by Polly Mackenzie
Wednesday, 7
April 2021
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15:06

Westminster has a West Wing problem

Politicians who are interested in winning shouldn't look to Aaron Sorkin for tips
by Polly Mackenzie
I’ve deliberately had a meeting while walking at speed through corridors

Let Starmer be Starmer: the words, printed in today’s Times, complete whatever the fourth goal of a hat trick is called, according to my old friend Sean Kemp on Twitter today. The West Wing reference — originally Let Bartlet be Bartlet — has now been used about every new Labour leader since Brown.

Pockets of West Wing obsession still remain in Westminster even though the show went off our screens almost 15 years ago. I used to be a sufferer myself. I wanted to be a speechwriter, and even became one, because I wanted to be like Toby Zeigler. I cultivated misanthropy in his honour. I’ve deliberately had a meeting while walking at speed through corridors. I’ve pretended to like ‘smart people who disagree’ with me. I’ve derided the ‘ten word answer’. I’ve used the phrase ‘post hoc ergo propter hoc’ to explain that causation and correlation are not the same thing. And yes, repeatedly, we Clegg advisers said to ourselves: let Nick be Nick.

Tony Blair’s office were, apparently, obsessed with the West Wing. It might seem quite normal that Clinton adviser Gene Spurling — an expert adviser on the show — was invited to dinner with Blair. But No10 apparently also invited John Spencer, the show’s Leo McGarry, to meet the PM’s real life chief of staff Jonathan Powell.

You can tell a lot about someone by which political television show they’re most obsessed with. If you love Yes Minister, you’re sceptical about the motivations of the civil service, and expect a benign level of good natured bumbling from political leaders. You’re probably over 50 and you have no expectation that the government ever accomplishes much but you don’t mind.

If you still love the Thick of It, then you think politicians, voters and the media are the problem. If you love Borgen, then you’re probably a Lib Dem: you want the small party to be in charge just because they’re centrists.

I think the latest crop of special advisers are different. They’re more likely to be fans of the Netflix reboot of House of Cards, Scandal or Designated Survivor. They consider politics a ruthless game played by brilliant backstabbers. Government policy is largely subordinate to playing and winning the game.

Those remaining die-hard West Wing addicts circulating in Westminster think they’re the good guys. They love the show, as Blair’s people did, because it shows good people trying to do the right thing, and mostly succeeding. They have fallen for what I call the Sorkin Delusion: that being clever, articulate and brave is the pathway to success. What they’ve failed to notice is that it’s just comforting narcissism. After all, you only say “Let Starmer be Starmer” or “Let Clegg be Clegg” when you’re losing. You only need the narcissistic props to keep you going, to tell you that doing the right thing will be worth it in the long run, when the short run isn’t working for you.

Politicians who are interested in winning don’t look to Aaron Sorkin for tips. I doubt Boris Johnson could name a single Bartlet quote, except perhaps the ones in Latin. As I learned myself six years ago: the Sorkin Delusion is the preface to defeat.

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Daniel Björkman
Daniel Björkman
1 year ago

I feel like every time I turn around lately, I find someone dunking on Sorkin. Is it actually the worst thing in the world that a lot of people liked the idea that our governments should reflect the best in us?
I mean, it’s true that it rarely works out in practice. There are few people who can live up to Sorkin’s ideal of the perfect politician (even his own characters couldn’t, half the time). And even when someone really does stand up and make the case for class and dignity, the voters respond better to someone telling them that they should keep stuffing their faces, patting themselves on the back, and screwing everything in a skirt and/or plopping out a thousand babies. But I’d really quite like for some people of intelligence and conscience to still be around, just to remind everyone what those look like.

Hosias Kermode
Hosias Kermode
1 year ago

The problem with West Wing is that it asks us to believe people in power can know better than the average voter and will do the right thing. Neither of these things are actually true and that is the reason that a free people needs as little government of any kind as possible.

James Slade
James Slade
1 year ago

The problem is that there is difference between a group of middle class people with degrees agreeing with each other and clever people. Sorkin is popular because he told middle class progressive politicians that they were the smart ones.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
1 year ago

‘They have fallen for what I call the Sorkin Delusion: that being clever, articulate and brave is the pathway to success. ‘
This may very well be the pathway to success. The problem is that I cannot really recall any such politicians since Thatcher and one or two of her cabinet such at Tebbitt.
I never saw The West Wing but I did read a book of the scripts. I thought they were rubbish.

Dave Weeden
Dave Weeden
1 year ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Most politicians since the 80s have settled for what I call the Meatlof delusion: that two out of three ain’t bad.
Many are clever, and most of those are articulate. But brave? Debbie Hayton’s post on here earlier shows that Starmer certainly isn’t. And I can’t think of any current politician who is.

Andrew Baldwin
Andrew Baldwin
1 year ago
Reply to  Dave Weeden

Meatloaf delusion, Dave. That’s very good and the public also has obviously settled for two out of three as well, sometimes even for one out of three, or something less than one out of three.

kathleen carr
kathleen carr
1 year ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

A major reason politicians seem to like the TV licence is because they probably realise noone would watch them if they had to pay. Politicians are very boring-I used to watch Question Time to help me go to sleep.Of course actors as politicians are handsome and glamourous -you wouldn’t watch a programme with people filling in forms or attending boring committees

Michael Josem
Michael Josem
1 year ago

Having been exposed to the inner workings of politics too much in these isles, and also in Australia, I remain convinced that the most accurate TV show is not WEST WING or HOUSE OF CARDS, but rather, VEEP.

Michael Whittock
Michael Whittock
1 year ago

Westminster sounds more like Fawlty Towers to me – failed attempts at chaos control.

Andrew Baldwin
Andrew Baldwin
1 year ago

Sorry, Polly, never watched “The West Wing” so don’t know what I am missing. I loved “Designated Survivor” at the start, but deserted it at the end of season one or near the beginning of season two, I forget. It was a wonderful idea for a TV mini-series. It was a horrible idea to make it a multi-season series. I understand if I kept watching I would have seen them kill off Keifer Sutherland’s adorable wife, played by Natascha McElhone. Unbelievable! What were these guys smoking!