It would be hard to think of a more consciously public role than that bestowed on the modern parliamentary politician. Whether it’s in Westminster, in the increasingly influential assemblies in Scotland and Wales, or in the tinderbox that is Northern Ireland, political influence depends upon your face being seen and your voice heard.
Even the most mundane work carried out by our elected representatives – from bread-and-butter constituency activity through to functional committees once considered ‘beyond boring’ by journos – now attracts the hungry eye of the media machine.
These days there’s even a Twitter feed reporting on random sightings of politicians on trains, in shops, picking their nose in the park, or grabbing a quick coffee with the family off the local high street. No space is automatically private.
All this feeds the myth that nothing of real political importance happens without journalistic mediation, or without the involvement of those voracious party PR machines that put the majority of professional politicians in positions of power in the first place, with a little help from the electorate every few years.
The reality turns out to be rather different. For example, it is official government policy now, ten years after the 9/11 terror attacks, and a decade on from the beginnings of ongoing Western military intervention in Afghanistan, to engage directly with the Taliban.
But as Sir Menzies Campbell MP points out in conversation with regional expert James Fergusson at the church-backed Edinburgh Festival of Spirituality and Peace, which has been running throughout August, ‘talking to the enemy’ offstage from public political mechanisms is far from unusual. It an essential part of their ability to deliver change beyond the limited consensus that can be negotiated in the glare of cameras.
Behind-the-scenes conversations, often directed at protagonists caught up in criminal or violent activity, were crucial in the build-up to the peace process in Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement, fragile though it is at times, has immeasurably altered the landscape for good since the dark days of the 1970s. But it is important to recall that it was the outcome rather than the genesis of an underlying shift in the political architecture of the province.
The prospects of settlements in some of the most intractable situations in the world today, as well as in domestic political wrangles over the health service, education and more, depend upon a host of unseen actors. Civil servants, community activists, faith leaders and mediation specialists are able to create the conditions in which formal political figures can finally seen to be saying and doing things which would previously have been deemed unacceptable to ‘their side’ or to press-mediated ‘public perception’.
Central to all this is the trust paradox. Irreconcilable, conflictual and rejectionist politics feeds on fear and suspicion. Meeting antagonists in informal, depoliticised contexts enables the unthinkable to be thought and a fresh personal dynamic to enter the situation. Yet it is also essentially clandestine activity which, if exposed publicly, can rupture trust in the political arena.
* The event TALKING TO THE ENEMY - £6 (£4 concessions) takes place on Friday 19 August, 12.30pm – 1.30pm at St John’s Church, Princes St, Edinburgh, co-sponsored by Ekklesia and the Festival of Spirituality and Peace. James Fergusson, whose book Taliban strips away misconceptions about the Taliban and lays bare the contradictions of western policy, talks with Sir Menzies Campbell MP, one of Parliament's most measured and authoritative voices on our engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11.
* The full Festival programme is at: http://www.festivalofspirituality.org.uk/
* Spirituality Peace and News: http://festivalofspirituality.blogspot.com/
* More on FoSP from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/festivalofspirituality
© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. This article is adapted from his August 2011 regular 'Party Pieces' column for Third Way (http://www.thirdwaymagazine.co.uk/), the magazine of Christian social, cultural and political comment.