. It's this much broader swathe of the professional class.
JONATHAN: It’s a much broader swathe. But I would say the Weber may be right, however, when I look at the civil service and politicians and relations between them through my career in public service where they are two different sorts of being. You know someone like Jeremy Heywood, sadly he just died, a brilliant civil servant but had no political bones in his body at all. He had no political views. I mean you would be really hard pressed to get him to express his political views. And there are people who do want to do work for governments of all different stripes and they have a very different approach than politicians. So this issue Weber talks about living for politics or from politics. It looks to me like the Weber speech could be used like the Bible, you can quote it to mean anything you want, so I shall certainly, certainly do that. But the trouble with our politicians now is that more and more of them are living from politics rather than living for politics. If you're an ambitious backbencher and you come into Parliament you don't want to do something that will stop you moving up the ladder therefore you're quite cautious in exercising what might later be really useful skills as a leader by challenging people. Now on Brexit that wouldn't be true of the Brexit rebels but that’s because they have already decided, with exceptions of people like Gove and Johnson, they don't want to be leaders and they'd rather fight on this issue than advance in the party. But this professionalisation has made it more difficult for the political leadership talent to appear. And one of the things I find really striking is that at this stage… and I can't think at any other stage of my life where there was so little apparent political leadership available in the House of Commons. You do not see people filling the vacuum left by Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn. And I don't really understand quite why that is. [26:06]
DAVID: Is it possible to make sense of this through Weber's famous distinction between the ethics of conviction and the ethics of responsibility? So that there are some politicians who aren't so concerned about the consequences because there is a cause and they are willing to sacrifice for that cause, maybe even to sacrifice other people for that cause. And then there are politicians who are preoccupied with the consequences, terrified of making a false move, and have innocence lost all conviction. Is part of what you're saying here that that is our problem? That we have one or the other and Weber said the great political leaders need to combine both.
JONATHAN: Yes I do think it's the lack of the combination of the two, the passion and the responsibility. I mean Boris Johnson if you gave him a hard wood board he would sort of smash it into a million pieces without difficulty at all, without any thought about the consequences. Not because he believes in the cause just because he thinks to be quite fun to smash it to pieces. and other people wouldn't drill at all. So they would be too timid to even try and make the beginning of a dent to start a hole. So you've got the two extremes from that point of view. I was struck by what Weber said about journalists going into into politics, and he talks about nowadays, he says we have these terrible journalists who are celebrities, who want a byline on their stories, and they write these stories, and they don't even have much sense of responsibility, and then they go into politics and look what happens. And it's as if he’d met Boris Johnson. It's really very striking.
DAVID: He did think that one group of people who are even less well qualified were academics.
HELEN: I don't think Weber would be very surprised by our political problems at this moment because I think that you know at the core of this lecture, at least at the core of the end of the lecture, when he gets onto ethics and politics and ethics of conviction versus the ethics of responsibility, is is that he looks out of German politics at that time… and I don't think he thinks, although he is making a point about German politics that it's just a problem of German politics… and he sees political immaturity. He thinks that most people are not equipped to confront political questions. And when he's talking to the people at the end he says, ‘Look nine-tenths of you who are excited by this revolution that's going on outside of the window are going to find that you're not up to this political moment.’ And I don't think he really exempted political leaders from that. I don't think that's just a point about ordinary people or voters or the students who are listening to the lectures. Now the gist of what Weber's saying here is is that politics is incredibly difficult. It's tragic. Nothing you try to do is likely to succeed. You know it's going to turn to ashes. And in some sense you can say, ‘Okay, look Brexit in terms of the Brexiteers point of view looks like something that's turning out like that.’ But you can just as well turn around and say, ‘Well the European Union is a grand political project has got some of the same difficulties and over a longer term might be heading to the same kind of ashes and dust as Brexit might be headed to.’ So I think that he would think… I hope I'm not projecting too much into this… that he would think that if you think there is anything easy to do in any particular set of circumstances, let alone the kind of crisis that we face at the moment, then you haven't really understood anything about politics.
