Think that all of these TV political debates are starting to look and sound the same? You’re not wrong. But that’s because we keep demanding (and rewarding) the same destructive behaviour by politicians
Does this sound familiar? It is a distilled version of what we all heard at the televised BBC general election debate in Cambridge this past Wednesday, and at nearly every TV election debate that has ever taken place in this country since we imported a dumbed-down version of American presidential debates back in 2010:
Vote for me, I’ll keep you safe from terror. Just gonna need your Facebook password, please. No, vote for me, I’ll keep the economy strong because we all know the only point of a strong economy is to raise more tax to spend on the NHS. Liar! You want to destroy Our Precious NHS! You want people to die in the streets when they get sick, just like they do in America. No, we are now the true party of the NHS! Anything for Our NHS, oh god, anything and everything, my very life for Our Blessed NHS.
Oi! Look over here, free university tuition! Yeah, it’s subsidised by the taxes of other people who never went to university and whose earning power has not been boosted through having a degree, but still. Fairness! Young people are the future! No, no, no, it’s all about the environment. That evil party wants to build an experimental nuclear fusion plant in your grandmother’s basement, and frack for oil in the middle of Lake Windermere. But we will bulldoze nasty, Brexit-supporting Stoke-on-Trent and replace it with a massive solar panel field. Much better.
No, look over here! We will bring back British Rail; remember how great British Rail was? Who needs Pret when you’ve got a trusty British Rail egg and cress sandwich? Nice and warm, of course, just like the good old days. Let’s have car-commuting taxpayers in Gainsborough subsidise the travel of London-based city commuters, because fairness. British Rail? Scoff. I’ll see your British Rail and raise you British Leyland! Woohoo – nationalisation, baby! For the Common Good.
All immigrants are a godsend, to the last man. If it weren’t for immigrants, your inflamed appendix would have been dug out by a native-born, chain-smoking school dropout with a can of special brew in his spare hand, and don’t you forget it. No, of course we should have a sensible, measured conversation about immigration. It’s just that I’ll stand here and shriek into the TV cameras that you’re an evil, divisive racist if you disagree with me. But please, go ahead. No no, we should listen patiently to people’s concerns and then carefully explain to them why they are wrong. People love that.
Oh, you? No dear, you don’t have to do anything. We, the politicians, are here to promise you stuff, to pander to your every passing whim. If I’m prime minister, I will make it my overriding personal concern to fix the broken chairs at your GP surgery waiting room – I’ll come round and do it myself, I’ve got some tools in the shed – and make sure that New British Rail adds free wifi to your single-carriage metro train between Stoke and Crewe. Seriously, no worries. I’ll call the boss at 6AM every day until it happens. NATO summit? Geopolitics? Statecraft? Boring! Why be a statesman when I can be a glorified town councillor for 65 million insatiable people? I’m on the case for you, and your every last petty concern. I’ll read foreign policy briefings when I’m on the can, that stuff doesn’t matter.
Heavens no, of course we don’t need to properly empower local politicians to make decisions in the local interest, raising and spending taxes independently of Westminster. For I am running to be Comptroller of British Public Services, and my sole job, my only care in the world is to make your passage through life as easy and painless as possible. You and 65 million of your fellow citizens. The buck stops with me, because public services are everything. After all, Britain didn’t do anything of value or renown on the world stage until we starting implementing the Beveridge Report. Not a damn thing. And now we’ve jacked up the size of the state so much and you have to deal with it so bloody frequently that we’d darn well better make sure you come skipping away happy from every last interaction – too many bad experiences for you are political suicide for us.
All hail the NHS!
All hail the NHS!
All hail the NHS!
The problem is not that television debates cannot be substantive – they can. While US presidential elections in recent years have devolved into tense shouting matches with cringeworthy one-liners and a partisan audience clapping and whooping along like trained seals, this was not always the case. Go back even a few election cycles and you’ll find issues discussed in depth and sometimes even thoughtfully, even if they still adhered to the ludicrous “one minute response and 30 second counter-response” format.
No, the problem is with us. As I wrote in more depth immediately after the BBC’s general election party leaders’ debate in Cambridge, we have been trained and willingly led to a place where we expect our politicians to do nothing but flatter and bribe us all day long. We sit in the television studio audiences at Question Time or other venues, sullenly waiting to hear how politicians will come up with new ways to ease our passage through life, divesting ourselves of more and more responsibility with every passing day.
(It also doesn’t help when you have four irrelevant party leaders clogging up the stage who command no more than a handful of MPs between them and whose tiresome leftist bloviating and virtue-signalling hugely detracts from what should be a no-holds-barred slugfest between the two people with a plausible chance of running the country.)
A friend reminded me on Facebook that immediately after the BBC election debate, they aired an ad featuring a montage of British voters staring into the camera and barking out phrases such as “But what will the parties do for me?”, “What’s in it for me?” and “How will these policies affect me?” – the clear inference being that by watching the BBC’s election coverage we can learn all about how policy will personally benefit us, Number One, me me me. Because that’s all that matters. No need for voters to think in a broader, more strategic way about what’s good for the country or society. No, just keep demanding more and more goodies for ourselves.
