54. In praise of political mavericks

Praising mavericks may seem rather strange when the term originally refers to unbranded cattle. It derives from a western rancher, Samuel Maverick, whose claim to fame in the 19th Century was based on not branding his cattle. However, I associate the term with classical jesters, native tricksters, and outspoken fools.

Jesters and fools of the past had a status of privilege in the royal courts. Such whimsical instructors, who ignored the protocol demanded by those in power, were thought of as imparting divinely-inspired advice. They were privileged to by-pass all that was conventional, conformist or orthodox. Their wit and perceptiveness, as wonderfully characterized by King Lear’s ‘all-licensed fool,’ enabled them to break in, just as the unconscious can, to trip up reality.

The rising popularity of today’s mavericks is an indication of how turned off the electorates have become in both the US and the UK by the combative levels of political discourse. British history has been studded with star-ranking mavericks (Prince Phillip being among them). The best of the current crop is the ambitious mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who is a potential contender to head the Conservative Party.

Boris Johnson claimed back in May that Britons were living “in a Boko Haram world” (linking the country to the dreadful events in Nigeria). This reflected the notion that the wilder and more combustible the remark, the better its distribution by the media. Boris has described the former Prime Minister as “just flipping unbelievable. He is a mixture of Harry Houdini and a greased piglet. He is barely human in his elusiveness. Nailing Blair is like trying to pin jelly to a wall.”

Johnson has provokingly declared that “My chances of being Prime Minister are about as good as the chances of finding Elvis on Mars, or my being reincarnated as an olive.” And on a radio show last month he suggested that “Voting Tory will cause your wife to have bigger breasts and increasing your chances of owning a BMW M3.”

Mavericks are admired for the ways they manage to evade giving direct answers. They are also careful never to be so precise that an answer to a question could ultimately be used against them. Some, like Nigel Farage, the UKIP (UK Independence Party) leader, are expert at demonstrating that they speak their mind and are not bound to any all-controlling political or party machine. The less a maverick holds on to normal standards, the more he will be appreciated for his ‘authenticity.’ Farage caused a media storm when, in an interview on LBC radio earlier this year he admitted that he would feel “uncomfortable” if a Romanian family were to move in next door.

George Galloway, an independent member of Parliament, has not only survived but prospered because he speaks his mind. He had been performing in Scotland this summer to packed audiences paying £11 per head. Unlike other politicians, he doesn’t mince his words: “There are those who wrap themselves in flags and blow the tinny trumpet of patriotism as a means of fooling the people.” And, as a strong supporter of the National Health System (much maligned by Republicans in the United States), he is applauded when saying: “If you fall down in the United States, the ambulance man must feel for your wallet before he feels your pulse.”

Icelanders have until recently been admiring the charismatic and maverick mayor of Reykjavík, Jón Gnarr. Outspoken and different, Gnarr was a comedian and writer who tapped into the widespread public disillusionment with both politicians and corrupt bankers following the 2008 banking collapse in his island nation. His message was a different one: “Stop whaling fin whales. Stop killing polar bears. Stop seeing global warming as an ‘opportunity’ for Iceland. Focus on sustainable tourism and creative industries… watch whales but do not touch them.”

American mavericks have not always been up to the literary standards of some of their British counterparts, but they have been politically successful. The term “maverick Republican” has been a label frequently applied to Senator John McCain ever since he came to office. He has even used this expression for his own kaleidoscope of contradictory propositions. One writer described him as: “the maverick, the former maverick, the curmudgeon, the bridge builder, the war hero bent on transcending the call of self-interest to serve a cause greater than himself, the sore loser, old bull, last lion, loose cannon, happy warrior, elder statesman, lion in winter.” But he can still come up with memorable declarations, as he did last winter: “Russia is a gas station masquerading as a country.”

Rand Paul, another possible presidential contender, came up with a truly maverick proposition that the fences built around US borders to keep out illegal immigrants could also be used against American citizens who wanted to leave the country! “I think this fence business is designed and may well be used against us and keep us in. In economic turmoil, the people want to leave with their capital. And there’s capital control and there’s people control. So every time you think of the fence keeping all those bad people out, think about those fences maybe being used against us, keeping us in.”

Following mavericks sometimes involves more than merely being entertained by their charismatic energy. The most abysmal maverick of the 20th Century was certainly Adolph Schicklgruber — alias Hitler. Before being elected German Chancellor in 1932, he had performed to packed Berlin night clubs and playhouses in the 1920’s ranting and raving almost hysterically about capitalism, Bolshevism, the Versailles Treaty and, of course, the Jews. His audiences were often rolling on the ground with laughter — much to Hitler’s contemptuous dismay. His audiences thought this Austrian lunatic was so crazy that he was actually uproariously funny. History proved how disastrously wrong they were.

Mavericks, like McCain or George Galloway, are usually highly adept at pulling the political truth out of an uncomfortable situation. As parties, both the (US) Republicans and the (UK) Conservatives have been reluctant to accept the truth about the issues surrounding immigration. As an independent maverick with a highly relaxed presentation, Nigel Farage has forced the Tories to change their evasive tactics. No wonder all political machines tend to be suspicious of mavericks who generally are under obligation to no one.

Personally, I hope that we will not lose the fresh voice of mavericks from public life. They are vital to the democratic process. Those politicians who have the courage to speak out and challenge corruption and cronyism should be treasured, as they are rare indeed.  We need them and we need their jests to lighten and enhance our lives.