DAVID: 1919 when he delivered this lecture, one hundred years ago from when we're speaking today, he gave it in Munich to students and it was an extraordinarily violent moment. He was talking to an audience of people who he genuinely believed might well go out and be involved in political violence that day. And at the heart of his argument about politics is it is about the control of violence. So I've got one general question and one more specific question about Northern Ireland. The general question is, do you think this is still true? I mean Jonathan, you see politics in all different parts of the world. And clearly there are many places where violence is absolutely front and central of people's political consciousness. But does it really make sense still to see the essential function of politics and political leadership to be the control of violence? [30:00]
JONATHAN: Yes. I mean I now work on conflicts around the world on the basis of what I did in Northern Ireland. We work on 14 conflicts at the moment in different parts of the world. And while it may not feel this way in Britain, it is certainly very close to the surface in those countries that the primary asset of the state is its ability to have the monopoly of control over violence. And when we're negotiating the civil war in Myanmar between the armed groups and the government and the army, the main thing the army want is for the armed groups to give up their weapons so that they can be in charge of everything. The armed groups don't want to give up their weapons because they're very worried about a mono-ethnic army having complete control of the means of violence. So the actual negotiations are… we'd dress dress it up as DDR: demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration. But that's really what it's about, who is going to have the monopoly of power? How is it going to be moderated? We had the same thing in Northern Ireland where the point was that the Republicans had to accept the police force. The police had to be able to go into their areas and police rather than having vigilante gangs do it. But for them to accept the monopoly of violence lay in the hands of the state was a very difficult step to take when they had no trust in the state. So our negotiations largely pivot on these sort of issues. How do you get people to build enough trust politically in the government to allow it to have that monopoly of force? So when I read that in the Weber lecture it really had real resonance me and the work I do today.
DAVID: But in the current context, I think in the essay that you've written about the failure of the political class, Weber and Brexit, you do say that you see in the worst case scenarios of our present British situation the risks of widespread violence or violence on the streets. Is that right?
JONATHAN: No I don't. I don't see that. What I object to is actually the threat of violence made particularly actually by those arguing for Brexit who say, ‘If the will of the people in the referendum is rejected there will be violence on the streets. Therefore you have to go ahead not have a second referendum and go ahead with what we want.’
DAVID: So you reject to the rhetoric rather than taking it seriously is a threat?
JONATHAN: I neither take it seriously as a threat nor do I think it should be part of our political currency because even if it was true, I don't think we should make our policy because of the threats that are made by others of violence.
DAVID: What then do you think are the risks of a return to violence in Northern Ireland? Because that's a separate part of this. If in the overheated Brexit climate people have exaggerated the risks of a general outbreak of violence in Britain, the risks are presumably greater in Northern Ireland.
JONATHAN: Well there are two risks in Northern Ireland. The first risk is a political risk. The Good Friday agreement that we spent a lot of time working on is posited on the basis that the issue of identity no longer needs to be the be all and end all of politics. You're not going to die for your identity. And the idea was that you could live in Northern Ireland and you could be British sure you could be Irish or you could be both. You could only have an Irish passport, always fly out through Dublin, never shop in Belfast, just live as if you're Irish in Northern Ireland or you could live as you if British in Northern Ireland. For that to work you have to have an open border. You have to not return to what we had in the Troubles which was concrete blocks and all the small roads and installations on the big roads. If we go back to that, the whole basis of the Good Friday Agreement is undermined. That question of identity is thrown back up again at a stage when we don't even have the institutions in place. We haven't for more than a year and a half now had the institutions in place. Without those institutions, and if the basis of the Good Friday Agreement is is going to be brought into question, then you have a danger the whole thing collapsing and going back to the status quo ante in terms of politics, which we know resulted in violence. That's the big threat. The smaller threat is if you put installations in place on the border—and when you find Brexiteers talking about technology as being the answer, if you actually look at the texts they refer to, they require gates on the border. So you're going to put in place a gate on the border, you’re going to have to have methods of checking traffic backwards and forwards. As soon as you do that, as the chief constable has pointed out, you're creating a target for dissident republicans. We know dissident Republicans still have some capability because they blow up a bomb in Derry a few weekends ago. We’ve then had a whole series of bomb scares. They killed two prison officers a year or so ago. They're looking for an opportunity like this. To give them an opportunity of an installation, which you then have to protect with policemen, then you have to protect with soldiers because they will start attacking it, then you risk that violence starting up again, not in the same way as the Troubles because the dissidents do not have the support that the original IRA had. But you are creating a problem for yourself you do not need to create.
HELEN: So does this mean then that the question of violence you see is fundamentally different in terms of its threat in Northern Ireland because we should take seriously the risk that violence will come back. But we shouldn't take seriously the risk of the kind of Gilet Jaune kind of phenomenon in Britain if Brexit is thwarted?
