Politics: just for geeks?

The sad truth: we aren't cool.

Picture the scene, a group of people, lit only by the glow of the TV screen, sit around watching the stats come in. A flurry of excitement is caused by some numbers going up and down on a flashy graphic. This is politics in Britain today, people, and it's not cool.

Tiny turnouts and general apathy point to a society that doesn't care about politics. Those who do have an increasingly niche interest, concerned with the strange behaviour of a select group of middle class white people. In fact, at times British politics bears a striking similarity to Dungeons and Dragons; arcane traditions played out according to strict rules, many involving silly outfits. This isn't how it works in France, or Greece, where politics means the left converging on Bastille, or anti-austerity riots in the streets. The French left had a massive party on a Sunday (a school night!) when Hollande got into power last week. In Europe, politics is (or can be) cool. Why isn't it here?

I realised this in 2010. It had taken so long for anyone to make up their mind that year that even the ultimate geeks had torn themselves away from the TV/computer screen and into the real world. When action finally happened, and Cameron went to the Queen, I was in a pub. We actually asked for them to turn the TV over from football to endless shots from the BBC helicopter hovering over the Mall of cars going to and from Buckingham Palace. It took hours, and there was, obviously, nothing to see. By the time we left everyone else in the pub was fuming, and incredulous. Over the next few months, my friends' eyes started glazing over as I fumed over the latest scandal, or made witty comments about Nick Clegg's falling poll ratings.

Then last week I worked as a poll clerk at the local elections. It became clear, as I added up ballot papers and worked out turnouts in my break, that I was a committed election geek, but worse, no-one else cared, and worse still, no-one actually in politics gets that no-one cares. The 301 people who turned up to vote that day wouldn't have been able to pick the members of the shadow cabinet out of a line up. Things happen that politicians think will be the end of them (Jeremy Hunt, are you listening?) and nothing happens, because most people haven't even noticed. Let's face it, they are all (both sides) a bunch of middle aged, white be-suited men who can't get a stir of excitement out of their wives, let alone the public. Ed Miliband, bless him, doesn't look like he ever went out dancing in his entire life.

In the X-Factor of the London mayoral election, the public chose Boris because they liked the way he looked, the way he swore, the way he occasionally resembles Stephen Fry. Make no mistake, Boris, incredible as it might seem, is cool. In a misogynistic, posh sort of way. And worryingly in an uncool government, that's all he needs.

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I dined behind the Houses of Parliament in my sexually connected foursome

My wife and I would sometimes dine out with another couple. We did not always check the significance of the date. 

I am self-employed and find that working from home, setting your own schedule, the days generally blur into each other, with weekends holding no significance, and public holidays, when those who are employed in factories, offices or shops get time off, meaning nothing. I am often surprised to go out and find the streets empty of traffic because it is some national day of observance, such as Christmas, that I wasn’t aware of. I find myself puzzled as to why the shops are suddenly full of Easter eggs or pancake batter.

Growing up in a Communist household, we had a distinct dislike for this kind of manufactured marketing opportunity anyway. I remember the time my mother tried to make me feel guilty because I’d done nothing for her on Mother’s Day and I pointed out that it was she who had told me that Mother’s Day was a cynical creation of the greetings card monopolies and the floral industrial complex.

Valentine’s Day is one of those I never see coming. It’s the one day of the year when even the worst restaurants are completely booked out by couples attempting to enjoy a romantic evening. Even those old-fashioned cafés you’ll find still lurking behind railway stations and serving spaghetti with bread and butter will tell you there’s a waiting list if you leave it late to reserve a table.

In the late 1980s my wife and I would sometimes dine out with another couple, he a writer and she a TV producer. One particular place we liked was a restaurant attached to a 1930s block of flats, near the Houses of Parliament, where the endless corridors were lined with blank doors, behind which you sensed awful things happened. The steel dining room dotted with potted palm trees overlooked a swimming pool, and this seemed terribly sophisticated to us even if it meant all your overpriced food had a vague taste of chlorine.

The four of us booked to eat there on 14 February, not realising the significance of the date. We found at every other table there was a single couple, either staring adoringly into each other’s eyes or squabbling.

As we sat down I noticed we were getting strange looks from our fellow diners. Some were sort of knowing, prompting smiles and winks; others seemed more outraged. The staff, too, were either simpering or frosty. After a while we realised what was going on: it was Valentine’s Day! All the other customers had assumed that we were a sexually connected foursome who had decided to celebrate our innovative relationship by having dinner together on this special date.

For the four of us, the smirking attention set up a strange dynamic: after that night it always felt like we were saying something seedy to each other. “Do you want to get together on Sunday?” I’d say to one of them on the phone, and then find myself blushing. “I’ll see if we can fit it in,” they’d reply, and we would both giggle nervously.

Things became increasingly awkward between us, until in the end we stopped seeing them completely. 

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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