But then a wise commenter made the following observation on Twitter:
Interesting but the ‘public’ is not infantilised, people talk about political, social & ideology at length & intelligently…
… arguably it’s the media that does the infantilising. People are patronised by the broadcasters.
True, to an extent – possibly even a large extent. Go back to the Kennedy – Nixon debates, for example, and you’ll find a serious, measured discussion of issues. Seriously, watch them. Even as recently as two election cycles ago you might expect a proper in-depth discussion of foreign policy, war and peace, national security, America’s place in the world, economic policy, domestic and social policy. The standard has of course greatly declined of late – as anybody who watched Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton fling faeces at each other for 2 hours on three separate evenings last year can attest.
And it is hard to point to anything other than the fracturing of the media landscape – something which should have been a promising development but which has led instead to shrill partisan outlets of all stripes catering to their niche audience’s basest fears and prejudices. And that goes for “prestige” outlets like the Washington Post and New York Times, with their soft and persistent bias, as much as it does with those outlets that peddle in outrageous, obviously fake news.
Interestingly, the media market in Britain is not yet as fractured. The BBC (particularly the news website) and the major newspapers (whose websites have worked tirelessly to suppress the independent blogosphere) still have considerable reach. There are no strongly partisan news channels, and political sites have much smaller reach. But like America, Britain’s politics has been upended by the internet and social media. And just as we now expect our Facebook, Twitter or Instragram feeds to serve up a constant diet of things that we like and with which we already agree, so we now seem to demand the same of our politicians. Nothing challenging, nothing which shocks us out of our preconceived ideas and prejudices, nothing which threatens to change or undermine our worldview.
The soundbite-ification of the television news also certainly doesn’t help, and is the principle reason why there has not been a good or memorable political speech by a major British politician (at least outside the House of Commons) in the living memory of anybody my age. When speeches are written so that the campaign’s key message is included in every other line, to ensure it gets picked up in a 30-second TV news piece, they essentially become meaningless word clouds of platitudes and focus-grouped phrases. Strong and stable, anyone? It is very difficult to inspire, to lift people’s thoughts above their own petty daily concerns to higher and more noble subjects when you have to keep saying “coalition of chaos” twice in each paragraph.
But again, who is to blame? Yes, it’s the fault of the media and the politicians who accept the terms of engagement and play along with the whole artificial construct. But it is also our fault. We watch the news bulletins. We buy the newspapers and take out the web subscriptions. We reward the godawful work that so many establishment Westminster journalists do, day in and day out.
Expecting the herd to change on their own is a recipe for disappointment. We need one brave politician, or perhaps a few, to just stop playing along with the rules. To stand up and give speeches where audiences and journalists actually have to listen to the whole thing before they understand the purpose or can write their Op-Eds. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn probably comes closest at present. As anathema as his politics are to this blog, Corbyn is capable of giving a speech – such as the one to the Durham Miners’ Gala earlier this year – which is actually formed in complete sentences and paragraphs, not one-liners and soundbites. The fact that Jeremy Corbyn is a conviction politician with a coherent worldview goes a long way to making this possible, and also explains why Theresa May so often sounds like a malfunctioning android.
Of course, another politician to break the mold is Donald Trump – but not in a good way. His long, rambling and unpredictable speeches were also free of canned lines and soundbites (or at least pre-planned ones) but he kept the television news networks transfixed, giving him hours of unearned airtime simply because you never knew what he might say next or what incendiary thing he might do. But Trump also won the presidency by promising things which he could likely never deliver, and many of which are actually deeply un-American, such as security over opportunity, protection from every conceivable harm and turning back to an easier past time rather than boldly facing the future.
So clearly what we need to do is genetically engineer a hybrid of Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump, and indoctrinate them with some good solid small-government impulses before letting them loose on Westminster. We need somebody with Jeremy Corbyn’s consistent worldview and fixed principles, though each of those principles should be reversed almost 180 degrees. And we need somebody with Donald Trump’s watchability and pseudo-charisma, but only after extracting the egotism, ignorance and vengefulness. And when these two forces collide, like matter and anti-matter, it will create more power and political energy than we can possibly imagine.
Okay, maybe not. But something needs to give – or somebody needs to step up; somebody who is not a cautious careerist who intends only to get to the top of the Westminster pole by being as blandly inoffensive as possible and by playing along with the media’s prescribed game. Someone needs to take a chance and dare to hope that the British people might actually respond well to somebody who talks up to them rather than down to them, who levels with them about difficult issues and necessary sacrifices, and who can present an attractive and believable vision of a future Britain worth striving to attain.
The alternative is that we will continue being bribed, flattered and lied to by a cohort of vacuous and craven politicians who never even think of calling us to any form of real citizenship or higher common purpose because their own political and moral horizons have been so limited by the infantilising system under which we labour. A system which encourages the people to shout petulantly for treats like angry toddlers with a gun, and exhorts our would-be leaders to frantically dance for us in response.
There may just be a small window of opportunity before the dust settles from the election results on 9 June. Future Thatcher, if you are out there, it’s time to emerge…
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