HERE’S a confession. I have always been fascinated with politics and intrigued by politicians. As next week’s elections approach with all the charm of a partner with a grievance, I realise that this is a minority view.

Observing the political process has been part of my life since early childhood. I blame my parents. It is, after all, the instinctive reaction. As every therapist will tell you, it saves time.

My childhood home was an arena for political argument, a meeting place for activists and the headquarters for election campaigns. All this was shrouded in cigarette smoke and carried the whiff of imbibed malt whisky. It was an intoxicating atmosphere.

It came, however, with the drudgery of delivering leaflets up endless closes and it was accompanied by the certainty of electoral disappointment. It was a nationalist home and the SNP core support was so low in the early 1960s that the saving of a deposit merited a lap of honour.

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But this is not an article about the rise of the SNP. For three reasons. First, it already has been written by me. Second, it has been written better by others. And, thirdly, I have made a wee promise to myself that I will largely avoid the specifics of party politics in this slot. Again, this injunction is prompted by the realisation that others do it better but also by the admission that my firmly held views can change mid-sentence.

The fascination and the intrigue remains constant, however. Politics has become devalued in the eyes of many in recent years. By both necessity and by design, it has been reduced to an argument over opposites: in, out; yes, no.

Its central purpose has escaped scrutiny. Politics, in essence, should be about making lives better. It is why being a politician should be a vocation. I am envisioning in this demented brain a tsunami of low-fat milk as the snort of derision across the country take its toll on plates of breakfast cereal.

I accept, too, that politics has become a well-paid, relatively secure route to an excellent pension. I know that is how it is viewed by a constituency of the participants, some of whom still manage to do something, sometimes for the greater good.

There is ego, too, in all politicians, even, perhaps especially, in the best. There has to be. The notion that one is the perfect person to represent a constituency or lead a country requires a level of belief that can teeter uneasily on the brink of self-delusion.


But the best have a motivation that makes almost everything forgivable. They want to serve.

These politicians are not paragons of virtue. They can be as flawed as a four-pound note. But they have something that redeems themselves even as they court perdition.

There are many examples but consider Lyndon Baines Johnson. He was the American president who could not quit Vietnam, he was the purveyor of dubious deals, he was the beneficiary of several votes that could be described as, well, unreliable.

Yet, as a politician of the Deep South, he managed to improve civil rights and address poverty. In short, his personal failings could be superseded by loftier imperatives. There is no difficulty in identifying those in the modern world that have no such mitigation.

However, the flawed but committed public servant still exists. My life moved from delivering leaflets to writing on elections and their consequences as a reporter. Yup, I supped with the charlatans. But I also watched and learned from those who were able to either park ambition for the greater good or pair it with service.

There could be glimpses of genuine goodness. Donald Dewar will be remembered as a driving force for devolution and an architect of the Scottish Parliament. Yet I also knew him as a book reviewer for this newspaper who quietly but firmly insisted all payments were made to charity.

Margo MacDonald was a fierce opponent of injustice and inequality. She was also a gentle, dedicated friend to those who may not have shared her views but believed the purpose of politics was to instigate change for the better. In the last days, too, of her desperate illness she found time to console others and advocate a better future.

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There is a feeling now that this is a new politics. There is a commentary that suggests the bad guys have won, that lies don’t matter, that corruption must be tolerated, that the purpose of politics is to enrich the politicians. There are moments when it is hard to argue.

But then in this calloused soul there rises another thought. There is still the possibility that the communal good can triumph over the petty, superficial designs of the chancers.

There is no difficulty in pointing to the difficulty of politics or to the sins of some of the politicians. But there are those – in various parties – committed to working for the betterment of others. Yes, they may have other drives. Yes, they are not immune to the siren call of the ego or the comfort of high office.

But some are doing their best for the best of reasons. There is much wrong with politics and the way it is played as a game by some.

However, there is always a choice. It is a deeply personal one. I make no recommendations, advocate in this space no party. I just know that this old dodderer will walk down to the church next Thursday and vote with a sense of belief that there are good politicians and better days to come.

Our columns are platforms for writers to express their opinions.They not necessarily represent the views of The Herald