Alexander Stubb is the former Prime Minister of Finland. He is now the Director of the School of Transnational Governance at the European University Institute and is a former Vice President of the European Investment Bank. He is also a Global Advisor to the Apolitical Foundation.
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How would you describe your political path?
If you were to ask my childhood friends who was going to become the Prime Minister of Finland, I would have probably been the last person that they would have named. I came from a very non-political family. The running joke was to say “never talk about politics or religion”. So I guess I didn't become a priest! My political “wake up” happened in the US. I went there to study on a golf scholarship of all things, but as it turned out I had no chance of becoming a pro golfer. I studied business but lost interest, so I moved to political science and international relations. I wanted to become an academic, but once the theory side interested me so much I thought “okay, let’s try the practical side”. I became a civil servant before taking the leap into politics in 2004. I only joined a party for the first time at the age of 36, but I ran for the European Parliament and haven’t looked back since. And now I've gone full circle back in the academic world and I’m loving every moment of it!
“In Finnish, there's this really stupid saying, which is: “a pessimist will never be disappointed”. Well, yeah, right! But a pessimist will never change the world either!”
What are the most useful lessons you've learnt on the way?
Firstly, be yourself. I think people not being themselves is one of the big problems that we have in today’s democratic politics. If you are open and yourself then people appreciate that.
Second, always remember that, in the public eye or with the media, you will never win. That means that you have to be humbled to a certain extent. Even if you feel you’re being harshly treated, there’s no point criticizing the media or anyone else. Just look at yourself in the mirror and see what you could do better.
The third and final lesson is to just move on! When the shit hits the fan and you realize that you’re in trouble or there is some controversy, just count your losses and move on. There’s no point in begrudging and looking to the past thinking what you could have done. Just look ahead.
What are the top three things that could be done to get courageous, ethical and trusted politicians in your area?
Firstly, we should look a little bit at how hard we bash politicians. If you’re a youngster and you look at the way in which our politicians are being treated, rightly or wrongly, the cost may seem too high. So we need to find a balance between how much we bash and how much we discuss.
The second thing I would suggest is to have slightly longer political cycles. If you look at the UK for example, which has been a complete mess since Brexit, we’ve had David Cameron, Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and now Rishi Sunak! That’s a tremendous turnover, like post-war Italy. My fear is that if democracy behaves this way then that’s how autocracies start.
Finally, I think we should start thinking about democratic politics in the following way. Daniel Kahneman wrote a book called “Thinking, Fast and Slow” which talked of a “two-brain system”. One which is quick, emotional, reactive; and one which is slower, compromise-seeking and so on. Democracy was designed for system two. It was supposed to be slow, sometimes messy and cumbersome.
What ideas and/or people are inspiring you at the moment?
I’m actually very into podcasts at the moment, from the Economist and the Financial Times and so on. But putting those aside, someone I always like to read is Fareed Zakaria. I think he's always very insightful and is an international globalist, like myself. I think Yuval Harari has a lot of good, big ideas, though you don't have to agree with everything that he says. I've always liked Francis Fukuyama, I'm a sucker for Steve Pinker, so this just probably shows you that I'm an eternal optimist. I don’t believe in this pessimistic world view. In Finnish, there's this really stupid saying, which is: “a pessimist will never be disappointed”. Well, yeah, right! But a pessimist will never change the world either.
What story do you want communities to tell about politicians?
I wish the story was a little bit more positive. A lot of politicians spend countless hours in meetings, they stand out on market squares and spend their evenings knocking from door to door. And the reward is not great. We need to give them a break! They are trying their best. No matter how much you hate a politician, he or she is a human being with feelings.
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