A new politics? Not until we blow away the rhetorical smokescreens

After so much political disenchantment, now, when we have this new beast in office, a peacetime coalition, is it time not to be cynical, but instead to take pause and allow our new political élite to prove itself? Should all us naysayers and members of the professional sarcastocracy shut up?

Not likely.

Over the past 15 years or so, the electorate has become increasingly disaffected by and disengaged from the political process, at the same time as the political classes have claimed to be acting more and more in response to our opinions. In the “information age”, politicians hide their behind-closed-doors approach to politics beneath a veneer of public accessibility and accountability. They go on YouTube, but their decisions are made where you can’t see them.

In particular, the language in which public debate is still conducted – the mentioning of you, I, and we – is a rhetorical smokescreen to allow undiscussed, undisclosed policies to be enacted under the guise of apparent transparency. It bends sense, maths, logic and English to breaking point.

The most blatant instance of such disintegration remains, for me, the moment in February 2003 when one and a half million people marched in vain against the invasion of Iraq. When it was put to a government spokes-man that it would be very hard to ignore such a great number demonstrating on the streets of London, his reply was devastating in its logic. “A million-and-a-half may have marched,” he said, “but there are 60 million people in Britain, which means there are 58-and-a-half million who didn’t march.” By the same logic, when the Queen Mother died, 100,000 queued to walk past her coffin, which indicates that, given over 59 million of us chose not to, she must have been one of the most reviled and hated figures in British history. Giving democratic victory to those who choose not to do something makes The X Factor one of the most despised TV shows in recent times, the Daily Mail an unpopular paper for minority interests, and David Copperfield a ridiculous flop of a book with no lasting impact.

Changing this abuse of logic – and it may take a generation – will define whether or not we really have a “new politics”.

Here’s Nick Clegg, three weeks before the election, outlining why, despite all the constitutional niceties built up over centuries of parliamentary democracy, no Prime Minister, especially one called Gordon Brown, should be allowed to stay in Downing Street the day after an election, even if a coalition government hasn’t yet been formed: “Well, I think it’s complete nonsense. I mean, how on earth? You can’t have Gordon Brown squatting in No 10.” (The implication being that this is how we think so we can’t really argue with what he says.) He added: “Whatever happens after the election has got to be guided by the stated preferences of voters, not some dusty constitutional document which states that convention dictates even losers can stay in No 10.”

Said the man who came third and now has an office in Number 10.

David Cameron performed a similar constitutional volte-face. Fourteen days before the election, he proposed that anyone who became Prime Minister without winning an election first would be obliged to call one within six months of taking office. Two weeks later, when he proposed the coalition, he announced it would secure itself in government for five years by raising the majority threshold for a dissolution of Parliament to 55 per cent of MPs. Cameron had gone from arguing passionately for more elections to arguing passionately for fewer. He gave as his reason: “It is a big change. It is a good change. It is a change that will result in strong and stable government, as I believe we are demonstrating already.”

That’s it. No commission, no panel of constitutional experts, no private consultation with senior civil servants.

It is a quick fix to a problem, rammed through as an extension of the Blair mantra, “I did it because I thought it was the right thing to do”, but sugar-coated in the reformist language of change. Ideas uttered in that context are, today, simply unassailable, and anyone in the media or the commentariat or the Opposition who questions them is dismissed as being out-of-touch and churlish.

Blair once infamously said: “Do I know I’m right? Judgements aren’t the same as facts. Instinct is not science. I’m like any other human being, as fallible and as capable of being wrong. I only know what I believe.”

That passage only makes sense if the final line is reversed. Normally, we seek evidence, and form conclusions on the basis of what we find. We believe what we know. Blair’s logic overturns about two-and-a-half-thousand years of rational inquiry.

“I only know what I believe” typifies the thinking of the modern politician, who speaks in an “aw-shucks” conversational tone to make himself seem and sound a regular kind of guy, but who will use whatever props are at his disposal to enact his predetermined decisions without deviation.

Our political masters try to look and sound like normal people, while being more exclusively political than any previous generation. All the main candidates for the Labour leadership are forty-something career politicians who studied politics at university before going into political research, think tanks, and Parliament. Cameron and Clegg are two young like-minded individuals running the country who have known very little else outside the world of politics. Politicians only know what they believe because they’ve had nothing else to know.

It’s no coincidence, I think, that the number of people voting for the main parties in general elections has fallen dramatically in the past decade and a half, just as this new hermetically-sealed language of political self-belief has flourished, and just as the media commentariat has grown in number. That’s because the language and tone the media adopt seem no different from the politicians they’re meant to be critiquing. Politicians and broadcasters are gravitating towards each other, in much the same way we’re told that similar masses will coalesce at the end of the universe. They have been increasingly finishing each other’s sentences, inhabiting each other’s mindsets, and the result has been a homogenous body of material light years away from the electorate.

So how Britain governs itself, and how its political élite behaves and thinks, cannot be overturned by one quirky election result. The mindset has to change as well, and it requires a mighty effort of engagement by us.

The public used its own initiative to engage with this election. There were record voter registrations, especially among the 18 to 25s, and the electorate was broadly interested and energised by the television debates. Moreover, the traditional weapons of party propaganda were neutralised by faster-moving online communities, who came up with collective responses to any claims that seemed unreasonable. Wild allegations about Nick Clegg in the Tory press saw a tsunami of sarcasm engulf the elderly media barons – and Nick Clegg’s press improved. And after the online spoofs of Cameron’s airbrushed posters were followed by Cameron’s own spoofing of Labour’s Ashes to Ashes parody, posters were spoofed beyond relevance and never heard of again. There is now a media- and politically-savvy population with the means to engage creatively in politics.

I believe it is precisely at this point in our politics, just as we might be persuaded we should sit quietly and give all the new chaps in the Government a chance, that we should actually be at our most alert. For this moment of “change” to have any meaning, people in government must have their words, their behaviour, policies and arguments, dissected and held up to scrutiny. That is not negative. It is not destructive to be forensic. It is possible to have a positive belief in the power of politics to change lives for the better, and to wish those in office well, while urging more diligence than ever before.

Looking for the pitfalls, pointing out the contradictions and alerting people to the flaws contributes to a larger movement of inspection and debate and questioning that we must all participate in if we are ever to get the politics we truly deserve.

Armando Iannucci Saturday, 5 June 2010

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