Regarding political portraits, “real” policies and the idea of public service
THE PARADOXES OF BREXIT MULTIPLY BY THE DAY. Brexit was supposed to allow Britain to regain control of its own destiny. This week the British prime minister sat in a windowless room in Brussels while 27 European countries debated the country’s future in the council chamber (although Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, jumped out midway through the meeting to update her). Brexit was supposed to restore parliament’s sovereignty. This week a British prime minister, borrowing the language of demagogues down the ages, criticized MPs for not implementing “the will of the people”. Brexit was supposed to force the political class out of its bubble and rediscover the rest of the country. The political class – journalists as well as politicians – is more attractive than ever. I could go on but I think you get the general gist….
IN THE Blair-Cameron years, politicians were competing to be as sarcastic as possible. Today they compete to be as grotesque as possible. The age of identity politicians (culminating in the Jedward that was Cameron-Clegg) has been replaced by the age of pictures.
Jeremy Corbyn is one of George Orwell’s pacifists who is drunkenly throwing sand at his own moral purity. His office is full of high profile socialites who fell in love with the working class while attending some of the most expensive schools in the world. Theresa May is an archetypal grammar school girl who thinks she’ll get a gold star if she keeps writing the same essay in finer handwriting. John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons, is a classic puffed-up little man who likes to remind MPs of the importance of meaning in labyrinthine sentences that include, in no particular order, words like “sedentary”, “sauntering” and “loquaciousness”. The hard Brexiteers are divided into two types: golf club hitters who could fix everything if they were put to work and increasingly monomaniacs. drag the conversation to the same point.
The CARICATURES on the left and the right have one powerful argument: that they represent “real Labour” or “real conservatism”. The left’s trump card has always been that “real” Labor voters are coal miners and steelworkers – and that “real” Labor policies have always been about being redistributing income and nationalizing things. The right cannot call itself a “real” Tory voter in the same way – the Party survived its past by finding “real Tories” in all social classes – but it made up for this by emphasizing “true Tory” values. : flag nationalism, suspicion of foreigners, belief in British independence.
More moderate elements in each party are always haunted by the fear that they are betraying the true party. Tony Blair had to resort to a combination of top-down control (policing not only what MPs said, but also what they wore) and cynical gesture politics (ban hunting). Theresa May has rejoined the Brexiteers despite realizing, as a rising politician, that a Tory party looking to recruit new members would have to maintain its image as “the party leg”, rather than being a resting home for old bums.
THIS WEEK provided more proof – as if we needed any – that the country’s political class is in dire shape. Not only does Britain have the worst prime minister and the worst opposition leader it has ever had. It also has the worst cabinet and shadow cabinet. For much of the democratic era, Britain decided to send the most talented members of its various subdivisions into parliament: Winston Churchill (pictured left) from the elite land; Harold Wilson (pictured centre), Richard Crossman, Anthony Crosland from the intellectual elite; Ernest Bevin, Nye Bevan, Jim Callaghan (pictured right) from the working classes. Now he is not only sending less talent but leaving much of the talent he uses on the back benches.
That said, I doubt the popular belief in business circles that the great talent has migrated to the business sector and all we need to do is hire a few more business types and Britain will be on the road to recovery. on. I am struck by how many business types are mostly private sector bureaucrats who spend their (well-paid) time holding meetings and recycling memos. Certainly, the performance of those business types, such as Archie Norman, who entered politics is far from inspiring.
I think there is a deeper problem with the nature of the British ruling class as a whole: a problem that has more to do with the corruption of the soul than the allocation of talent between different sectors. The ruling class has lost their sense of public service and has become obsessed with lining their own pockets. Not so long ago politicians spent their retirement cultivating their gardens and giving sage advice in the House of Lords. Now they join the ranks of the rich, not only filling their pockets with gold, I understand, but also spending their free time socializing with billionaires, playboys and dynasts, which is unbelievable to me. A good part of Jeremy Corbyn’s appeal is that, for all his failings in intellect and judgement, he is at least a self-denying type who lives a hard life.
The loss of public service awareness is also driven by two deeper structural changes. The first is the advancement of the division of labour. Academics write for other academics. Businesses are faced with an ever-growing list of metrics (many of which are mandated by the government). The second is a serious loss of cultural self-confidence. For all the differences between the Tories and Labour, the ruling class shared a common sense of cultural values: they might disagree on who got what but they agreed on the virtues of Western civilization (and specifically English). Now that these common cultural values have been dissolved by the bitterness of academic fashion and interest group politics it is much easier to abandon public life altogether and focus on making money.