The power beyond the throne

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A couple of weeks ago, Bill Clinton stood before an audience of notables in the City of London’s Guildhall and was evidently a happy man. He had just come from signing pledges that would channel millions of dollars to Aids sufferers in Africa - one of his many charitable causes. He was funny, inspiring, polymathic - yet he had, still, the flat twang of the Arkansas good ol’ boy. He even seemed younger. Not just a happy, but a free man.

Gordon Brown, the chancellor (who had spoken before him: even the future prime minister of Britain is a warm-up act for the former president of the US), was by contrast a man imprisoned. While waiting to speak, Clinton sat still, an expression of calm amiability on his handsome face. The chancellor writhed and twitched - their differing body languages expressing the one’s serene consciousness that the next thing that awaited him was another occasion in which everyone would be nice to him, while the other knew that the 10 things he should be doing already would be conflictual, disappointing or mind-numbing.

Bill Clinton has reached, relatively young, his emeritus years. But emeritus years, for world statesmen and women, are not what they were. You do not write a memoir and a few speeches, then retire to gracious ageing disturbed only by a few respectful visits on anniversary dates by a deferential broadcaster. You Do Good. Doing Good is the recognised road of redemption: redeeming oneself, that is, from the stain of... being a politician.

In his speech Clinton mentioned in passing that the people who had last graced the cover of Time magazine as “Persons of the Year” had been the Microsoft founder Bill Gates, his wife Melinda and the rock star Bono. They are what princes of the church were before they became responsible for denying women rights, persecuting gays and covering up child abuse. They are the blessed of a secular world: more than that, they actually do good. They are able, because of their fame and inspirational charm and their networks, to raise vast sums of cash. Children live when they would have died, pain is eased, parched earth yields crops. Clinton invoked the Gateses and Bono almost as if they were role models into whose ranks he had managed to scramble. And he was right. For, even if he will be in the tomes from now until history gives up being written, they are on the cover of Time magazine. They are the media’s anointed.

How the leading politicians must yearn for the day when they are free to join them. For where the saints go marching into Africa to do good and get on magazine covers, the political leaders have another meeting in Room D101 with officials who know more than they do, or lobbyists who want more than they have, or colleagues who dislike them, or a journalist who reminds them they have not done what they pledged to do.

In Room D101, the limits of the political are thrashed through and through, day after day and year after year, in government after government. It is of course true that the walls of the room witness weak politicians who do not push the limits and strong ones who do, but at some point the weak or the strong retreat - must retreat - within themselves to ask: Can I sell this? Can I get votes for this? Can I/my party survive this?

The question must be asked if democracy is to continue. Yet - as Clinton told his audience in the Guildhall - the limits of the politically possible must be breached, torn down, destroyed if the world is to continue. “Global warming,” he said, “is an existential threat - and democratic politics are not organised to deal with this.” There, in a sentence, is the issue.

Democratic politics in the rich lands of the west operates within what the economist John Kenneth Galbraith called a “culture of contentment”. People in cultures of contentment do sometimes settle down, under a lamp powered by solar energy, to read Dickens on recycled paper after a vegetarian quiche. But at least as many get into their SUVs, roar off to an airport, stick the monster in long-term parking and jet off to Barcelona for the weekend. If, in room D101, an official with a high sense of humour and low ambitions proposes taxing SUVs off the road, or forcing EasyJet’s prices up through taxation, the politician would hardly have to commune with the inner political reflex. The idea of frontally challenging the contented - when, after all, the purpose of every political party now is to deepen that contentment through further enrichment, because that is what we demand of them - is, in principle, absurd.

Politicians know this - how could they not? Some, at least, want it to be different. Both Clinton and Brown are in these ranks and so is Tony Blair. In one of a series of speeches he is giving on foreign affairs, he expressed regret that he had not been able to intervene in Sudan, the latest of the world’s recent killing grounds. Why not? He has at his command one of the best military forces in the world; the US, his strong ally, has declared what is happening there “genocide”; there have been UN resolutions. But in some room D101, the limits of the possible have been tested - and Sudan has remained beyond them.

So when he leaves office, look to Tony Blair to do out of power what he could not do in it. No, that’s wrong. Look to him to aspire to a different kind of power than that which he presently has. It is a power built on a mixture of media, celebrity and idealism - each of these useless without the other. The job waiting the departing world leader - and Blair has put himself in that category - is to save the planet. Which now, it seems, can no longer be done in Room D101. What that means for democratic politics is another day’s work.

john.lloyd@ft.com

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