How the Iron Lady boils an egg: why private moments matter in politics

If I learnt just one thing from watching The Iron Lady, it’s that despite popular belief, politicians are people too. Margaret Thatcher might have sent missile ships to the Falklands and vowed never to negotiate with terrorists, but she still boils an egg, fills black sacks for Oxfam and asks her daughter to fasten the catch at the back of her dress which she can’t reach.

The snippets of Maggie’s domestic life are definitely the most moving parts of the film (which, in case you are wondering I would highly recommend). It’s impossible not to feel something as you watch the forgetful but resolute old lady plonked awkwardly on the floor in an uncomfortable cotton dress, trying to prise open a DVD case and twitching as she eavesdrops on conversations her daughter has with her carer.

It made me think that if Britain has its iron lady in ‘Maggie’, then Germany has found her equivalent in ‘Angie’.

Like Thatcher, Merkel is frequently portrayed as emotionless and inexpressive and ultimately, as Maggie was, “out of touch”.

A recent article published on Spiegel Online seeks to redress the balance. In it, journalist Dirk Kurbjuweit, who has spent many years accompanying Merkel on her trips, documents a series of moments, unrelated to the financial crisis, nuclear power, or the future of the Euro, in which Merkel shows herself as something more than a political machine.

As a Human Being in fact.

They are ordinary moments.

Once, she laughed uncontrollably and snorted while telling a story about the Lithuanian Prime Minister, who was detained by the Belarusian police while out cycling disguised as a tourist.

Another time, after her defence minister Guttenberg resigned following revelations that he had plagiarised passages of his doctoral thesis, she made an uncharacteristically emotional speech. During it, she kept tugging at a loose thread on her sleeve.

She makes her husband breakfast every morning.

Some, especially the French, might inquire as to why on earth it matters what a politician does behind closed doors. Can they not sew their buttons in peace? Have they not got the right to entertain several lovers without the world having to know about it?

The French media in particular thinks personal privacy is sacrosanct.

Back in November, at the G20 summit Obama and Sarkozy were having a chat. The Israeli Prime Minister came up in conversation.

“I can’t stand him anymore, he’s a liar”, said Sarkozy, to which Obama replied, “You may be sick of him, but me, I have to deal with him every day!”

The problem with the conversation was that their mikes were on. A couple of journalists heard the whole thing. Instead of rushing to their editor with their enormous scoop, they stayed quiet, in the belief that this was a private conversation, and would be damaging to report.

Nothing was said for a few days until the French website Arret sur Images published their remarks. As soon as international journalists got their hands on the clip, it went global and the mainstream French media reported it too.

Why is this important?

Because it reinforces the point that politics is a drama encompassing the full spectrum of human emotions.

We must never forget that it’s the behind-the-scenes conversations over strong cups of coffee and dog-eared files that end up directing events on the world stage.

Political decisions, like any other are made on the spur of the moment, and under the influence of powerful personalities. If your leader is more eager to be liked than to do what’s right, it matters. If they are impulsive or inexpressive or icy, it will affect their governance. Personality counts.

It’s one thing to believe in protecting private comments from the public glare but it’s another to detach entirely the personal from the political.

Research has shown that politicians get elected on the strength of their personality rather than on their policies.

It’s not surprising.

People are interested in people. They are less interested in policies. Policies may be more important, but ultimately it’s people, not machines that make them.

It’s futile to remove the personal from the political. We can rationalise emotions but we can’t remove them. Margaret Thatcher’s style of governance was probably affected a great deal more by the values of her stiff-upper lip upbringing than by the pages of briefs and pieces of advice she got from various channels during her premiership.

The media have a choice to make between objectifying and subjectifying. Objectifying is talking about Hillary Clinton’s bum, while subjectifying is telling us how her mouth twitched when her daughter failed a maths test.

The future of journalism is uncertain: the overwhelming speed at which news now travels has eliminated much of what the job used to entail.

There is a new opportunity though and it requires us to slow down, to reflect and to write with insight rather than haste.

Demanding of our journalists to be emotionally astute as well as politically sharp will lead to a more complex picture of what is anything but a straightforward job: making decisions that affect millions of lives and the future of our planet.

Journalism may sustain its integrity into the future by maintaining a fine balance between the personal and the political. When it comes to reporting from the private realm, it must replace sensationalism with psychological realism.

It’s what’s missing in the constantly updated, hyper-evolving virtual media landscape.

Unless we begin to privilege the mundane everyday, politicians will stay “out of touch” with it, and the public will continue to see them as little more than worn out political machines; inanimate and inept.

How Maggie boils an egg matters, but you’d really better go and see the film to find out.

Advertisements