Politics isn’t supposed to be this interesting.
Political speculation is fun. Not least because pretty much anybody gets to be an ‘expert’. Even David Torrance gets to put on his best sage and solemn countenance and have a wee rake about in the goat’s entrails. I rest my case.
The reality, of course, is that none of these ‘experts’ has any special insight. As is clear from the variety of their pontifications, none of them has any more of a clue about what’s going on than any of the rest of us.
When asked what politicians most feared, Harold Macmillan is supposed to have replied, “Events, dear boy! Events!”. The implication being that, in politics, it is events which are important. This certainly seems to be the assumption behind most of the speculation around the likelihood, or otherwise, of Theresa May being evicted from 10 Downing Street. All the ‘experts’ are looking at various events and attaching degrees of significance to them. This event makes it more likely that she will be ousted. That event makes it less likely. Betimes, the same event makes May’s departure from office both more and less likely depending on which expert is asked.
From the perspective of the individual politician and party managers, events surely are the most important thing. That’s what they have to deal with. They must handle situations as they arise. A case of financial misconduct here. An instance of sexual impropriety there. Gaffes, rebellions, briefings and back-stabbings. All the events which, at a certain frequency and amplitude, make politics so much more interesting than it ought to be.
But are events the appropriate feed-stock of political speculation? Or ‘analysis’ as its practitioners would doubtless prefer to call it. The very fact that the same events can be weighted so differently by diverse ‘experts’ suggests that they are not at all reliable indicators. Analysis should, perhaps, be concerned less with trying to discover – or devise – causal connections between and among events and more with understanding the processes behind those events. Politics is surely better understood in terms of the sweeping historical processes on which human affairs are carried along like a great game of Poohsticks.
So why are our ‘experts’ so focused on events? Why so little interest in those processes? I’d suggest it’s because that’s the way we’ve all been conditioned by the mass media. I’m fairly sure there was a time when newspapers – the ‘quality’ ones at least – and those parts of the broadcast media with a public service remit, acknowledged a duty to educate and inform the public. I may be fooling myself, but I seem to recall that journalists would offer competing analyses of political developments that went some way beneath the events floating on the surface and sought to give a sense of the currents and eddies which influence the trajectory of those events.
Maybe it’s just the cynicism that comes with age and experience, but the whole purpose of journalism appears to have changed from those days when newspapers would challenge the reader with broadsheet pages dense with text and all but devoid of pictures, graphs, sidebars and the like. Radio, and later TV, would feature lengthy broadcasts consisting of nothing more than people talking, seriously and politely, as they considered the issues of the day in the context of history. The word was king – spoken or printed. Things were elucidated using words, with nary an animated graphic nor a swingometer to be seen.
Now, the role of the journalist has been reduced to that of a prospector panning for nuggets of public attention which can be polished and sold to advertisers. The prize is no longer the well-crafted paragraph which illuminates and elucidates, but the gobbets of tawdry titillation and fleeting sensation which may capture attention long enough for it to be bent to some commercial purpose.
Real politics is boring. The broad, deep, sluggish river of historical process is tedious to observe and monotonous to describe. It only becomes interesting when it breaks its banks.Or when somebody falls in. Even political scandals tend to come along with metronomic regularity. It suits the purposes of both the media and politicians to have us regard politics as a series of discrete events, the meaning and portents of which can then be explained to us, in a suitable dramatic manner, by a priesthood of experts. Therein lies the power to control attention, manipulate perceptions and shape attitudes.
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