Confessions of a politics lecturer…

Eight years ago, a teenage politics A level student from Hull, called Jason Whiley, got into an argument with his father.

Jason’s dad had discovered a picture of Enoch Powell on a pogo stick, and claimed that today’s politicians weren’t as interesting any more. Jason bet him that he was wrong, and wrote to lots of today’s politicians to ask whether they’d done anything similar.

His letter was very specific, wanting to know if, at any point, any of them had been on:

A skateboard

Roller skates and/or blades

A Space Hopper

A go-kart

A death slide

A non-motorised scooter

A BMX bike, or:

(and, covering all bases) any other locomotive child’s toy

He got more than 80 replies, including 27 Cabinet Ministers, four Prime Ministers, three Chancellors of the Exchequer and two European Commissioners.  Many of them answered at length, and even provided pictures.

Margaret Thatcher had tried roller-skating and a scooter, while John Prescott claimed to have “roller-skated, ridden a BMX and used a Space Hopper!”

Neil Kinnock, who was then a European Commissioner, replied that although he hadn’t done any of the listed activities, he had enjoyed driving British Army tanks in Germany between 1985 and 1991, adding: ‘There is nothing (underlined!) more pleasurable than a multi-ton space hopper travelling over rough country at 60mph’.

Having got such a great response, Jason stuck the letters and photos up on a now defunct website — entitled — which the media loved.   One week in August 2003 saw the website featured in the Guardian three times, as well as in The Mirror, The Daily Mail, and the BBC News. There were also enquiries from The Times Education Supplement, The Telegraph, The Face, Yahoo, and even The BBC Politics Show.

It also featured in, amongst others, the Melbourne Herald Sun and the Stuttgarter Zeitung. The Spectator website made it its website of the week, describing it as ‘something approaching genius’. “Occasionally,” as the Times Education Supplement noted, “a pupil comes along who has just a bit more spark than average”.

Quite so.  Because although all the politicians’ letters were genuine, Jason was not.

He was the creation of me and two friends, born out of an extended night in the pub. But unlike most normal nights in the pub, where you wake up with a hazy memory of some stupid idea, I woke up the next morning with a list of children’s toys in my pocket.

I recently outed Jason, as part of a Radio 4 lecture, and part of the purpose of that lecture was apology.  Because while most people hold to the view that MPs are a bunch of lazy shysters only busy when fiddling their expenses, I know just how busy most of them are, responding to real enquiries from constituents without having to deal with fictitious ones from imaginary teenagers.

Yet what was surprising was just how many did reply. In response to what was a deliberately borderline illiterate letter and a frankly moronic query (as several of the respondents patiently pointed out, it was not immediately obvious that the best way to judge the quality of our politicians was to see whether they’d been on a skateboard…), all of these busy people found the time to trawl their memories, dig up photos and reply.

In a lot of the feedback at the time, there was amazement at how many politicians had taken the time to reply, along with suspicion from those overseas that had it been in their country, no one would have bothered.  Here’s some of the comments: “Wow, politicians are people too”; “This makes politicians almost human”; “Restores one’s faith in politicians”; and “It was amazing how ‘normal’ and friendly the replies were.”

And following a couple of years in which the British political class have got (and, to a large part, deserved) a terrible press, some of this is worth celebrating just at a human level: the reason the replies seem to have come from normal friendly people was because they did come from normal friendly people.

As one of Jason’s respondents noted: “Politicians of yesterday were always more interesting than politicians of today.”  Although he added: “soon we will be politicians of yesterday!”

This is hardly a new complaint: there are always too few quality politicians; they are never brave enough; they were always better 20 or 30 years ago.

I recently published a book on the 2010 election, the latest in a series that dates back more than 60 years.  If you look at the very first volume, that of 1945, you’ll find complaints then about the quality of politicians — which it noted dated back at least 15 years — and that in the era of Attlee, Bevan, Churchill. There’s not much new in today’s complaints, and we’d all be better off recognising that.

Politicians and Pogosticks was broadcast on Radio 4 on 25 and 29 May, as part of the Four Thought series.

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