Matthew Parris

How a nice little rabbit can win the political rat race

25 August 2012

‘Nice people, with nice habits/ they keep rabbits/ but got no money at all,’ sang the popular duo Flanagan and Allen in my father’s day. I can still remember Dad playing it on our gramophone in the early 1950s. My family liked these sentiments; secretly we rather hoped they applied to us. But I write now not as a nice person, but on behalf of nice people. I think that song is self-oppressive. The early appearance of rabbits in the lyric gives the game away: fluffy and harmless creatures whom we may love but are unlikely to admire. Rats are more successful.

A recent study in Scientific American, however, has challenged the supposed link between being nice and being a loser. Under the umbrella of what social scientists call ‘agreeableness’ — consideration for others, generosity, and a desire for social harmony — a range of studies all seem to suggest that there is no general correlation between nastiness and success, or niceness and failure. In fact nice people are more likely to be hired, and to keep their jobs.

So how about the job of prime minister? I’ve been surveying the political careers of a few of those at the top whom I’ve followed. Rats or rabbits? Did niceness make or unmake them? The evidence of the last 40  years is thoroughly confusing. But there’s an explanatory variable, silent in the American surveys, which I’ll come to last.

I wouldn’t say the late Sir Edward Heath was a particularly nice person: not notably dishonest but spectacularly rude and inconsiderate. This trait did him nothing but harm as a prime minister; but the brutal side of his personality may have helped him up the ladder as a chief whip, placing him in the frame when a new leader was being sought. Abrasiveness took him so far, but no further, and then undid him. I reach a similar conclusion with Gordon Brown.

Since Harold Wilson’s death, the view has gained ground that he was not the sly and unprincipled fox he was both hated and (by some) grudgingly admired for being: a kindly soul, in fact, but rudderless. Transparently decent? No; but the villain of Tory imaginations? Not that either.


Of Jim Callaghan, my one-time fellow sketch-writer Edward Pearce wrote that he was the type who, if a rival were clinging to a cliff’s edge by his fingernails, would stamp on his hands. True or not, his avuncular reputation as Sunny Jim was probably his best political asset. So the evidence points both ways.

Margaret Thatcher would never have chosen the word ‘nice’ as her distinguishing feature. She could be beastly to colleagues, and such admiration as she inspired nationally was for her strength rather than agreeableness. But she was not generally considered personally nasty. Working for her, I noticed how allergic she was to having seemed personally uncaring; she would make amends in something like panic. But ‘nice’? No, that was not the point of her.

Many would agree that John Major is the best example we have of a nice guy at the top. But was he a winner? Well, he won more votes than any British party leader before or since, and after his fall his and his administration’s stock has been steadily rising. But even his friends would concede that there were moments when the killer instinct would have served him well, and a decent hesitation broke his stride. I have to observe, having been in the thick of things at the time, that agreeableness was central to his winning the leadership, then the general election of 1992.

Tony Blair is an interesting case. Affability? In spades. Agreeableness? Yes, apparently so. Blokeish charm? Undoubtedly. Good manners? Usually. But ‘nice’ means more than that, and speaks of a personal integrity, unselfishness, and qualities of honour, trustworthiness and caring for people, on which, to say the least, history’s jury is still out. Some of his friends (and many voters, I’ve found) actually admire a certain raffish rascality about the man. So as to the Scientific American’s thesis, Mr Blair, an agreeable rat, sends out confusing signals.

And David Cameron? I am coming to the conclusion that he genuinely is a nice man. But also that his political prospects might be improved by becoming a nastier one. Given the narrowness of the Tory edge at the last election, though, and remembering that Mr Cameron was then well ahead of his party in the voters’ affections, it follows that without a leader whom the public thought nice, the electorate would not have sent a Conservative to Downing Street in 2010 at all.

Shall we sum up? Heath wasn’t chosen for niceness but might have found things easier if he’d been nicer. Major was chosen for niceness but might have found things easier if he’d been nastier. Ditto Cameron. Wilson was neither nice nor nasty enough to test the thesis. Callaghan traded on seeming nice but wouldn’t have reached Downing Street without a nasty streak. Blair rode both horses, generating a weird blend of affability and scallywaggery. Thatcher’s pitch was not niceness, but honour was vital to her reputation and she was sensitive to the danger of seeming personally nasty.

Confusing? Yes, I would argue, because by making nice/nasty our axis, we’ve left out a vital element in human nature, whose presence or absence is the more likely determinant of political success. Ruthlessness. This has nothing to do with agreeableness, generosity or a preference for social harmony. A politician may have all these things but (to misquote St Paul) if he have not ruthlessness, he is nothing. Blair’s failure to be ruthless with Brown, Major’s failure to be ruthless with the bastards, Wilson’s failure to be ruthless with the left, were what undid them: not any paucity or excess of affability.

Being a rat is neither a sufficient nor even necessary condition for ascending the greasy pole. The winning combination, I submit, is agreeableness with ruthlessness. The key to political success is to be a ruthless rabbit.

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