Most of us know what it is to finish a task undertaken for the first time, having made every mistake in the book, and regret we are unlikely ever to have to do this job again. We would know the ropes next time: the pitfalls, the useful little short-cuts. The job would be a doddle second time round.
Were I ever again to need to cut three round holes in a wooden faceplate, to offer nesting access to small birds while excluding jackdaws, I would know that a determined jackdaw can slip through a tiny hole: much smaller than you would guess by looking at the jackdaw. But I have finished the job now and will never have to do it again — more’s the pity. The hash I made of it the first time would make it easy and fun, the second. I’d be really good at it.
Were Charles Clarke ever to be Home Secretary again (one assumes he won’t be for much longer), he would be supersensitive to the public and media horror of released prisoners slipping unvetted into the crowd. He would no longer suppose that just because he had asked one part of his department to liaise properly with another, this would happen. He would watch civil servants like a hawk. He would be careful to ensure that the PM always knew early of potential bad news, and became as implicated as he.
When a politician stumbles badly, who doubts that he should take the rap and go? I don’t. I’m all for ministers shouldering responsibility for their failures. I’m all for honourable resignations. It’s just that we do then have, among the fallen, a treasure-trove of wisdom, and it seems such a waste that their having messed it up once so often rules them out of trying again.
What a pool of talent and experience is to be found among those who have botched a job the first time round; what a reservoir of prudence is offered by those who have crashed and burned. Coming a complete cropper can be a huge qualification. This is on more than the practical level, where useful skills are learnt by honest mistakes. It is on the moral level too. To be broken, disgraced, humiliated can teach not only resilience but a deep inner modesty.
Many years ago, writing Great Parliamentary Scandals, I devoted a chapter to the late Reginald Maudling (for whom as a young man I once did some work). Mr Maudling was a former home secretary whose career had been wrecked by a financial scandal. He had been greedy. I concluded the chapter thus:
I remember Mr Maudling, his career almost over when mine at the Conservative Research Department was just beginning … all out of tune with the new Thatcherite certainties gripping a party preparing for government. [He] seemed wise: thoughtful and undogmatic in his political responses. It is not unusual, I observe, to find that men who have been touched both by power and also by some kind of public disgrace show towards the end a sort of frankness, an impatience with certitude, and a weary humanity. We can lose by forgoing their services.
One thinks of David Blunkett, always clever and thoughtful, and now I suppose more ruefully wise. Or of Peter Mandelson, who in a new lease of political life seems a rather committed and capable EU trade commissioner. One thinks of Stephen Byers, who has become more interesting and original after his personal shipwreck. I admire scars. I like a cat with a torn ear.
I am talking not only of spectacular moral disgrace but also of disappointment; of careers that were stymied by chance or miscalculation; of politicians who ran into the buffers. Read John Major’s frank and self-aware autobiography, for instance, or listen to him these days on the radio: a man admitting to regret that he never quite found his voice; a man describing what his searing seven years as prime minister taught him; a man still comparatively young.
Everyone has noticed the new sureness-of-touch and canny affability that William Hague now shows, humbled young by failure. We see how vital a retreaded Michael Howard proved to the Conservative party, once experience in office had knocked some of the arrogance out of him. I listen to the civilised and perceptive David Mellor Mark II, and miss voices like his from within politics and government.
My fantasy Cabinet would be a government of all the failures: not so much a salon des refusés as a salon des ruinés.
And ruinées. Tessa Jowell will not, I suppose, rise higher in Cabinet, which is a pity. Had she done the decent thing and resigned earlier this year, then surely a person of her long-attested charm and persuasiveness, plus (after her fall) new-found humility, could be a key figure in a Cabinet.
Of course I adore Hazel Blears, minister of state in the Home Office, but I suspect she could be more than just a little ray of sunshine for Tony Blair. She will be in Cabinet within a week: but higher? Could we trust anyone so unblemished? Ms Blears’s amiable upwards glide, as though lifted by some gentle thermal into cloudless skies, limits her. What can she know — she who has never fallen? Let fortune scar her. Let her be broken, humiliated, smashed — by her own error or by sheer misfortune, it doesn’t matter. What a woman, what a politician, this potentially rather form-idable person would be then.
D.H. Lawrence said better what I am trying to say, in his poem Shadows:
… And if, in the changing phases of man’s life
I fall in sickness and in misery
my wrists seem broken and my heart seems dead
and strength is gone, and my life
is only the leavings of a life:
and still, among it all, snatches of lovely oblivion, and snatches of renewal
odd, wintry flowers upon the withered stem, yet new, strange flowers
such as my life has not brought forth before, new blossoms of me —
then I must know that still
I am in the hands of the unknown God,
he is breaking me down to his own oblivion
to send me forth on a new morning, a new man.
Matthew Parris is a political columnist of the Times.