For a while I thought it was just me, but now I’m reasonably sure (on the basis of a recent straw poll of those aged 40-75) that while the problems of government are becoming more complex, the soundbites are increasingly superficial. They’re not scratching the surface nowadays so much as gliding over it gently – in the fear that the ice might crack, and thus envelope the user in the poisonous cauldron below.
Societies have always been complex things. If you’ve ever watched baboons for any length of time, even there the hierarchies, challenges, signals and clips around the ear range from impenetrable via subtle to violent. But once societies got bigger, discovered remote media, and were melted together by easy long-distance travel, the issues became ever more complicated. The problem went from being one of understanding the social anthropology of brutes, to grasping the urban anthropology of neurotic lost souls.
Into this highly dangerous den have stumped the thick and unyielding jackboots of polemic bigotry. It has many shades across its vivid spectrum, but the main ones are a type of midnight blue insisting that no-holds-barred competition is the only answer, and a bright red that in turn demands allegiance to the idea of Big-State job cooperatives. Just as the problem/soundbite gap gets bigger, so too does the distance between bright and midnight. We in the West are rapidly turning into extreme, divided cultures.
For a social anthropologist, the very idea that each route is mutually exclusive represents patently bad science. The success of every higher quadruped in general and ape in particular has been based on competition for the best genes, and cooperation both among and between the brightest packs. But talk to the pc Left/East Coast Democrat these days about genetic competition, and you might as well fess up to being Dr Mengele. Argue the case with the 1922 Right/GOP Friedmanite about a vital need for community weal, and there’ll be a bit of blather about charitable donation, followed by mutterings of unsound fluffiness or gardayum comnisum.
This blinkered denial forms the basis of much satire, and would indeed be extremely funny were it not for the fact that these damaged goblins are ruining the Britain I love, the America I admired in the late 1950s, and the multivariate Europe I’ve spent forty years greedily discovering. But as I’ve already hinted twice above, the more disastrously everything valuable sinks without trace , the further and further apart the two polemically well-armed camps get.
While the high-profile politicians of recent years have tended to be those without either the idealism or intellect to debate social aims, I have to report to everyone not paying full attention here that a whole new breed is coming up with two unshakeable items of faith: ‘I must have total belief, and your belief is totally wrong’. As Robert Redford remarked on a CNN chatshow recently, “I’m getting tired of so-called debates that consist of two groups of people trashing each other”.
If you think this to be ex cathedra assertion, then I suggest you think again. Dubya Bush is an easy target, but I doubt very much if any genuine alternative to a world run by American oil and Wall Street diktats has ever occurred to him. Ed Miliband too is a bungling twerp, but my real problem with the bloke is that he has neither commercial perspective nor true understanding of what it means to be at the bottom of the heap.
Churchill and Bevan curried a mutual hate relationship over high heat for three decades, but they had far more in common than they realised. Bevan believed in the small community’s healing powers, while Churchill had more belief than any of his Tory peers in the decency of the ordinary Britisher. Both men despised fascism. Both men had faith in the electorate’s wisdom. Both men shared the best debating wit of their generation. But more to the point than any of that, both men are massive heroes of mine. I really do take exception to the Believers who say that makes me mad. Bollocks: it makes me an open-minded admirer of folks who can tell sh*t from putty.
I don’t doubt that a lot of readers will regard my argument on this, but not see it reflected in contemporary politics: surely, they will say, the hallmark of 21st century politicians is a belief in nothing beyond themselves. And yes, if you look at Blair and Obama and Cameron and Gillard and Miliband and Medvedev and Sarkozy and Uncle Tom Cobbleigh this time around, it’s hard to see a scintilla of belief at all – let alone intolerant belief.
But behind Blair was Brown, and behind Medvedev was Putin. Behind Miliband is the Harman/Balls melange, and behind Cameron is Boris Johnson. I suspect that behind Sarkozy was (and will be) Marine Le Pen, and some pretty nasty Australian mining gargoyles are right behind Gillard. More urgently, behind Papandreou was Venizelos, and behind him – in an odd kind of way – Alexis Tsipras. God alone knows who might come after Antonis Samaras, but there’s no shortage of neo-Nazis in Hellenica.
I have a great deal of time for Dr Eoin Clarke and his forensic journalism on the NHS and other Camerlot scandals, but behind and around him is this thing called Labour Left. Among the NEC candidates being touted today on Twitter was Ken Livingstone – a good administrator, but a Stalinist putsch-merchant with serial form when it comes to spitting on the electorate. Why should a Party be called Labour (let alone Left Labour) thirty years after the mass labourforce model of UK capitalism died? Why is a Stalinist a shoe-in for the NEC fifty-eight years after his mass-murdering hero died? Hovering around the good intentions of Graham Brady on the Conservative Right is the spectre of Boris Johnson – equally a politician of sound governance, but yet another man whose bullying disrespect for voters makes him a serious danger to liberal democracy…and a man looking at contemporary issues through the parallax view of an antediluvian education based on privilege.
It seems to me tonight that the coming politicians are all looking in the rear-view mirror of their vintage cars. Be they the Zil of Merkel, the Trabant of Tsipras, the Bentley of Boris, the Citroen of Hollande, or the British Leyland Maxi of Ed Balls, none of them are equipped for the next generation of socio-economic travel. The last thing people like me want is for the road ahead to be a crash-ridden Stock Car race that just goes round in virulent, vacuous circles. And I remain optimistic enough to think that the vast majority of all British citizens are with me, not the kamikaze Believers.
We have to find a new kind of forward-looking tendency that can unite every democrat who knows the difference between good and bad, rather than Left and Right. Not a wooly-wishy-washy-flim-flam-Lefty-Righty LibDem confection, but rather a radical realism that challenges the Establishments of both progressive and conservative. We need the tolerance and wisdom to make the citizen First Among Equals such as the economy, fiscal management, financial services, politics and The State.
But above all, what we need is the guts to put the citizen first…miles ahead of the dated obsessions of Thatcherites, trade unionists, Islamists, blind europhiles, bankers, bureaucrats, and those who see themselves as ‘Hard’ Right or Left. Being ‘Hard’ anything is about wanting power – and to Hell with responsibility for the consequences of any and all extreme policies.
“The insatiable lust for power is only equalled by an incurable impotence in exercising it” said Winston Churchill. “The purpose of power is to give it back” said Aneurin Bevan. We should – all of us tonight – remember how close the aspirations of these two great men were.