I noticed something interesting yesterday in the various discussions of what I want to call ‘sitting-on-the-fence-gate’ but until that becomes commonly understood parlance, I’ll just have to call it the Commons vote on Jeremy Hunt. I noticed two different responses to the idea that the Lib Dem MPs would abstain on the vote. Various ‘political’ types were happily falling over each other in the rush to proclaim what a good idea abstaining was (see here for an example) while more ordinary people I know were completely baffled by the decision, not quite able to understand why such bizarre contortions were going on.
It reminded me of a few weeks ago when I announced I was stepping back from my role on the Cabinet, to give me more time to do other things. I’ve had a few conversations with political types who seem confused by my doing it, and had a bizarre conversation with an anonymous tweeter who insisted I should disclose ‘the real reason I’d quit’, whereas when I told non-political friends about it, they completely understood.
I think these are both symptoms of the same problem in British politics – it’s become completely separate from the world it’s supposed to represent. I don’t believe there was a golden age when everything was perfect, but we seem to have come upon an age where the idea of politics being about a contest and debate between different ideas and ideologies has completely disappeared, to be replaced by a big game in which everyone chooses their team and then cheers them on against the others. Elections are now no longer ‘we need to win so we can do this’, it’s ‘we need to win to stop them winning because they’re bad’. It’s no longer a case of trying to engage the public – look at the turnout figures in all elections – but of merely trying to motivate the supporters of your chosen team to come out and vote, possibly because we haven’t worked out a way to determine an election in terms of who can cheer and clap the loudest.
And it’s not just the politicians who are to blame. The media buy into this because it’s much easier for them to report on a game (especially if they can simplify it to a two-sided one) than it is to report on the nuances of a debate. We don’t discuss the content of Prime Minister’s Questions any more, we discuss who ‘won’, and every new initiative is discussed in terms of how it well affect the polls, or what it might do for someone’s standing in the Cabinet. Let’s not discuss the nuance of whether it’s right that Greggs can claim hot food isn’t hot to stop paying VAT, let’s turn it into a contest as to which party leader can show the most enthusiasm in wolfing down a pasty.
This is why politics looks so ridiculous to most people. The House of Commons looks like nothing more than a middle and upper-class version of Big Brother, as well-educated imbeciles hoot and bray at each other in an effort to win press coverage. I listened to some of the coverage today, and the only sensible-sounding person was John Bercow, asking them to try and behave like vaguely human beings.
British politics says to the people that it’s all a game, that politicians aren’t concerned about changing things, but just want to score points off each other at the best-funded debating society in the world. Things need to change, before most people decide to really stop taking it all seriously and then only the really crazy people will vote.