At the root of this story is a misplaced faith that politicians can and should run the world. They try to, and sometimes they succeed. But it’s never a good thing and they ought to be encouraged to take all the downtime they can get. They are the one part of the public sector for which I would happily grant a three day week and retirement at 45.
Within the West, there are two visions of the democratic leader. The first, which used to be the preserve of the Left, is the tireless reformer. He isn’t just a cog in the machinery of government, he is a piston – driving the dreadnought forever forward. Chug, chug, chug. Work, reform, and public duty are synonymous. If one task is completed, discover another. This must be done repeatedly and steadfastly, forever and ever and ever … until the machine breaks.
The second model, which was how the Right used to regard its role in government, is to be the defender of the constitution – the upholder of tradition. Within the executive, this means enforcing the law. Within the legislature, that means critiquing the way the executive does its job; new laws should be kept to a minimum. The power of the state ought be as small as possible, and so it follows that politicians should do as little as possible. That doesn’t mean they don’t work assiduously or lend their energies to moral causes (there will always be a cat up a tree to rescue). But if they understand both the constitutional and practical limits of what government can do, they’ll find their weekends are long and happy.
As the Right in Anglo-Saxon societies slowly came to accept the welfare state, so they accepted the Left’s vision of the dedicated politician. Hence, the uneasiness that the Conservative Party has shown about rumors of their PM’s idleness testifies to their own commitment to the reformist, bureaucratic ideology. That’s a pity because some of the best leaders of our time maintained a full private self. Churchill would receive war reports in bed, downing an afternoon breakfast of cold champagne. Harold Macmillan read long novels and tended to his publishing empire. Even Jim Callaghan insisted on spending as much time as possible on his farm. Callaghan was perhaps Britain’s most authentically working-class Prime Minister, yet he affected the leisure pursuits of the faded gentry.
Then there are the great (or admirably adequate) men whose personalities embodied the principle of limited government. Calvin “Silent Cal” Coolidge was actually a hard worker, but his famous quietness articulated simplicity and intellectual efficiency. As the years go by, we’re also more and more aware of quite how much Reagan thought and read about big ideas. But he too encouraged the press to believe he avoided hard work less it killed him.
The current fuss about Cameron’s supposed laissez-faire attitude is thus a blend of old-fashioned roundhead Puritanism and modern big-state nannyism. It’s the kind of get-go, whizz-bang, rationalized, super-secular, highly-educated, technologically-progressive, arid nonsense that forces ministers to fill the empty hours of a Whitehall lunch break with silly ideas like parenting classes or minimum alcohol prices. It raises the quantity of legislation, but rarely the quality. The cost goes up, naturally.
So take as much time over your Sunday lunches as you wish, Prime Minister. Some of us are arcane enough to desire a leader who does little more than uphold the constitution, defend the realm, and go salmon-fishing for the other 360 days of the year. Chillax, dude.