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22 April 2010

Nick Clegg: international man of mystery

By Will Self

I don’t know Gordon Brown – do you? I don’t know Dave Cameron, either, not even remotely. As for Nick Clegg, he’s an enigma – albeit not one I feel driven to solve. Presumably Miriam González Durántez has penetrated further into the Clegg mystery, hacking her way through the jungle of his id, and so doing has drawn closer to the lost city of Clegg-Dorado.

Closer, maybe, but such is the ineffable character of human identity (and this, bizarrely, includes even someone as squeakily, blandly, wipeably clean as the boy Cleggster) that we always remain hares in the pell-mell race towards greater intimacy. One may travel half the distance towards knowing someone, then half the distance that remains, then half of that further distance – and so the desideratum of genuine knowledge will remain
always beyond reach.

We know this intuitively from our relationship with those who are closest to us: our lifelong partners – even our own blood relations – remain curiously unknowable. We may have smelt their farts beneath the duvet, we may have changed their nappies, we may have administered Oramorph to them when in extremis – yet still we do not know them. If this is the case with those we interact with sensuously, psychically and physically, how much more opaque must be those we’ve never met?

One of the greatest follies of the current era – cultivated by the mass media, reaped in a whirlwind by social networking – is this delusion of proximity: the victims of paedophiles who cruise internet chat rooms are said to have “met” their abductors online, while presumably those ignorami who follow the likes of Stephen Fry on Twitter feel they are treading in his footsteps along a lonely strand.

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Hopelessly deluded

But it is in the realm of political campaigning that we encounter the most egregious faux intimacy. In times gone by, when the pyramid of power was still more acuminate, those at the apex saw no virtue in manifesting themselves as human at all. The rulers of the ancient despotisms of the near east were gods, and so depicted in suitably hieratic forms: winged and coiled, their features flattened, wreathed in potent symbols. Even the absolute rulers of our own early-modern era had no requirement to be knowable: they were naught save the sum of their powerful parts. Think of Holbein’s Henry VIII, with its geometric configurations of flesh, ermine, hair and cloth of gold, quartering a rectilinear body – this was portraiture as heraldry, not a representation of persona at all.

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With each extension of the franchise, it became more and more difficult for our rulers to affect the monumental ataraxy of a Rameses. Nevertheless, they kept it up for as long as they could – even after the Second Reform Act, Victorian politicians were still portrayed in profile as biblical patriarchs, their long beards stiff with the oils of holy rectitude.

However, come the representative democracy, come the representative man (or woman, although less so because they rightly resist such bowdlerisation) – and come also the media that make it possible to delude ourselves that we “know” them. Politicians have come to believe that it’s a requirement for office to establish that, were the electorate in a position to cut them, they would indeed bleed – hence the spectacle of teary Gordon and weepy Dave contending for the title of Lord High Lachrymose of Oprah.

Put it away

Back when democracy was upfront and highly personal, the citizenry had no need of such attitudinising on the part of elected leaders – they knew Pericles and Demosthenes bled when they were cut, because more than likely they’d been round to their places and seen them shaving. Nowadays such immediacy is impossible, so the attempt to convey an impression of it – for example, by giving interviews in domestic dishabille – is rightly understood by the electorate as mendacious lunacy.

We, the people, know that modern British prime ministers need first and foremost to be efficient managers, administrators and accountants – effective at the core bureaucratic tasks, good at delegating and adept at balancing devilish detail with the wider picture. If such paragons of office work did indeed exist, who on earth would want to know them personally? So, keep it to yourselves, chaps.

Next week: Real Meals