In praise of William Hague
(For full affect, imagine me ostentatiously holding a martini as I say this first part.)
So I was talking with Andrew Sullivan last night, and in between interruptions by people who wanted to query him about Catholicism to watch the veins in his neck turn blue, I asked him about William Hague. Sullivan’s profile of Hague in 2001 was the first piece of his I’d ever read, and having lived in England only 10 months before the article’s publication, I had come to the same conclusion as Sullivan: This was a decent man getting a raw deal.
Even if you don’t agree, you’ve got to think he’s got an interesting story. Hague was a young, brilliant conservative who in 1977 gave one of the key speech at the Tory party conference. He looked like this.
He went on to Oxford and was elected to parliament in 1989, at age 28. He was in the cabinet by age 34, and when the Conservatives lost the 1997 election, he was elected one of the youngest party leaders in Europe. The trouble was, he looked like this.
Yes, he had the same features he had at age 16, but now he was bald. In this age of media and image and spin, this led to him earning possibly the meanest political nickname of the past 50 years: the “Fighting Fetus.” This gave cartoonists the inspiration to draw him as a little boy in short pants, as seen here:
It’s a bit difficult to imagine the same level of vitriol directed at a politican by our press. Hague just wasn’t taken seriously at all. He became a convenient punching bag for journalists to take out all their grievances against the Tories, and his popularity went septic. The 2001 election, which wasn’t winnable anyway, turned into a rout, and at age 40 Hague basically entered a forced retirement from the front edge of politics.
Sullivan’s take on this was that Hague should have calmly stepped aside in the 1997 leadership race and let some poor slob like Michael Howard (the current leader, elected in 2003 at age 58) take the hit in the 2001 election. Probably true, but what thirtysomething gets a chance at power like this and says “best to sit and wait a bit”?
Hague’s got a new biography out, of William Pitt the Younger. I’m sure it’s good, and it’ll be interesting to see if it makes any progress in rehabilitating his reputation.