Saturday, 28 September 2019

The Grey Eminences

There are two inter-related flaws in the way that the media reports politics. They are a refusal to deal with people as they really are, and an obsessive focus on shadowy manipulators. The first is the construction of a mythical population, whether "the people" as a whole or particular sub-groups, which serves to distract from the realism of class and actually lived culture (for example, politics in Northern Ireland is clearly not about to reform around a vague dichotomy such as "open vs closed", whatever the liberal press might imagine). The second is the presumption that these populations are easily misled, whether by the organs of the state, big business or "outside agitators". This is partly a condescending belief in the bovine nature of the herd, but it also reflects the idea that, however stable the political scene, the state is fundamentally fragile and always teetering on the brink of anarchy, a philosophy popularised by Thomas Hobbes that lives on today in disaster movies.

The origin of this frame lies in the courtly politics of the late Medieval period, when the physical body of the monarch was treated as a synecdoche of the kingdom and royal ailments were matters of state. Poring over opinion polls and focus groups is the modern equivalent of inspecting the king's stools. The trope of the king's evil advisers was already well-established (having roots in the classical histories of Suetonius and others) before the absolutist state saw the emergence of the éminence grise as the chief adviser to the king's chief adviser. While the coming of democracy diversified state advice, producing an entire class of para-politicians and technocrats from SPADs to various "Tsars", it hasn't altered the assumption that the state is vulnerable to catastrophe: that a government can fall as easily as a monarch can die. Much of this week's media commentary has reflected these two ideas - that the behaviour of the people is predictable and yet dangerously unstable - which has led to claims both that "moderate" Tories are appalled at Boris Johnson's behaviour and that leavers will start lobbing bricks if we don't quit the EU in October.

To expect Conservative party members to be shocked by the PM acting illegally or misleading the Queen is to assume they respect the law and the monarchy. In reality, they regard the law as something that exists to govern other people, mostly the working class and minorities, and are intensely relaxed about their own law-breaking and unethical practices, from tax-evasion to queue-jumping. They also respect the monarchy in the way that the Daily Mail does, as a soap opera about class deference and hierarchy in which passing judgement on the faux-pas and inappropriateness of individual members (the wrong body shape, too brown, insufficiently demure) is the whole point. There's a clear parallel here with the US Republican Party, which has now proved beyond any doubt that Trump really is their kind of guy and that they see the Constitution as a flexible instrument of political advantage rather than time-honoured wisdom.

We can be pretty confident that leavers are not going to riot if there is an extension to the Article 50 process at the end of October, or even if there is a second referendum next year. Despite the media focus, Brexit simply isn't that important an issue for the vast majority of people, certainly not important enough to risk a criminal charge, and the most passionate leavers tend to be old, middle class and unversed in the ways of riot. Even if you roped in the jeunesse dorée of the Countryside Alliance and the semi-retired football firm that follows Tommy Robinson around, you'd still struggle to get enough people to do more than punch a police horse in Whitehall. When a paid windup merchant like Brendan O'Neill says there "should" be riots, he isn't inciting violence so much as reflecting his own history in the delusional Revolutionary Communist Party where a popular uprising was always around the next corner.

A similar confusion can be seen in the media's imaginative reading of the Labour party membership, who are thought to be both more "moderate" (in the manner of Jess Phillips or Wes Streeting, naturally) and yet simultaneously deserting in droves because they can't abide Jeremy Corbyn. The reality is that most of the membership are on the left, as they have traditionally been, and are not particularly sympathetic to the media's favourites among the PLP (that no one has been deselected so far reflects the still cumbersome rules and that the most egregious offenders have already jumped ship). That is why they elected and re-elected Corbyn, and why many are unimpressed by the counterproductive behaviour of Tom Watson and irritated by journalistic bias. The idea mooted early in the week, that the membership would allow their preference for remain to sideline their socialist beliefs, was always wishful-thinking by commentators who habitually look down on the Labour conference as a cross between an emboldened rabble and the gathering of a religious cult.

The trope of the king's evil advisers survives not just for structural reasons - that it simplifies and personalises politics for time-stressed journalists under orders to write engaging stories with a human angle - it also plays a clear ideological role in emphasising individual agency over democratic deliberation and solidarity. A more prosaic reason is that advisers provide ready-made scapegoats for government failure, though it is noticeable that in recent years this has tended to lead to such figures being characterised more as jokers or fools, in the manner of Steve Hilton or Nick Timothy. In many ways, Dominic Cummings is a throwback to an older style of Tory adviser, combining the intellectual rigour (or pretension) of an Alan Walters and the delight in chaos and subterfuge (or self-inflation) of a David Hart. What is new is that the heads of government have themselves increasingly become ready-made scapegoats: Donald Trump distracts us from the sheer malevolence of the Republicans and will have few friends in the GOP once he falls, while Boris Johnson is increasingly presented by Conservative grandees as an aberration rather than the embodiment of the party's executive incompetence and venality.

Court politics comes naturally to the Tories, but it also overtook the Labour party in the Blair years as the traditional field of struggle, the committee, was replaced by the sofa. Despite the qualms of many on the left about the current leadership's caution, and despite the best endeavours of centrists to frame developments in terms of a court or inner circle (most recently "riven" by the resignation of Andrew Fisher), it is clear that the Labour party has now reverted back to committee politics. This won't always be edifying - compromise is often messy and few movements of the left avoid disappointing their followers - but it is more democratic and more likely to lead to progressive policies overall, as the announcements during and after conference suggest. As we can be confident that the media aren't about to change their ways, we can also expect more tales of "lifelong Labour supporters" determined to vote Conservative and commentaries on how the "Stalinist" Seumas Milne has an exclusive hold on Corbyn's increasingly senile mind.

1 comment:

  1. It is sad about current politics that this cynical and bitter post seems so realistic and agreeable to me, and probably it is sad for the author too.
    I would make two additional notes:

    * Much of current "reporting" seems to me not just the result of “time-stressed journalists under orders to write engaging stories with a human angle” but of journalists keenly aware of which "talking points” (from the security services or various other influential lobbies) secure their continued employment or promotion.

    * Court culture seems to me much stronger in southern England, where ingratiating some patrons can be a far more effective path to better income and advancement than it ever was in the rest of the country, where delivering production seems to have been much more importance and command more respect than status at court.