I agree with the abstract concept known as “Nick”…and other election stories.

It would appear that no one followed my good advice on avoiding the election campaign. I’m a bit shocked but I’m alright. You’ll recall my contention that Johnny come-lately and pals shouldn’t skewer the result with their light touch understanding of the issues. If you’d spent five years locked in a room with a rag-tag collection of misfits, arguing about the future of the country, would you really want some bastard coming in at the last moment, catching the end of the conversation and declaring a winner?

We’re told that it’s good for our democracy that more people are “engaged” during the campaign, but for large swathes of the population, the call to arms is too late, both for them personally and for the political parties who are making the call – after all the politicos have ignored these same people in the space between elections. They in turn have been ignored. In any event enormous chunks of the population know nothing of the subjects they’re being asked to vote on. If someone came up to you and said “excuse me sir, I’m writing a biography on Albert Camus but I can’t proceed without your approval. Would you mind reading my notes and seeing if you agree with my take on the man?”, you’d say it was great to be asked, but perhaps you needed to do a little research before you could comment.

Before you send me hate messages engraved into dark chocolates with a smooth coffee liquor centre, try to not wilfully misunderstand my argument. Amongst the many things I don’t have in common with T.S Eliot, is a hatred of universal suffrage. Of course everyone should vote – and yes, why not 16 year olds – if I can fuck them, I want to know what they think (I attended a pre-election debate in which several elderly members of the audience cried foul at the mention of this idea on the grounds that “they don’t pay tax” – so presumably these misers think the unemployed, the very low paid and deceased shouldn’t be able to vote either – the lunatics). My argument is simply that your right to vote is a huge responsibility and you should understand the potential consequences of each choice available to you. That means knowing a bit about politics – i.e. more than “they’re all the same though aren’t they?” or “I like Mr Cameron because he’s got a nice family and seems to know what he’s talking about.”

For most of the electorate, they’ve got four weeks to understand the complexities of economics, education, health, defence and the constitution, and they’re learning from scratch. Some may finger a national newspaper, which more often than not will obfuscate matters further. Many more turn to Television and are rewarded with a discussion framed on the parties’ terms. If Jeremy Paxman threw a curveball during his interview with David Cameron by asking him, “So, this big society bullshit aside, tell us which political thinkers are most important to you and how they’ve informed party policy under your leadership” then you’d have an interview worthy of the name; a conversation that may actually tell you something worth knowing. I realise that might be intellectualising the debate a little but WE’RE CHOSING A FUCKING GOVERNMENT.

If we insist on everything being simplified we can hardly complain when politicians talk to us like we’re drooling vegetables. In today’s Times there was an interesting aside on Nick Cleggover’s debate preparations. Apparently Clegg has been rehearsing since November under the tutelage of former Sky News anchor Scott Chisholm. Chisholm’s advice to Clegg? “When you address the public on television, imagine you’re talking to a group of ten year olds.” When you watch tonight’s debate and think, “Clegg’s the only one who’s making sense”, consider that you’re living up to the Chisholm doctrine that you’re thick as shit and corn flour.

I’ve sat in my own filth and watched as the polls tell us that the electorate are getting “involved” in the debate and are now excited by Nick Clegg, a shiny new talisman whose transformative potential may renew the country and presage the dawn of a second British Empire. What mallets my manmeat about this is that until last Thursday, half the country had no idea who Nick Clegg was. Ninety minutes later, having heard him say not a lot with great confidence and nothing since, they felt they knew enough to give Clegg their vote (at least notionally). It’s as simple as that is it? One wonders why the parties bother with the media during a parliament at all. The media have done Clegg’s campaigning for him in the last 7 days, allowing him to relax and polish off those Battlestar Galactica boxsets he’s been meaning to watch. I’m pleased for Nick of course – it’s great TV, but where’s the detail on his programme for government?

As someone who will be voting Liberal Democrat, you’d think I’d be pleased by this change in the party’s fortunes but it’s a little like winning an argument with an idiot. Sure, you’ve prevailed but you didn’t win because of the intellectual vigour you brought to the conversation, rather the ignorance of the other party. You need tossers to win but at what cost to the discourse?

Clegg didn’t have to work very hard to win his debate with Cameron and Brown, they were hopeless. Cameron looked like he might have been wearing an earpiece with an aid telling him “David, try not to look alarmed but there’s a boy at the main gate who says you’ve touched him and he wants to talk to the press.” Brown was judged to have “lost” because his performance was stilted and uncomfortable, as if Brown’s on screen charisma had anything to do with his ability to govern whatsoever. Broadly speaking I’m on Clegg’s side. It doesn’t even bother me that he talks in slogans or that his conviction has a barcode on it. I’m not even vexed at him being an archetypal professional politician and as such, less a man and a more a set of abstract concepts wrapped in skin. But for me the election debates have crystallised the problem that occurs more generally over the lifetime of a parliament, namely that the popularity of the individual becomes more important than the basis upon which their beliefs are founded. Their ability to communicate on television is more important than an analysis of their policies and the institutions they are deferential toward and therefore ideologically programmed not to change. But worst of all, their current standing in the polls becomes the story – and it seems, in terms of voting intension, a self-fulfilling prophesy in which the minutiae of the issues becomes an afterthought.

What’s that you say, this new level of coverage is a long overdue corrective? Not without equal scrutiny it isn’t, it’s hype.

