Sunday, 3 July 2016

This is Not a Popular Drama

Whether through half-remembered Shakespeare, or TV series such as House of Cards and Game of Thrones, the tendency to explain politics by dramatic analogy is both an admission of ignorance about people's true motivations and an unwillingness to address the social forces at work. A focus on the players, rather than the groundlings, is one way of reasserting Parliamentary sovereignty. Casting Boris Johnson as a clueless Caesar, the Goves as incompetent MacBeths, or Corbyn as a half-mad Lear exposed on Highbury Fields is wryly amusing, but it serves to diminish politics to the level of entertainment, which is what gave us the Johnson phenomenon in the first place. When politicians discuss themselves in analogous terms, such as Gove expressing sympathy for a clever but unloved dwarf or rooting for the Spartans at Thermopylae, you know that schoolboy fantasy has triumphed over schoolboy wit.

Crafting a life-story congenial to an intended audience is routine in the era of the personal brand, and this means delving into the dressing-up box of the collective mind. For example, Theresa May's pitch, that as the daughter of a vicar and the granddaughter of a regimental sergeant major she has public service written in her DNA, is clearly intended to reassure Conservative Party members that she is straight outta' Middle England, rather than the Old Etonian establishment or the too-clever-by-half metropolis, but it also serves to conjure an image not a million miles away from the exclusively white milieu of Midsomer Murders, which will placate those worried that there might be backsliding on the party's commitment to halting or even reversing immigration. This isn't just an appeal to Tories, but to Kippers as well.

The failure of Johnson and Gove might look like a defeat for newspapermen, but what it really reveals is that vain and inconsistent columnists are mere instruments for proprietors, which should hardly surprise us. Nothing has been more ridiculous than the claims that various Tory politicians (and spouses) have fallen out with each other recently, as if this were a high-toned soap opera in which everyone is shocked by enmity and personal betrayal despite it driving the plot week after week. These people are no more genuine "friends" than those who swap recommendations on LinkedIn. The relationships are cold-blooded and calculating. The claim that Michael Gove's political career is now toast because of his "back-stabbing" should be taken with a pinch of salt. This is the party of Macmillan and Heseltine, not to mention more recent wielders of the knife like Iain Duncan Smith.

Conservative politics is about the defence of status and Tories who claim to be radical reformists are usually desperate to acquire it. The "Maoist" Gove was neatly characterised by Ian Leslie last year: "The vividly drawn persona we are familiar with today emerged, fully formed, at school, in an act of audacious self-invention. The young Gove sought not merely to fit in with his socially superior peers, but to stand out from them. He rode an old-fashioned bicycle to school, wore suits, recited poetry and starred in debates ... Precocious children often grow into adults with something of the child about them, and there is something eternally schoolboyish about Gove. The reflected admiration of his parents, teachers and classmates still radiates from his smooth-cheeked face". Leslie also noted the pathological nature of Gove's alleged charm: "Politeness comes at a cost to authenticity: it is, by definition, a formal mode of expression, used to conceal what we really feel".

This lack of authenticity is not a problem for Gove or any other Tory. What matters is the tribute paid to status, even if it takes the ridiculous form of Fogeyish affectations. The reason he is unlikely to become party leader is not that he has proven duplicitous but that he has proven to be as cack-handed as Johnson in the execution of his schemes (his Queen leak may have pleased Murdoch but it upset Conservatives). For this same reason I was never convinced that the former Mayor of London was a shoo-in as Cameron's successor, even before the 23rd. His pitch to Tory MPs was that his media profile would secure enough votes to win general elections (and it may well have been material to the referendum result), but his executive incompetence (all too obvious in London where MPs spend the week) pointed to disarray in office. With the enormity of the Brexit task ahead of them, I suspect that many (and not just Gove) decided he was simply not up to the job. The ultimate betrayal here may be that City grandees dropped their erstwhile champion. Andrea Leadsom's sudden elevation is not because she was convincing in debates.

That same assessment of incompetence is at the heart of the PLP revolt against Jeremy Corbyn, but in contrast to the Tories, it is authenticity that has prevented the coup reaching a climax. With the exception perhaps of George Lansbury, Corbyn is unusual among Labour leaders in being a typical party member. He has the same concerns for fairness and justice, and the same instincts of activism and solidarity, that distinguish the footsoldiers of the CLPs, and it is these very qualities that make it unlikely he will resign. Party membership selects for people who disagree with the claim that resistance is useless. Paradoxically, that he is typical is held up as evidence of his naivety and unfitness for the job. This leads to a surreal situation in which he is charged with simultaneously having insufficient enthusiasm for Remain while being unable to connect with Northern and Midland voters who chose Leave.

Representative democracy assumes a tension between policy correctness and effectiveness, between the ideal and the electable, but this dichotomy is itself ideological, suggesting that there must always be a gap between what people want and what they can reasonably expect, and that this gap must be mediated by a political class. What the EU referendum has shown is that the people will chose the ideal, even if it is impractical or contradictory, because they value the opportunity of unmediated expression. They didn't reject expertise so much as articulate long-held prejudices developed in defensive reaction to social and economic change and fanned by unscrupulous newspapers. The idea that this could be turned round by a few facts and some stardust was foolish. Ironically, Leavers are now being berated for their credulity in believing the promises on NHS funding and immigration by the same people who have long mocked the left for its focus on false consciousness.

The "We are the 48%" demonstration yesterday was almost tailor-made to prompt sneers about self-regarding metroplitan liberals. Organising a march to Westminster was pointless in a week when the government had largely evaporated. They would have done better to march through the streets of Bexley or Stoke-on-Trent, though claiming "This is what democracy looks like" might have prompted a less than sympathetic response. The referendum result will not be reversed any time soon, if ever, and the idea that we can somehow finesse it into "staying put" with EU agreement and popular acquiescence is for the birds. The nation is divided and it will take decades to shift popular opinion far enough to guarantee re-accession, and that's assuming there is still a recognisable EU to join. Ironically, the best hope of British europhiles is that the common currency fails in the next few years, leading to a general reset that can be sold as congruent with UK preferences. Don't hold your breath.


  1. I'm not sure that this will turn out as badly for Johnson as you think. He was clearly getting cold feet about the idea of assuming responsibility for the post-referendum Prime Ministership, and rather than looking as though he has chickened out, it seems that he has been 'betrayed'.

    Effectively, if the next PM fails under the pressure, he is still a candidate to step in. (No doubt someone with his ego hopes that he will be invited in as saviour).

    1. I think he's missed his chance. We can't know what the future will hold, but I find it hard to imagine a set of circumstances, in which Johnson would appear the obvious choice for the Tories, arising any time soon. A Churchillian period in the wilderness looks more likely. In fact, assuming the Chilcott report let's him off the hook, there is more likelihood of Tony Blair making a comeback as a national saviour.

  2. Won't Lord Blair end up in the dock