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20 March 2024

Welcome to the Willy Wonka experience that is British politics

Realpolitik is giving way to Feelpolitik – where doing stuff is replaced by just saying the stuff you would like to have done.

By Armando Iannucci

TS Eliot once wrote that “human kind cannot bear very much reality”. It’s a line from his poem “Burnt Norton” in Four Quartets and speaks of his quest for a set of eternal verities that can transcend the messy concerns of the day. But it could equally apply to the recent collapse in Glasgow of Willy’s Chocolate Experience. This event – unlicensed but horrendously inspired by Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka – consisted of a limited collection of plastic objects and bin bags scattered across a vast warehouse as sparsely as stars are scattered across the infinite universe, and was just as cold. It lasted half a day before angry families insisted that £35 was way too much to pay for what was was, in effect, a montage of crying children.

I do wonder what the Wonka experience organisers were thinking when they opened their doors. Why did no one spot that the very limited reality they were organising – sporadic shapes to be looked at from some tables – was so radically different from the beguiling gloss in the brochures?

Comparisons were made with the Fyre Festival, the notorious 2017 music fest in the Bahamas that was promoted as a luxurious and exclusive happening but which ended up as a lot of influencers defecating in the rain. What links both events is an apparent relegation of reality to second place. The details, the bothersome mountains of admin, are shunted off for others to do, leaving the geniuses to take the credit for the sheer hard work they put in to having the idea in the first place.

This retreat from the real is now spreading exponentially. People call themselves influencers even if they influence no more than 20 family members and a couple of old school friends, and they expect to get sponsorship deals as a result. Others call themselves entrepreneurs when the most risk they’ve taken is writing to junior ministers informing them of their title and expecting lucrative contracts by the end of the working day. Blagging and bigging up is now a respected industry. It used to be called bullshitting, but now it’s rebadged as Putting Yourself Out There and recognised as a professional skill set.

Shows such as The Apprentice feed off hyper-confident 20-somethings bumming their way through tasks that bear no relation to their collective work experience, and entertainment is provided by watching them fail. What isn’t discussed is why they’re expected to deal with these tasks in the first place. If Alan Sugar said, “Tonight you’re going to compose and then put on an opera, but you’re going to go back in time and put it on in fin de siècle Vienna,” the appropriate response should be: “Are you barking mad? That combines the physical impossibility of time travel with the unrealistic expectation that I can learn musical composition to a high professional standard in the next four hours. These are the ravings of a deluded fool, Your Lordship.” Instead the apprentices chant, “Thank you for the opportunity,” and start “actioning” things; as if actioning something, especially if it’s done in a loud voice, is the same as making it happen. It’s not.

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What we’re witnessing is the rise of Wishful Verbiage, a use of language which is replacing the old-fashioned lie. A lie was something someone said which they knew wasn’t true. Wishful Verbiage is something someone says because it sounds better than what’s true, even if it’s the opposite of the truth, and that’s OK because it conveys aspirations that are more valid than accuracy.

This change is more than Vladimir Putin saying he didn’t invade Ukraine but was asked by Ukrainians to come in and help get rid of the Nazis. It’s not just Donald Trump saying the 6 January insurrectionists filmed storming the Capitol and shouting “Hang Mike Pence” were exuberant sightseers. It’s there also in the day-to-day moments of political life, sleights-of-language that want to make us believe a falsehood can be true if the speaker just feels that it is. It’s present when Liz Truss, one of our most unpopular politicians since records began, chooses to call her pressure group “Popular Conservatism”. It’s there when major public institutions such as the Post Office think they can be excused from real failings by saying “this is not who we are”, even though the evidence shows it really is who they are. It’s there when governments think they can perform a comprehensive appraisal of Rwanda’s human rights record by passing a law saying it’s all fine. Realpolitik is giving way to the new Feelpolitik, where doing stuff is replaced by just saying the stuff you would like to have done.

It was there recently in the case of Frank Hester, the entrepreneur alleged to have said that seeing Diane Abbott on TV makes him “want to hate all black women”, and in whose defence a spokesperson then claimed “his criticism had nothing to do with her gender nor colour of skin”. Given that the offending remark consists entirely and specifically of words related to and derogatory of gender and colour of skin, this is to date the most perfect example I’ve seen of Wishful Verbiage in action.

We need to call out this tendency whenever we detect it, since its influence is destructive. Unchecked, it allows opponents to be categorised as “enemies”, and an alternative point of view relabelled “unpatriotic”. When the argument that the vaccines caused more deaths than saved lives is left uncorrected, and when climate change is dismissed as merely “one theory”, truth itself is downgraded to just another meaningful fiction, no more valid than “gut feeling” or “stuff that’s just obvious”. And when that happens, Reality is in very real trouble.

[See also: If the Tories are the party for hard-working people, why are they so
spectacularly lazy?

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This article appears in the 20 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special 2024