Of course you could argue that greater media coverage for the Liberals was always likely to shore up their support, but Clegg should have to sing harder for his supper, rather than trading on apparent dissatisfaction with the old two party system. One comment I read on Facebook summed up the more sanctimonious side to Liberalism, validated by the poll surge, with one person posting, “now you know why I’ve always voted Liberal” the morning after the debate. Ah yes, you agree with me now so I invite you to reflect on how intelligent I am for having backed them when it wasn’t fashionable and how stupid you are for not having seen it my way in the first place. Glad you finally caught up. Were it not an act of intellectual and moral capitulation to vote for the Tories, it might be worth it just to challenge that sort of vacuity.

Just one idea on the table and it’s THIS?

The Election so far has been entertaining, if not politically rewarding. I loved Cameron’s invitation to join the Government of Britain, his so called “Big Society”. I watched the manifesto launch and felt like C.D Bales in Roxanne – meeting the mayor in the street with a cow tethered to his arm and listening to him tell me that the gimmick for the town would be “teaching the cow to drink a beer”. Yes, thought I, “he took the idea ripe off the tree, he plucked it and he put it in his pocket. Is it, dare I say genius? No, no, but maybe it is? Maybe I’m in the presence of greatness and I just don’t know it yet – but I saw it!”

The fact that this is Team Cameron’s big idea for the campaign, tells you how empty that Tory think tank must have been. How long did they stare at that blank sheet of paper? Most commentators agree that it’s quite a clever pitch – big government has run out of money so hand power to the people and let them govern themselves in small co-operative enclaves, after all, nothing is more democratic than self-interest, er, right? Perhaps some people will be left to rot, you know, the poor, the hated, the kids that didn’t get picked for football in the playground – but fuck ’em, they can always form their own group and if they choose not to, because they’re disenfranchised, uneducated and have no interest in civic virtue – good, we’ve got our own sphere of interest here and we don’t need society’s filth clogging the pipe of progress.

So there’s all those positives to consider but The Big Society, and it could be so very big, is also a neat distraction from the question of what a Tory government might do on the occasions where the devolution of power to the village hall wasn’t appropriate or desirable, you know, most times. The Big Society, bigger than any you’ve ever seen, allows Cameron to bat the question back to the man in the street and say “Nevermind that, what are YOU going to do?” The answer David, is that I’m going to vote for someone else.

Anyone who wants to feel a little better about hating this idea, given its democratic pretensions, could do worse than read Jonathan Raban’s review of “Red Tory” in the London Review of Books.


For those of you that can’t be arsed, the keys points are,

  • The Big Society is informed by Phillip Blonde’s book, rooted in pastoral nostalgia for an England of “small farms, artists’ and writers’ rose-trellised cottages, shops, workshops, churches and pubs.” In other words, the bastard child of Kent and Cornwall – those two powerhouses of progressive thought.
  • The core of his ideas are neither new nor radical, as Cameron would tell you, but can be traced back to G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, and their 1929 Catholic Distributist League manifesto.
  • Cameron’s confusion as to how these principles might be applied to 21st century Britain are as confused as Blonde’s, showcased in the vague language he’s used to sell the idea and,
  • Belloc, the co-author of the idea which has morphed into the philosophy underpinning the Conservative manifesto, was an admirer of fascist Italy and despised democratically elected parliaments.

So there you have it – vote Conservative and Cameron will modernise you back to the 1920’s – further if you consider 19th century volunteerism – you know, that thing which pre-dates pernicious 20th century abominations like the welfare state. Confusing isn’t it? You think you’re voting for the future when it fact, the only ideas on the table are those from 100 years ago. Even policy driven by whimsy and nostalgia isn’t new. In John Gray’s piece on the Tories, this was the most interesting paragraph:

“It is usually a mistake to suppose that politicians are much influenced by the thinkers they are fond of quoting: though Thatcher cited The Road to Serfdom more than once it is unclear whether she had read anything of Hayek. Yet she fully shared Hayek’s view that free markets reinforce ‘traditional values’, which is an inversion of their actual effect. The conservative country of which she dreamed had more in common with Britain in the 1950s, an artefact of Labour collectivism, than it did with the one that emerged from her free-market policies. A highly mobile labour market enforces a regime of continuous change. The type of personality that thrives in these conditions is the opposite of the stolid, dutiful bourgeois Thatcher envisioned. Skill in re-inventing yourself is the key virtue, along with a readiness to cut your losses as soon as any commitment becomes unprofitable or unexciting. Thatcher’s economic revolution was meant to go along with something like a social restoration. Instead, it led to Britain as it is today, a society obsessed with the idea of personal self-realisation, more liberal in sexual matters, less monocultural and less class-bound, more insecure and more unequal.”

God alone knows what we’ll be saying about The Big Society in 30 years, should Cameron beat the odds and creep into power. I say why risk it?

I’ll confess that the change in mood has made me a little excited about this poll. Two weeks ago I was ready to put a gun in my mouth but the last few days have made life a little more interesting. Although there’s nothing approaching a radical rethink of British society on the cards, no real ideas to speak of, there is a gradual feeling that this is a watershed election. The result may change the way people vote forever and permanently marginalise the right in the event of a proportional system being imposed. What’s less clear, at least to me, is whether such a change would lead to good governance. As you ponder these big questions I’m going to go and eat some noodles.

The URI to TrackBack this entry is: https://edwhitfield.wordpress.com/2010/04/22/i-agree-with-the-abstract-concept-known-as-nickand-other-election-stories/trackback/

RSS feed for comments on this post.

One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Super awesome read! Honestly!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: