After 20 years at the coalface, I find I am fed up with politics. A veteran of fifteen campaigns, three successful personal elections, two decades of various party offices and sixteen years representing my home town all piles up and renders this grizzled grognard fatigued. But my energy is high as ever and is probably more potent than ever; long experiences better directs its focus, as opposed to spraying invective all over the place. And tilting at windmills of smug bureaucracy still engages me as much as it ever did.
But the ‘higher’ levels of politics (no, I don’t really see them that way either) have slowly declined into an example of squalid, self-serving opportunism. I once thought I had escaped that, left it behind in the volatile egos of Silicon Valley and the corporate lawyers, management consultants and $250/hr therapists who feed off them. We are, it appears, all living in a village more global than I had bargained for.
This realisation began last week as I witnessed yet another stylised Punch-and-Judy Show masquerading as Prime Minister’s Questions and—despite spending the next two days in the detached idyll that is St Andrews, with the poetic creativity of the StAnza festival, floods of energetic students and an Oktoberfest-in-March oompah band—I was brought low by Labour’s one-day conference. More specifically, by the speech made there by one Davie Hamilton soon-to-be-ex-MP.
Despite the furore he caused in social media, what he said wasn’t so terrible. But his tone, a knuckle-dragging tirade that was as evilly aggressive as it was passionately authentic, made my heart sink. And when more balanced members who should know better like my own MSP Iain Gray, Edinburgh South CLP Chair Duncan Hothersall and high-hied-yin Jim Murphy all praised him, I felt ashamed to be associated with the hale clamjamfrey.
All this is not new. Half a century ago, media in general and interviewers in particular were deferential to a fault. Some politicians took advantage of this but, generally, the calling was seen as public service for which standards must be kept high. But the last politician who got it wrong and fell on his sword in acknowledgement was Lord Carrington for underestimating Argentinian aggression. That was 33 years ago—ancient history now.
Examine the front benches either side at Westminster. Within the phalanx of lawyers and never-had-a-real-job politicians two motivations flow effortlessly without regard to policy or creed: 1) Survival and; 2) Power. Though there are doubtless principled MPs lurking in the backbench wilderness, the proliferation of ministers and their shadows to almost 200 has inbred a mentality that exhibits all the rentaquote characteristics of automatons.
I’ve lost count of the Politics Today or PMQs or Newsnights or Marr Shows or (sad to say) FMQs to which I have paid serious attention. But I now come to wonder why I bothered. Recently, none have added to the sum of my—let alone human—knowledge. And it almost doesn’t matter who’s in the firing line. This weekend, Philip Hammond batted as Foreign Secretary just as stolidly as he had previously as Defence Secretary; Angela Eagle, rolled out yet again as Shadow Energy Secretary, was again a safe pair of hands. Both were more than competent and—to the recently landed Martian—apparently informative and sincere.
But it is what the Germans call an “Affentheater” the illusion of theatre because primates are going though human motions that could be relating a story. From the remotest constituency office all the way to the dispatch box, Punch and Judy ply their trade using sound bites as clubs and societal shorthand for meaning. Were it all a symposium on quantum physics, it could be left to Scrödinger’s illuminati to pass judgement on performance and underlying ability in that esoteric field.
But this is about life. This is much too important to abandon to a self-serving priesthood of insiders who spend PMQs baying for blood while their gladiators on both front benches circle each other to give it to them than to enlighten the general public watching. Those with the partisan interest of a well thumbed membership card may rejoice when their lions rip unwary Christians to shreds. But, despite repeated admonishments from the Speaker, there seems alternative to testosterone-induced chest-butting and the baffled alienation of the 60-odd million Britons who are turned off by it all.
And so, at whichever party rally the next Davie Hamilton rabble-rouses with over-abrasive invective at unbelievers, real debate will continue to ossify, policy will derive from ever-shorter-term tactical advantage and politicians will be winnowed down to a sly few who know the right people, spout the right sound bite and never, ever expose themselves as a hostage to fortune by making any real, accountable commitments.
So, please forgive this squirming disillusionment with those who pull down $65k a year, finger our billions and deploy nuclear warheads, yet put nursery kids to shame on maturity. Should real debate break out or an idea benefitting society (as opposed to its administrators) before May 7th, I may find motivation to pay attention again. But meantime, I think I’ll abandon party politics and go highbrow by following darts or mud wrestling.