Apologies for a long, but hopefully reflective thread about modern politics. It is partially inspired by a documentary about Finnish politicians which will be released tomorrow on YLE. This thread should thus be seen as a personal reflection, not a comment on the state of affairs in a country that is close to my heart.
I am often asked what it felt like to be in government during the crisis years 2008-16. I guess every period is distinct and every crisis different. In some crisis, like Covid, folks are essentially behind you. In others, like the financial crisis, they are not. One brings together, the other tears apart – polarises.
It also depends on your role in government. I had the privilege to serve as Prime Minister, Finance Minister, Foreign Minister, and Trade & Europe Minister for a grand total of 3002 consecutive days. Gotta admit that I enjoyed the foreign policy related portfolios more than the domestically driven posts. I was always more comfortable with things international, rather than national. Yet, national and local is really the stuff that matters, that’s why I embraced it.
Being in government is essentially constant crisis management on many levels. On the international level it can be about wars, natural disasters, diplomatic incidents or trade disputes. The key is to have broad international networks and contacts. Makes it easier to solve difficult issues. A capacity to express yourself clearly to international media outlets is rarely a bad thing.
On the European level it is also about navigating through different crises. In my days it was a lot about Afghanistan, Georgia, TTIP, Ukraine, the EU budget, and the euro and asylum crises. Many all nighters. Lots of travel. You punch above your weight only if you understand the institutional dynamics, have the contacts, speak languages and know your stuff.
On the national level in Finland it is often about managing coalition governments. Experienced all sorts, from three to six parties. At times it felt like mission impossible with interests literally left, right and centre. Much of the daily tensions are about power, media space, expenditure, taxes, welfare, economy, security, agriculture and environment. Need a lot of grit to navigate through the maze of national, local and ideological interests.
On the most basic level it is about party politics. Complicated at the best of times. Constant need to show the party that you are delivering. No matter how you do it, you won’t get it right. Someone is always going to be unhappy. No lack of egos, interest and power here either. The most frustrating thing is when individual interests take precedence over team play. That’s when everyone loses.
The final level of being a minister is about media. Not easy either, especially with the double whammy of traditional and social media feeding each other in real time. When I entered politics in 2004 social media was not really there. I was a pioneer with a blog allowing open commentary! I was also one of the first politicians to embrace Facebook, Twitter and Instagram when they hit the scene, even Weibo.
I enjoyed the direct and open means of communication. At the same time my spontaneity got me into trouble from time to time. Nothing major, mostly about personal stuff or an ill-timed tweet. Always my own responsibility, but naturally spun in all kinds of directions. That’s what it’s like to be the first ”Twitter Minister”.
I have very few regrets about my government years. Sure, I would do some things differently with the benefit of hindsight. Yes, there was compromise. There always is. But I never took a decision to please the crowd. I took it because I believed it was the right thing to do. Sometimes it was. At other times it was not. Either way, it was never easy. Always based on the best available information at the time.
There are many who leave politics with a grudge, this feeling that they have been unjustly treated. I never really felt that way. Sure, I think there were some politicians and journalists that were…well challenging. And sure there were moments I felt like shit. But that’s not the point. The point is that you have to accept mental discomfort in a liberal democracy. You also have to accept that with success you will end up failing too. When you are on the top, many want you to fail, unfortunately.
There is only one thing I felt very uncomfortable with, namely the fact that politics can ignore the person behind the role; who you are as a human being. Most people, journalists or others, do not know you. Some have not even met you, yet they have an opinion about who you are and what you are like. Everyone questions your motives. The truth is that you are never as good or bad as you are portrayed to be in the public eye.
When you are a government minister, you are expected to behave a certain way, basically to put on an institutional act. You are supposed to conform to an institution, yet you are judged on who you are as a person. I guess a lot of it is about whether you are changing the institution more than it is changing you. It is a daily fight against cynicism. The key is to get out with your identity and integrity intact.
So, why this long thread? Just to remind everyone out there, that politicians are human beings too, not just institutions. Humans have feelings, institutions don’t. And also a gentle reminder that no matter how rough the language seems at the moment, it was not that soft before either. In many cases, even tougher. We just conveniently forget. In a liberal democracy we all set the rules and standards of civilised behaviour, together. Fortunately.