I’ve been wondering about the relationship between insiders and outsiders ever since I was at university and then at the BBC, and have concluded (a) that it’s the combination of background and ambition that makes the difference, and (b) the outsider who wants to be an insider is the most dangerous of all combinations, for that way corruption lies.


I’ve assigned these groupings to British politicians because they are sufficiently in the public domain to be able to apply judgments.

The insiders

So, working around the two-by-two clockwise from the top left, the Insider-Insider can go both ways, though they’re never going to shock you. In their ‘insiderness’ they tend to represent the dominant ideas of the time. So both Harold Macmillan, the British Conservative Prime Minister of the late 1950s and early 1960s, and David Cameron, are Insider-Insiders. Macmillan, in power during the years of the post-war settlement was a One Nation politician who would be regarded as relatively socially progressive by the standards of the early 21st century, whereas the other seems, well, less so. There’s probably a theory about social status and networks sitting behind this observation, but I’m not going to tease it out here.

The Insider-to-Outsider are likely to be most disdainful of the the workings of the system, and can be most radical. Clement Attlee, Britain’s Labour 1945 Prime Minister, educated at Haileybury College, but radicalised by his experience of working in the East End of London, who led the most radical government in British history, would come into this category. I’ve put Tony Benn into the diagram, since he went to law to be allowed to decline the peerage he inherited from his father, and was a fairly conventional government minister in the ’60s and ’70s, before becoming increasingly radical in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

But they are always accused of hypocrisy, as if someone can’t have an intellectual life separated from their social background. In fact, it’s precisely this that makes them radical; they’ve had to go on an intellectual and emotional personal journey to distance themselves from the social and cultural milieu they were brought up in.

The outsiders

The Outsider-Outsiders want to get things done, and are impatient with all the flummery that goes with it. Margaret Thatcher was the classic Outsider-Outsider, but Gordon Brown also fits into this mould (declining to wear black tie for his Mansion House speech as Chancellor, declining his Prime Minister’s pension.) Of the present crop, Nicola Sturgeon is here, along with Alex Salmond; indeed that’s a whole part of the SNP’s positioning and appeal within Scotland. Ed Miliband’s tragedy is that he’s probably here too, judging by the things he chose to fight his battles over, but trapped within a semi-Blairite Labour Party he went in and out of focus.

Outsiders-to-Insiders tend to mistake the trappings (the money, the status, the position) for the real thing, and that’s why they are most dangerous. Position becomes more important than purpose. There’s a telling anecdote about Tony Blair arriving in his constituency after he’d resigned as Prime Minister, and was therefore just another constituency MP, scanning the car park for the Ministerial car and realising that he’d been downgraded.

Clegg’s enthusiasm

And one can’t help think that Clegg’s enthusiasm for Coalition Government, whatever the rationalisation after the Liberal Democrat’s destruction at the polls last week, was partly because he was an Outsider-who-wanted-to-be-an-Insider. Anything else, and he wouldn’t have been so easily outmanoeuvred by Cameron. Earlier Liberal leaders were either Outsider-Outsiders (like David Steel) or Insider-Outsiders (Jeremy Thorpe, Paddy Ashdown). For their own sake, they need to elect an Outsider-Outsider this time to regain some credibility and rebuild a distinctive political position.

I’d put the former US President Clinton into the same Outsider-Insider category, and probably Reagan as well. And one of the reasons why Obama has disappointed was that we hoped that he was an Outsider-Outsider, but he it turned out that he was another Outsider-to-Insider, fawning to Wall Street and the American defence/security establishment. An Outsider-Outsider would have closed the prison at Guantanamo Bay years ago.

Being accepted

Perhaps this seems to personalise politics too much, but I don’t think so. This is more a question of culture. A party dominated by Outsider-Insiders will never challenge the status quo. They are much more likely to amplify it. Being comfortable, being accepted, in the corridors of power is more important to them than getting things done. The position is the purpose. And, for my money, the history of New Labour (Lord Mandelson, with his desperation to live in Notting Hill, for example) was the history of a party that was traditionally a party of outsiders being co-opted by people who wanted to be insiders instead.