by Polly Mackenzie
Wednesday, 7
April 2021

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.

Join the discussion

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • To get involved in the discussion and stay up to date, become a registered user.

    It's simple, quick and free.

    Sign me up