JONATHAN: In both cases I don't think we should make our policy because of the threat of violence. I'm not suggesting we should do it because the dissidents might blow things up. But the way that we do it… in other words you don't have to put an installation on the border to create a target. That's what the Chief Constable is arguing for. My worry is much more the first issue, which is undermining the political basis for the Good Friday agreement. If you take that away, then the issue identity will be back up there again. And that will lead us in directions we really don't want to go. [35:06]
DAVID: So to frame this in the biggest question of all. You've written about the failure of the political class. Do we need a new political class? I mean do we need a much more fundamental rethink about how we do democratic politics if we seem to have reached on some of the most fundamental questions of our politics a kind of impasse? Is it enough to hope for a new generation of leaders to come through? People in their 30s and 40s to start coming to the fore? You say you look at the House of Commons you don't see this leadership anywhere. Do we actually have to rethink what counts as a career in politics or even, as Weber would put it, a vocation for politics? Have we made it much too narrow?
JONATHAN: I think we have made it too narrow. I do think we do need a new way of doing politics if there's to be any hope of re-establishing confidence in politicians and the political system, which is not an easy thing to do. And I do think we need a new generation of political leaders to appear. We have a 70 year old and a 60 something year old. I'm 62. I think it's time to have a new generation to have a go at politics to see if they could do in a different way and build some confidence in it. Maybe they'll fail but at least they could have a try.
HELEN: I think the generational issue in British politics is really interesting because actually we've gone back. If you think about it we had baby boomer prime ministers through to Gordon Brown. Then we had a generation Xer in David Cameron. The opposition was also led by someone two years younger than Cameron, and the Liberal Democrats, so the deputy prime minister was also around the same age. The first group of Generation Xers came to power quite quickly in Britain, more so than you would expect. So if you just take the Labour Party. Labour went from producing leaders born in 1953 and 1951 and then jumping to 1969. So a whole group of people in terms of age were disappeared from British politics in terms of rising to the top. And you can see something similar in the Conservative Party. And then after the spectacular failure of those three leaders, all in different ways, Cameron, Ed Miliband, and Nick Clegg, then we've gone back to Baby Boomers again. So there's something just…
DAVID: Is Jeremy Corbyn a baby boomer?
HELEN: Yeah… gone wrong in the way in which generationally we would expect this to go. I think that the generation Xers came to the top too quickly. They haven't had experience outside politics in the way that Jonathan was talking about. That politics fell away. And then instead of someone coming from underneath them in the age cohort then we went back to where we'd been. And we went back to two people who were not at all like the baby boomers that we'd had previously. And I think partly the reason why we ended up with Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn was also because they were not the kinds of people who were going to end up making a lot of money out of politics, to put it in Weber’s terms. They'd stood away from that corruption of using a political career to advance your own material standing. Whatever else you can say about these two politicians that is not their failing. And I think the weakness in part of Blair himself, plus in some ways some of the generation Xers when they fell away, for that kind of politics of using political careers for their own material advancement... the rejection of that kind of politics is why we've ended up with May and Corbyn.
DAVID: And Jonathan, I’m going to ask one last question before we ask the audience, which is about Tony Blair, because, Helen, I think it is a powerful point. And Tony Blair in some ways exemplifies many of Weber's ideals of what the British parliamentary system can do. It can produce say a politician through the party system who transcends the party system, who very self consciously appeals beyond the party system. Unquestionably a politician of conviction. And yet also has become associated in the public's mind with many of the vices of professionalised politics and has sort of discredited that model in many ways in many people's eyes. Do you recognise that description, that he is both the Weberian politician and the person who has discredited that conception of politics?
JONATHAN: Well I think he’s Weberian in the sense that he was a charismatic politician who could transcend party, which was…
DAVID: In that way he was Gladstonian.
JONATHAN: I was interested by Weber's obsession with Gladstone because Tony had a similar obsession with Gladstone, was endlessly reading new biographies of Gladstone wherever he could find them. And I expected to find prostitutes around the place of any stage chopping wood. But so yeah, he’s certainly Weberian in that sense. I think the thing about money is interesting in politics. If you look at John Major, John Major left government and went to work for Carlyle, a very large private equity company, and made very very substantial sums of money in doing so, and yet no one blamed him for doing that. And when Tony Blair went to make money out of politics he did get blamed. I'm not defending Tony on this point but he did get the blame for it. So what is it the people object to? Is it who they're making the money from? I'm not sure Carlyle would be top of my box in terms of ethical ways of making money given their association with government?
DAVID: Do you think it might be the site of the Gladstonian politician of conviction making money because John Major was not that.
JONATHAN: I think that's probably what it's about because no one's objecting to the way David Cameron's making money either. I think it's probably…
HELEN: Well that’s not true. I think the difference with John Major it that most people don't know about Carlyle and how much money John Major made out of. He's been more discreet about it. I don't think is anything more to it than that.
JONATHAN: So I don't think it's about the amount of money. It's about the way that you do it and probably where you're coming from, as you say. And that is the problem. The higher you are the further you fall.