The Very Model Of A Modern Citizen Politician?

George Washington


Dan Byles, the Conservative MP notable for holding the party’s most marginal seat (North Warwickshire, majority of 54 votes) has announced his intention to stand down at the 2015 general election.

In a statement published on his website, the MP notes:

Before becoming an MP I served in the Army for nine years, deploying on operational tours in Bosnia and Kosovo. By the time of the 2015 General Election, serving my country will have been the primary focus of my professional life for some 14 years. For myself and for my family, whose support and understanding have been unerring throughout, I believe it is now time to move on to new challenges. I will therefore not be standing for re-election in 2015.

While it is sad to see Parliament lose a member of such evident patriotic devotion as Mr. Byles, more than anything else, the news comes as a tremendous surprise because it is so rare to see someone give up power and office so gracefully in modern British politics. Unless they are so unfortunate as to lose their seat in an election, MPs usually cling to their Westminster offices like barnacles to a ship’s hull.

Having undertaken whatever questionable manoeuverings were necessary to be selected as a candidate and then elected to Parliament in the first place, many MPs choose to stay in the politics game for the rest of their careers. And just as the baby boomers delaying retirement creates a lack of entry-level openings at the junior end of the job market, so the legion of sixty and seventy-year-old MPs refusing to step off the gravy train prevents any significant injection of young blood into the senior levels of British politics.

Of course, not all legislators can (or should) breeze into Parliament for a single term as a mere sabbatical from their real-life careers. Parliamentary business (particularly the important, mostly unseen work done in committees) depends on there being knowledgeable, experienced veterans able to see through the nonsense and bring their vast wisdom to bear on proceedings. Just as it would be damaging to have a Parliament exclusively full of big beasts and old-timers, so a Parliament of young and ambitious whippersnappers with their eye on a Cabinet position (or higher) would also be harmful.

But Dan Byles represents a type of politician that is far too rare in Britain – someone willing to serve his constituents in our national legislature with seemingly no further ambition to climb the greasy pole or to engage in Westminster’s devious games.

Sure, there are other young politicians who stay in Parliament for only a short term – as the BBC rightly notes, Byles represents the 23rd Conservative MP to stand down 2015, a significant number of whom also come from the 2010 intake. But this is not the dawn of the citizen politician that it appears to be – the ranks of the departed include those such as Louise Mensch, who arrived with expectations of power and rapid promotion, chafed at the club-like nature of Westminster and the unglamorous life of a backbencher, and departed early after focusing too much on what their government could do for them, as opposed to what they could do for their government.

Think also of the one-time rising stars of the New Labour governments such as James Purnell, who leveraged his brief ministerial career and failed attempt to destabilise Gordon Brown to secure himself a plum job at the publicly-owned BBC (after a spell as chairman of a think tank and public sector advisor to a global consultancy firm).

While there is very little to praise in a long life lived out on the backbench easy street, or a brief incandescent Parliamentary career aborted when the office holder realised there was no room for further personal advancement, there is a lot to praise in someone devoting a limited period of their life – either relatively early in their career like Dan Byles, or later in life at the apex of their career – to serve their constituents and countrymen.

George Washington, the first President of the United States, retired from the presidency in 1797 to tend to his farm and his business interests. True, there was not the same temptation to found self-aggrandising global initiatives, join the ranks of the lobbying industry or make the transition into television punditry back in the late eighteenth century – but even if there were, one suspects that George Washington would have had none of it. After a lifetime of service to his newly born country, he was happy to dissolve back into civilian life. How glib, shallow and egotistical do so many of our contemporary leaders and politicians appear when compared to this Washingtonian ideal of the citizen politician?

It may be the smallest of beginnings, but let the national service and brief Parliamentary career of Dan Byles be a reminder to others – particularly those who hold the most sway over candidate selection, both in the constituencies and in Westminster – that while there is no one model political career, that of the citizen politician is one to aspire to, and one to respect.

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