Every time a stupid political event happens – whenever a politician tweets a photo of one of his extremities, say, or just after a cabinet minister accidentally blocks out some words on a poster for a firm of Birmingham kilt designers so it looks like she’s standing under a sign saying “I’m a killer” – people write to me and suggest I bring back The Thick of It.
No. Absolutely not. I now find the political landscape so alien and awful that it’s hard to match the waves of cynicism it transmits on its own. David Cameron recently stood up in the Commons and berated Jeremy Corbyn for having a shadow cabinet too far-fetched “even for a script [of] The Thick of It”. I think his point was that the shadow agriculture secretary is a vegan, while Corbyn, a proud republican, has to call himself the leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. It was tempting to tweet that Cameron has a Culture and Media Secretary who joked about closing the BBC, a housing minister who’s reducing public housing stock, a Justice Secretary who’s tasked with repealing the Human Rights Act, and a Health Secretary who can’t stand doctors and makes me sick. But why bother? When politicians do all the jokes, we begin to see how grim the real world is.
That’s a good thing. For too long, we’ve cantered along thinking that though we may or may not agree with those in power, the democratic process allows us to course-correct every few years. We convince ourselves that anything more than this can be satisfied by our tradition of free speech: we can vote for and even meet our representatives, but we’re also perfectly free to ridicule them.
I’m not so sure that works any more. This is because politicians no longer act like real versions of themselves. Instead, they come over as replicants of an idealised, fictional version of what they think a politician should be. They perform politics, rather than practise policy. They act as if they’re good company, someone we’d have a beer with, funny, not too clever, definitely full of common sense. They hire people to make them so. I’m not sure Cameron came up with his Thick of It joke himself, and neither do I believe that just over a year ago Ed Miliband woke up one morning and said: “I know – I’ll literally carve my pledges out on a slab of stone.” Some top creative minds were employed to do those things for them. We’re left watching an entertainment rather than participating in affairs of state.
Take, the U-turn on all schools becoming academies. The government revealed this policy with a flourish, in the Chancellor’s Budget speech. Even the Department for Education looked surprised, and no one from that ministry looked convincing when trying to explain to interviewers and audiences why such a passionately held belief had come to them so late in life. The truth is, the policy was a fiction. Something to grab the headlines and deflect from the EU referendum. A policy from nowhere, unmentioned during the election, uncosted, and loved by no one.
Being fictional, it could be changed, and soon became an “aspiration” rather than a policy. Is it any wonder that, if politics feels unreal, we should start peopling it with characters whose antecedents are in fiction? Donald Trump is popular because he seems so like the sort of figure who’d appear in a drama about a big-hitting businessman who takes on the political establishment and wins the presidency. It’s also why his campaign ads feel like something you’ve seen somewhere before but in another dimension: with all their harsh talk about building walls and bombing the hell out of sensitive parts of the world, they look and sound no different from the fictional ads for a fictional president at the start of movies about an apocalyptic, barren hell.
Boris Johnson’s main selling point is that he feels like how someone would be portrayed in a comedy drama about an eccentric good egg tripping up the establishment and becoming prime minister. Similarity to the character gives him instant recognition, even if it’s based on similarity to someone who doesn’t exist. And Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn fit the role of ascetic outsiders who couldn’t give a stuff what they look like. I suspect they wouldn’t have as enthusiastic a following if they didn’t look the part.
Fiction is winning out because fact is no longer making sense. I wrote in the New Statesman just over a year ago about what I call Rump Politics, where power becomes concentrated in the hands of ever fewer people, elected on smaller percentages of the vote, from an electorate made up of fewer voters. Last year’s general election bore this out, with a Conservative “majority” of 12, based on 37 per cent of the vote, this vote itself being a turnout of only 66 per cent of those eligible. We are being controlled by a focused minority. The more concentrated that focus of power, the more disenchanted the majority becomes with the whole democratic process.
Rather than joke about it, I’d sooner urge people to change it. The move on compulsory academies proved how a government thought it could get away with something no one had agreed to: that it U-turned tells us how to respond. Petitioning, debate and protest have overturned moves on welfare and disability benefit cuts, education, tax credits and the BBC. It’s not always effective, but it does occasionally remind us of one important point: that the government’s popular majority is, at heart, fictional.
This article appears in the 07 Jun 2016 issue of the New Statesman, A special issue on Britain in Europe