Appointing Lee Anderson as the new Deputy Chair of the Conservative Party probably looks like smart politics to some in the Westminster bubble. Put a relatively high profile ‘controversial character’ into a job with no real power simply to demonstrate to a certain type of supporter that they have a home in the party and to enrage the opposition and make them dance to his tune. Great work. Let’s pop back to Kennington for a glass of fizz.
Let’s overlook for now the utter unsuitability of Mr Anderson for any position of authority. Let’s disregard the cynicism and disdain for the electorate of thinking you can throw red meat to the red wall and continue with politics as usual in SW1. Let’s not highlight the dodgy strategic thinking that seems to have overlooked that for every person he attracts there will almost certainly be at least one who stays at home. And let’s not think about how much of a gift to Labour he will be.
Let’s instead ask why so many politicians who revel in being described as ‘uncompromising’ appear in fact to believe meekly in followership and not leadership.
This week The Spectator found it had a scoop on its hands. Just as many on the left and the right realised how aghast they were about Mr Anderson’s new position the magazine pointed out that in a recent interview he had said that he supported the reintroduction of the death penalty. “Nobody has ever committed a crime after being executed. You know that, don’t you? 100 per cent success rate,” he said. Cue further outrage and headlines. Oh, how the Tory Svengalis must have rubbed their hands.
Rishi Sunak hurriedly distanced himself from Mr Anderson’s remarks (whilst keeping him in his job), but other MPs were much less squeamish. Brendan Clarke-Smith dismissed the “confected outrage” over what had been said, noting that a poll a year ago had found a small majority in favour of executing convicted terrorists. Scott Benton argued that we were seeing the “usual leftie hysteria following Lee Anderson’s comments on the death penalty”. He also claimed that “it’s supported by a majority of the public, and my constituents, in certain cases. Another example of the media, liberal elites and Twitter being detached from the public,” he proclaimed on, um, Twitter.
As even Mr Clarke-Smith acknowledged, it is highly unlikely that we will really have a debate over the death penalty. That’s because there are of course many reasons to oppose it: moral, religious and diplomatic considerations are just the start. When it comes to terrorists you’d have to question whether it makes sense to make martyrs out of people who often want to be just that. And more broadly, there are plenty of academic studies – and a gigantic real life experiment, known as the United States – to show that it has little impact on crime rates (and may in fact make things worse). But for many people the clinching argument is the very real risk of wrongful conviction.
To repurpose Mr Anderson’s comments, no-one innocent has ever cleared their name after being executed. 100% failure rate.
If they think really, really, hard about it I’m sure Mr Anderson and Mr Benton and their ilk believe that even one blameless person being killed – by their own government, to boot – is not okay. But they don’t seem to be thinking about it all that much. A majority of the public share their views, they say, and that’s enough for them.
This overlooks the whole point of having MPs. We don’t just go along with whatever people down the pub are saying at any one moment; the job of a Parliamentarian is to listen to all sides of an argument, weigh up what they’ve heard, consider the facts, and make difficult decisions. In this case they have to balance the outrage and fear caused by horrific murders and terrorist attacks with issues that attract less public attention, like the risk of miscarriages of justice, the impact on international treaties, and the effect on crime rates. This is not to say that the electorate is stupid, but rather that it is not their job to know as much and think as deeply about every single issue as our Parliamentarians. After all, why else do we elect them?
Real leadership involves making hard choices and then explaining them to the public, not just going along with the herd. It means having the bravery to challenge whatever prejudices currently hold sway. If some of the ‘hard men’ of British politics tried it they might actually deserve their tough reputations.