“Is the petty, adversarial nature of politics causing its own demise?”
The first question on Question Time, the BBC political panel show, last night could not have been better timed, or phrased, to a panel that included those mad, bad boys of British politics, Nigel Farage, the leader of UKIP, and Russell Brand, some time comedian and social gadfly.
And off they predictably went, as if from invisible starting blocks, agreeing vehemently with the questioner’s implied barb, while simultaneously demonstrating, oblivious to the irony, just how petty and adversarial they could be.
Brand, true to form, launched into a tirade against the wicked banks. Farage, red-faced, counter-punched. “I’m not the rich man on this panel,” he snarled, a reference to Brand’s millionaire status. The fusillades continued. Brand called Farage a ‘pound-store Enoch Powell’, a reference to the Conservative politician who, back in the 1960s, warned of ‘rivers of blood’ if uncontrolled immigration continued.
The audience gleefully joined in. A heckler from the back of the hall added to the mayhem by calling Farage a ‘racist scumbag’.
The other panel members – three women, as it happened, two politicians and a journalist – might just as well have caught an early train home; or as Nigel might have said, “got on with their knitting”. The chairman, David Dimbleby, normally an incisive intervener when debates get out of hand, clutched his head in mock despair.
Who won the contest is hard to say. A dishonourable draw might be the fairest verdict. The applause from the audience, punctuated with cat-calls, suggested as much. But this was not so much a discussion, with a winner and a loser, as a verbal brawl fought to a weary standstill.
If the exchanges were unedifying, they were also entertaining. Which raises an interesting question: why does the voting public hold politicians in such contempt, when clearly the anti-politicians are tarred with the same brush? The level of public discourse has never been less articulate, or less relevant, or less intelligent than it is now. We hold politicians to a higher standard than the one that we collectively observe in our daily lives.
In other words, I don’t go along with the popular, and increasingly self-destructive, notion that our representatives, with their playground banter in the House of Commons, and unfulfilled promises, have dragged us into the swamp. We were revelling in the mire already.
The average citizen doesn’t need more than a few glasses of noggin to rail against the alleged detachment and cynicism of the so-called political elite, but they themselves have little to be proud of. It is not the politicians who have produced the racial bigots, the uncaring care- workers, the predatory paedophiles, the tax-dodgers and the fly-tippers, or any of the other diverse forms of anti-social behaviour that we suppose is rampant throughout a despoiled land.
Yes, the government should be dealing more firmly with greedy bankers, corporate tax avoidance schemes, and neglectful public officials – to name just a few of the hated instigators of society’s collective resentment. But when all is said and done, the cheats and charlatans and incompetents are only us in the metaphorical reflecting pool.
Not that I am greatly impressed by the current crop of politicians, whatever their persuasion. But rabble-rousers and anarchists like Farage and Brand hardly offer the cure for what ails us. They are snake-oil peddlers claiming to have the right potion for diseases that are often self-inflicted.
Replacing the mealy-mouthed with the loud-mouthed is not a sensible plan. It is not a plan of any kind. It is a scream of outrage from an unthinking, dissolute, sub-literate and increasingly self-obsessed mob – like the rampaging consumers who recently created those awful scenes on Black Friday. They contribute nothing of value to the cause of social and political enlightenment in this dark and complex world. They are not for anything, as far as I can see, merely against everything.
If our politicians give the impression they don’t care, it may be because many of us don’t, either.