But he used to be a writer

The Observer’s Rachel Cooke tries to understand Michael Ignatieff’s current predicament.

But Ignatieff used to be a writer, a man who could say whatever he liked, and now he is a politician, and is able to say precisely nothing unless it comes straight from the script. How can that be fun? The Ignatieff brow – portcullis to his great big brain – wrinkles in the approved manner. “In politics, there’s a kind of literal-mindedness,” he says. “It’s what you say, not what you mean, and you have to say only what you mean. Your question implies that I’ve suddenly had to tie myself in knots. No, I don’t have to tie myself in knots, and I don’t have to cease being who I am. But I have to watch what I say because the public has no other way to judge me than by what they read. I can’t walk around saying: ‘I keep saying these dreadful things, but I’m actually a nice fellow!’ Why should they believe that?”

But writing is about nuance, and politics is, well, not. I don’t know how he contains himself. “Again, I don’t see it that way. I see this as the most exciting thing I’ve ever had to do. The most difficult, but when it’s going well, the most rewarding.” Writing and politics are both, he insists, about listening, about expressing what people are thinking and feeling. But the bonus in politics is that, in theory, the politician gets to make people’s lives better. “The idea that there is this contrast between a world of subtlety, and a world of bald, flat generalisations doesn’t sound like what it’s like at all. The best part of what I’ve been doing in the past four years has been listening intently to Canadians in big rooms and small rooms, in wharves and bars and airport lounges, just trying to pick up the music here, so that what’s really on their minds gets into the policies.”

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