More boring, please!

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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About Peter A Bell

Thinker. Listener. Talker. Reader. Writer. None of my attitudes are immutable. None of my conclusions are final. None of my opinions are humble.
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One Response to More boring, please!

  1. Alex says:

    The actual details of the events may not matter very much but accumulated events eventually result in an event that reults in an inflection point where the “broad, deep, sluggish river of historical process” takes a new direction. So if one stands back one might observe that the British Empire is coming to an end  or that it has in fact come to an end but much of the population has not reconciled itself to this change and clings to the institutions of the past: the Union, Westminster, etc. The Union one might note was still strong after WWII but has been steadily losing salience for the populations in the peripheral nations as well as some in England as well. Substantial political reform might have solved this issue but reform of that sort is hard to bring about. Instead what we have gotten is some tinkering round the edges of the problem and even that has been begrudged.

    Real change is often only possible when the accumulation of events results in a crisis. As Obama’s Chief of Staff once observed “you never want to let a serious crisis go to waste”. We have not reached the serious crisis yet. What we have are groups like the Brexieters exploiting the decay of the old order without actually resolving its problems. If anything it’s a doubling down on the old order and an acceleration towards the coming crisis. We haven’t yet got to the straw that breaks the camel’s back or the tipping point. What exactly will emerge out of the other end we don’t know. And whether it will emerge peacefully (one hopes) or violently, we don’t know. Part of what emerges may be an independent Scotland but that’s not guaranteed. It’s also not guaranteed that what will emerge as the new order will be better. It may be even more brutish and nasty.

    As Adam Smith observed, there come points where “reverence for that constitution or form of government” comes into a serious conflict with “an earnest desire to render the condition of our fellow-citizens as safe, respectable, and happy as we can” and a “real patriot” has to choose: “re-establish the authority of the old system” or give way to “the more daring, but often dangerous spirit of innovation” (Moral Sentiments, VI.II.36-37). The final revisions to Moral Sentiments were written as the French Revolution was underway. The first edition of the Wealth of Nations was  published the the same year as the American Declaration of Independence. Smith, his suggestions for reform spurned, was sympathetic to the situation of the colonialists with whom he shared an intense dislike of the British government’s collusion with the vile East India Company (see espically Book IV of The Wealth of Nations). The relationship between government and the latter has continued as the model for British government ever since. There have been potential inflection points before. Coincidentally the 200 and 100 anniversaies of two of these happen to coincide with Brexit in 2019: Peterloo and the unrest after WWI. Maybe this time will be different. 

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