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In political debate as in sport, practice doesn't make perfect: it makes for boring

Instead of playing to win, politicians are seeking not to lose.

Faced with the threat of relegation, our political leaders ground out a low-scoring draw in the ITV televised leaders’ debate. They were disciplined and competent (to varying degrees, naturally). There was lots of legwork but little progress.

It was no surprise that both the Labour and the Conservative camps felt quite satisfied afterwards. It’s a revealing disconnect. When insiders believe that an event went well and outsiders feel the opposite, you know there is something structurally wrong with the game.

No one skipped training. No one was drunk. No one collapsed from nerves. No own-goals, no red cards. Lots of defenders behind the ball. Make the other side take the risks if they want to get the win. But let’s be honest: no one came to win. They sought not to lose. The weight of planning was rarely offset by instinct. There was much technique on view – too much. A technique totally mastered is one that disappears. “Technique is freedom,” reflected the ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. The leaders on the podium did not look at all free.

An uninspiring sports coach would call it a set of “good professional performances”. And that is why I switched off my television in low spirits, another notch more disengaged. I didn’t learn a thing. Did you?

To assess the event as a set of performances is not to endorse superficiality. Nigel Farage’s abysmal pinstriped suit, which deserved a pre-warning like those news reports that contain flash photography, is not the point. Ed Miliband, unfairly ridiculed by the conservative press, was always likely to exceed expectations. But he struggled to articulate what the Labour Party is for when it can’t turn on the taps of public spending. Nick Clegg, just as in 2010, looked the most at ease. On the deficit, however, he came close to saying that he was keeping all his options open until convenience and circumstance direct his hand.

David Cameron, in his “debt and more taxes” moment, came closest to articulating a clear dividing line between him and the other leaders. Even those who disagree must accept that Cameron said what he believes. Yet the flatness of the debate left the strongest impression.

There is a misunderstanding, across many fields, about the nature of performance and how it can be trained. Early in my cricket
career, well-meaning coaches frequently led me to play worse rather than better. Reflecting on what they – and I – did wrong, I see similar symptoms in the leaders’ debate.

Professional coaches often fail to understand that a true performance is not just a rehearsal that is played out in public. It rests on risk and freedom as well as planning and preparation. “I’ve never had much sympathy for conductors who ‘program’ an orchestra at practice and then just ‘run the program’ during the performance,” Christopher Seaman explains in his splendid book, Inside Conducting. “Take a chance and leave some things fluid.”

A letter recently published in the New Statesman moved me very much. The previous week I had described the England cricket team as grimly over-rehearsed and risk-averse. “Just like state schools,” a teacher wrote in response. That is why the best head teacher I encountered loosened the wheels at his school, reducing “professionalism” and compliance, encouraging space for mavericks. By nature, he was fiercely disciplined. By observation, he understood the dangers of too much discipline.

In sport you have to plan and practise. But there is no magic without spontaneity. If players exclusively roll out a series of prearranged plays and “patterns”, there will come a point where there is no point in watching them. We could just watch a digitised simulation of the playbook instead.

A brilliant wit is not funny because he knows exactly where he is going. Quite the opposite. His mastery of language is so great, his mind so quick, that even a mundane conversation offers countless open doors. Someone open to opportunities for humour is a wit. A person inflexibly delivering a learned “funny” story is a bore. The leaders’ debate was depressing primarily because it was so boring.

Did the politicians need to turn up in person? The following memo could have sufficed: “The leaders are going to present their key messages, clearly but predictably, often rotating their neck muscles effectively as they swivel, mid-speech, having first addressed the questioner, before looking straight at the camera. Trust us: they are going to be competent. We’ve prepped them completely. Yours sincerely, the message/spin teams.” And the professional politicos would have been right. Yet as our certainty about the professionalism of the “message experts” grows, our faith in the politicians diminishes in equal measure.

The media must take some blame for the defensive stalemate. The obsession with “gotcha” gaffes reinforces risk aversion. The familiar complaints – What a stupid mistake! Give us human beings! – are two sides of the same coin. But that does not entirely explain a generation of over-coached politicians. I am usually sceptical about the idea of attaching adjectives to the “electorate”, as though it were one person with an identifiable mood. But this time, like a fish washed up on a beach, the electorate is gasping for authenticity. And that drives the desire to give mainstream politics a bloody nose.

There is one gravely worrying consequence of the retreat by the political class into professionally coached condescension. When voters are deprived of natural, authentic political voices they are vulnerable to the shallow attractions of people whose authenticity, however unpleasant, is their only drawing card. The great risk of collectively playing for a draw is a resounding defeat for mainstream politics. l

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Anniversary Issue 2015

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The vitriol aimed at Hillary Clinton shows the fragility of women's half-won freedom

The more I understand about the way the world treats women, the more I feel the terror of it coming for me.

