A few years ago, a friend told me that if I ever went on Question Time and found myself floundering, there was one surefire way to get the audience back on side. “Just thump your hand on the table and say: Why. Won’t. The. Politicians. Listen. To. Us.”
He was right – it definitely would have worked. The easiest – and laziest – opinion to hold on British politics is that politicians are corrupt, venal, all a bunch of expenses cheats. They are all “in it for themselves”.
This mood is usually traced back to the expenses scandal, where it was revealed that some MPs and peers were, indeed, robbing us blind, either exploiting loopholes in the system or flat-out ignoring them. A duck house that costs more than many people’s monthly rent is hard to forget.
What’s rarely mentioned is that for every MP blighted by the expenses revelation, there were others whose frugality and conscientiousness were uncovered. For example, before he became Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn cycled most nights from Westminster to his north London constituency, and claimed only £409 in rail fares. The “revelation” about Gordon Brown paying his brother for their joint cleaner revealed he paid the person’s national insurance, a fact I remember boggling a right-wing journalist with whom I was doing the Sky paper review. “Who pays their cleaner national insurance?”
Since then, I’ve met plenty of MPs. A few have been horrors – pompous, superior, pugnacious – although at no higher frequency than in any other industry I’ve encountered. A couple have been obvious part-timers, and there are probably more of that type who I haven’t met because they just don’t bother doing Week in Westminster or APPG meetings or fringe events. But the majority have been passionate about the causes that brought them into politics. Many could have earned more money outside Westminster, and some have made a fortune before entering the House.
I understand the lure of the anti-politics mood, because I often indulge it myself. Sneering feels cool – enthusiasm feels dweeby and try-hard. Of course nothing is going to change. Of course we’re going to hell in a handcart. Of course people who try are painfully naive.
Except. What has politics ever done for us? I suppose the simple answer is to ask yourself whether you’d rather live in seventeenth-century Britain or today. For a very few rich white men with an affection for ruffles, it will be a tough question. For the rest of us, politics has brought us everything from legislation that stopped children working in cotton mills and up chimneys, to the abolition of slavery, to the advances of representation that make it possible for women to take part in democracy at all. Many of the great causes of our recent history involved protests, even riots, but they also involved politics – the painful grind of building support, winning over the waverers, inspiring people to believe they had the power to change the world.
Today, politics has a particular problem. It is slow, analogue slow. Take drugs law, for example – as the Times pointed out this week, police prosecutions for the possession of small amounts of cannabis are now rare. But the law hasn’t caught up (and a law unequally applied will tend to disfavour the marginalised). It may take years for our drug laws to reflect both expert and public opinion.
Until recently, I would have said: oh well, but it will get there eventually. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” as Martin Luther King put it. These last few months, I’m not sure I’ve felt that way any more. Watching Donald Trump enter the post-gaffe paradise where every new quasi-fascist utterance only bolsters his appeal to his base, rather than kills his candidacy stone dead, has been sobering. Watching Amanda Foreman’s “The Ascent of Woman” and realising that societies were women were (relatively) free have often been supplanted by viciously repressive successors. Seeing a country like Turkey, which once aspired to join the EU as part of a process of westernisation and secularisation begin instead to persecute journalists and free-thinkers. Seeing the Russian state’s covert encouragement of homophobia as an expression of true, virile masculinity. Seeing refugees from parts of the world where it is now too dry and dusty to live. Seeing the first water war of the twenty-first century, and knowing it won’t be the last.
And, of course, the events of the last few days in Britain. Although we don’t yet know for sure the motivations of the man who killed Jo Cox, it felt horribly symbolic that her death came on the same day Ukip’s Nigel Farage unveiled a poster suggesting that we were at “breaking point” because of an influx of refugees. (Never mind that the UK has taken only 5,000 Syrian refugees since 2011, and accepted just 216 asylum claims.) Farage could have more truthfully used a picture of Eastern European migrants to represent fears over the EU – but then, those people would have been white. It was an ugly poster, on an ugly day.
Also ugly is the fashion for the politics of personal feelz, where evidence and expertise are inevitably dismissed as an establishment plot. It reminds me of the days leading up to the Iraq War, where George Bush rejected any criticism of his doomed invasion plan, leading the comedian Stephen Colbert to declare: “Reality has a well-known liberal bias.”
Self-appointed tribunes of the working man like Nigel Farage have regularly complained about “liberal elites” who “sneer” at ordinary voters. But I’ve seen a lot of sneering during this referendum campaign from those who glibly assert that everyone from Mark Carney to trade union bosses are “all the same”, part of some nebulous conspiracy to foist unelected bureaucrats on us. (I would suggest running the country without any unelected bureaucrats for a long weekend to see how that one goes.) Any inconvenient fact, any contradiction, any evidence is dismissed with an airy: well, you would say that. If Twitter has taught us anything, it’s that once that kind of accusation of bad faith has been made, there’s no way for an argument to proceed.
On the absurd, and funny, flotilla of the day before, Farage had lit up a cigarette. “The doctors have got it wrong on smoking,” he joked to the Telegraph‘s Michael Deacon.
Also on that flotilla was Jo Cox, her husband Brendan and their two small children. In a post Brendan Cox made public on Facebook after he arrived home that day, he showed men in a Leave-postered boat hosing the Cox family with dirty water from the Thames. When he got home, he had to explain to their son why those men were so “mean”. I went to bed last night thinking: well, I hope those guys are proud of themselves tonight.
I expect MPs’ spouses are used to such casual insults. They’ll certainly be used to a partner who is away half the week, works late, spends weekends at fetes and knee-deep in paperwork sorting out someone’s problem with their benefits or leaking roof. It’s hard to get them to talk about those things, because we don’t like to hear our politicians complain. We don’t like to hear our politicians do anything much, except soak up our formless anger. Maybe I’m getting old, but I’ve been surprised by the number of audience members who’ve shouted and sworn at the Prime Minister during the televised EU debates. Look, he wouldn’t be my first choice either, chum, but his party won 11 million votes at the last election. That’s 11 million more than you.
When we give in to anti-politics – when a healthy scepticism curdles to corrosive cynicism – we are really saying that we loathe ourselves. After all, we elected the bastards. We don’t think there are any better angels of our nature, and we don’t believe, any more, that there are civilised, consensual, non-violent ways to change the world.
Politicians don’t deserve slavish adoration, and they don’t deserve an “easy ride” from the press. They deserve tough scrutiny and constant challenge. But they also deserve an acknowledgement that they are avatars of ourselves, chosen by us to work for us. And anyone else who treated their employees this badly would be up in front of a tribunal.