Mysteries of the political endgame
In an often misquoted passage in his biography of Joseph Chamberlain, the late British politician Enoch Powell wrote that ‘all political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.’ Politicians in fact often make every imaginable effort to prove him right, and in Ireland at this time Taoiseach Brian Cowen is working hard in this endeavour.
Not every reader will share this opinion, but I am of the view that Brian Cowen will leave a legacy of some achievements. Of all the politicians I have met (and I have met many, from different countries), he was one who perhaps most easily understood the value of universities in a modern country and society, and having understood this he genuinely tried to do something about it. Working with Micheal Martin (now set to vote against him in this week’s confidence vote) he secured the adoption of the Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation, which changed the funding framework for research.
But right now, Brian Cowen is in that curious mood that seems to grip some politicians when crisis threatens to overwhelm their tenure – the mood that persuades them that their continuing in office is a matter of national interest, when virtually all the signs shout otherwise. Furthermore that mood, once it has asserted itself, leads the victim to certain doom, not least because the wider population quickly learns to distrust someone who claims emphatically that their political survival is pivotal in securing the national interest.
I have met Brian Cowen (though not as often as other Irish politicians), and I have always found him to be decent, courteous, interested and intelligent. When he was a minister – and regardless of how one might evaluate his achievements in office – he was clearly in command of his environment. Not so as Taoiseach. Almost from the word go it became clear that he could not adopt the leadership style that this office demands, and in particular that he simply could not communicate to the nation the kind of message that would inform, encourage and inspire. A man with a very close connection with his party, he did not manage to show that he could transcend its organisational boundaries.
Brian Cowen’s political career is coming to its end. That much, I believe, he cannot change. But he had choices about how that might play out, and he has chosen the path that will in the end break him much more comprehensively than any other option he might have gone for. I cannot help feeling that it is sad, and not just for Brian Cowen.