I’m worried about my age. I’m 36. There’s a line between my eyebrows that’s been making itself known for about the last six years. Every time I see a picture of myself, I automatically seek out the crease. One nick of Botox could probably get rid of it. Has my skin lost its smoothness and glow?

My bathroom shelf has gone from “busy” to “cluttered” lately with things designed to plump, purify and resurface. It’s all very pleasant, but there’s something desperate I know at the bottom of it: I don’t want to look my age.

You might think that being a feminist would help when it comes to doing battle with the beauty myth, but I don’t know if it has. The more I understand about the way the world treats women – and especially older women – the more I feel the terror of it coming for me. Look at the reaction to Hillary Clinton’s book. Too soon. Can’t she go quietly. Why won’t she own her mistakes.

Well Bernie Sanders put a book out the week after the presidential election – an election Clinton has said Sanders did not fully back her in –  and no one said “too soon” about that. (Side note: when it comes to not owning mistakes, Sanders’s Our Revolution deserves a category all to itself, being as how the entire thing was written under the erroneous impression that Clinton, not Trump, would be president.) Al Gore parlayed his loss into a ceaseless tour of activism with An Inconvenient Truth, and everyone seems fine with that. John McCain – Christ, everyone loves John McCain now.

But Hillary? Something about Hillary just makes people want to tell her to STFU. As Mrs Merton might have asked: “What is it that repulses you so much about the first female candidate for US president?” Too emotional, too robotic, too radical, too conservative, too feminist, too patriarchal – Hillary has been called all these things, and all it really means is she’s too female.

How many women can dance on the head of pin? None, that’s the point: give them a millimetre of space to stand in and shake your head sadly as one by one they fall off. Oh dear. Not this woman. Maybe the next one.

It’s in that last bit that that confidence racket being worked on women really tells: maybe the next one. And maybe the next one could be you! If you do everything right, condemn all the mistakes of the women before you (and condemn the women themselves too), then maybe you’ll be the one standing tippy-toe on the miniscule territory that women are permitted. I’m angry with the men who engage in Clinton-bashing. With the women, it’s something else. Sadness. Pity, maybe. You think they’ll let it be you. You think you’ve found the Right Kind of Feminism. But you haven’t and you never will, because it doesn’t exist.

Still, who wouldn’t want to be the Right Kind of Feminist when there are so many ready lessons on what happens to the Wrong Kind of Feminist. The wrong kind of feminist, now, is the kind of feminist who thinks men have no right to lease women by the fuck (the “sex worker exclusionary radical feminist”, or SWERF) or the kind of feminist who thinks gender is a repressive social construct (rechristened the “trans exclusionary radical feminist”, or TERF).

Hillary Clinton, who has said that prostitution is “demeaning to women” – because it absolutely is demeaning to treat sexual access to women as a tradeable commodity – got attacked from the left as a SWERF. Her pre-election promises suggest that she would probably have continued the Obama administration’s sloppy reinterpretation of sex discrimination protections as gender identity protections, so not a TERF. Even so, one of the charges against her from those who considered her not radical enough was that she was a “rich, white, cis lady.” Linger over that. Savour its absurdity. Because what it means is: I won’t be excited about a woman presidential candidate who was born female.

This year was the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality, and of the Abortion Act. One of these was met with seasons of celebratory programming; one, barely mentioned at all. (I took part in a radio documentary about “men’s emotional experiences of abortion”, where I made the apparently radical point that abortion is actually something that principally affects women.) No surprise that the landmark benefiting women was the one that got ignored. Because women don’t get to have history.

That urge to shuffle women off the stage – troublesome women, complicated women, brilliant women – means that female achievements are wiped of all significance as soon as they’re made. The second wave was “problematic”, so better not to expose yourself to Dworkin, Raymond, Lorde, Millett, the Combahee River Collective, Firestone or de Beauvoir (except for that one line that everyone misquotes as if it means that sex is of no significance). Call them SWERFs and TERFs and leave the books unread. Hillary Clinton “wasn’t perfect”, so don’t listen to anything she has to say based on her vast and unique experience of government and politics: just deride, deride, deride.

Maybe, if you’re a woman, you’ll be able to deride her hard enough to show you deserve what she didn’t. But you’ll still have feminine obsolescence yawning in your future. Even if you can’t admit it – because, as Katrine Marçal has pointed out in Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?, our entire economy is predicated on discounting women’s work – you’ll need the politics of women who analysed and understood their situation as women. You’ll still be a woman, like the women who came before us, to whom we owe the impossible debt of our half-won freedom.

In the summer of 2016, a radio interviewer asked me whether women should be grateful to Clinton. At the time, I said no: we should be respectful, but what I wanted was a future where women could take their place in the world for granted. What nonsense. We should be laying down armfuls of flowers for our foremothers every day.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.