I love politics. I love the questions and the debates and the search for a better way of doing things. I even wanted to be a politician once, and still toy with the idea even now. But I hate all the cynicism that goes with it. I really do not understand why, but people seem to take an almost hysterical glee in hating politicians. Quite frankly, I find this absurd. The vast majority of people who go into politics do so because of a desire to do some good. They are amazingly hard working people who have to work exceedingly long hours. And yet people just love to hate ‘em.
Last night, I watched Frost/Nixon:
Loved it. It’s a superb film that I would recommend to anyone with an interest in politics. Or, indeed, anyone with an interest in entertaining, thoughtful, intelligent, perceptive, films. I even forgot to drink my Heineken – that’s how gripped I was. So, this film has prompted me to write a post I’ve been meaning to do for a while – one that was originally to be titled ‘I Love Iain Duncan Smith.’ I have decided to rename the title because the above film reminded me of the fact that this modern day witch hunt against politicians is no modern thing. It did not all begin with President Bush and Prime Minister Blair (both of whom – although it is astonishingly unfashionable of me to admit – I have a great deal of respect for) – these witch hunts were going on back in Nixon’s day and, no doubt, before that as well.
What I loved so much about the film was its refusal to demonize President Nixon. It approached the Watergate issue in a balanced way that, I felt, made allowances for human failings because of the fact that Nixon was human and, therefore, imperfect, rather than suggesting Nixon was a villain and, therefore, evil. People love to look at it in black and white, but surely there is only a great big mess of grey in politics – and especially in Presidential politics.
It seems to me that politics suffers from something that I shall refer to as the Spiderman Effect. Everyone loves Spiderman at first – in the same way that people suddenly ‘love’ reality TV contestants (despite the fact that they don’t actually know them), and everyone loves a political party when it first comes to power because ‘everything will be different now’. But no matter how much Spiderman gives to the people, they will always turn against him sooner or later because even Spiderman cannot make peoples’ lives instantly perfect. That is why if any politician or political party is around for long enough, the public will always turn against him (or them) in the most vicious way imaginable, quite blind to any of their past achievements. It’s stupid nonsense, of course, like deciding you suddenly hate Spiderman, but it’s true just the same.
I often cringe to see the way the audience behaves on Question Time. I can practically see the pitchforks. When I was studying politics at college, I went to a Q and A thing in Westminster, with John Reid representing Labour, and Iain Duncan Smith (then the party leader) representing the Tories. Being 2003, Iraq was high on the agenda and, in fact, John Reid and Iain Duncan Smith were saying more or less the same thing on this issue. Imagine my astonishment, therefore, when John Reid was earnestly applauded by the audience, and Iain Duncan Smith was enthusiastically booed. Even though they were both saying the exact same thing! It was as if people were so set on disagreeing with Duncan Smith that they did not even hear what he was saying. They began to boo even before he had finished his first sentence. In fact, as soon as he came on the stage, people started jeering and holding up signs mocking the ‘quiet man’. I realised then that it didn’t actually matter what Iain Duncan Smith said to us, he was never going to receive applause. What a truly sorry state of affairs. I was ashamed to be part of such an audience. I must say, though, that he handled it all with extraordinary grace and eloquence, and even though I am a staunch Labour supporter, I was terribly impressed and wrote him an extremely gushing letter when I got home. I take my hat off to him for his patience, but I don’t think I could remain quite as cool in the presence of such dire stupidity, and would be very tempted to pull a John Prescott which, no doubt, would go down very badly indeed.
It seems that at least one out of every three ‘questions’ on Question Time is not a question at all but rather an audience member’s rant about all the things they think the government is doing wrong. And then – the cherry on top of this ridiculous cake – is that when the panellists actually debate a point of policy, they are very often maligned for ‘squabbling.’ Honestly, what an absurd choice of word. Disagreement is the entire point of a debate. It allows for the exploration of, and search for, new ideas. No matter how much people might wish it were otherwise, there are no pantomime villains in politics. If someone is after fame and riches then politics would be the very last route they would choose.
I particularly hate hearing people refer to a political leader as ‘stupid’. Take President Bush, for example. You can disagree with his policies all you like – indeed, I disagree with most of them myself, just as I would disagree with any other Republican – but to suggest that the man is stupid is nonsense. You don’t get to be the President of the United States unless you are an extremely intelligent man, and any suggestion to the contrary is an utter fantasy. Wild, emotive insults of this type only serve to give less credence to genuine criticisms.
If politicians or parties are instantly dismissed as a ‘waste of space’ then, no doubt, this makes the speaker feel very clever and superior but, let’s be honest, it is a cop out. To sneer at the efforts others make whilst making no effort yourself is a childish sort of strategy. As Charles Dickens remarks in A Christmas Carol: ‘it is always the person not in the predicament who knows what ought to have been done in it, and would unquestionably have done it too.’ I have no problem whatsoever with people disagreeing with my political views on any or all counts (indeed, I very much enjoy it if we can debate it intelligently). What I have no patience, or respect, for is this trend for politician-bashing. One that, as Frost/Nixon shows, is not a new craze, and is not likely to end any time soon. Vapid insults directed against politicians are boring to me. As Father Copleston once said: ‘If you refuse to sit down at the chess table, you cannot be checkmated.’ Genuine political debate has therefore got to be more than simply bleating in a whiny voice: ‘the politicians are doing it wrong’ – it’s got to involve some suggestion as to what would be doing it right. Repeatedly shrieking ‘burn the witch!’ will achieve nothing, and, if you’ve really got nothing more condemning to say than that, makes you look a bit of a fool. Criticise politicians by all means, but at least have the sense to do it intelligently if you want to be taken seriously.
Maybe – just maybe - the truth is that there are no easy answers in politics, no quick fix solutions, no secret money trees growing round the back of 10 Downing Street that the PM guards jealously because he doesn’t want to pay out on health care etc. This is why the debate is so fundamental – because it is the search for the least bad way of doing things. I have found few people able to rationally discuss politics - especially at university where everyone liked to think they were against ‘the establishment’ which, to hear them, you would think had been doing things wrong for years out of pure stubbornness - but it is a real pleasure to find the odd person who is willing to engage in genuine political debate rather than a playground-like exchange of insults.
My point in all this is that if only a few more people in the audience in Question Time would actually ask a question when they get the microphone (rather than shrieking: ‘burn the witch’), and then, once they get the response they requested, extend the politician the intellectual courtesy of accepting it as the best answer they are able to give at the time (being only human rather than Spiderman), then perhaps debate would be calmer, more rational and more productive. It never pays to hate Spiderman, after all.
This post has gone on long enough, although I’m sure I will blog about specific political issues in the future because I just find it all so interesting – like getting a little brain workout. But now, because every political rant should end on a light note, here is a snap of my Great Dane – the most beautiful dog in the entire world – getting into the Christmas spirit: