THAT FINE columnist Matthew Parris penned an insightful column in Saturday’s Times on the subject of the political classes, by which he meant politicians and journalists during the three-week UK conference season. He wondered whether, “engulfed by our own expertise, we the initiated may end our three-week immersion in British politics with a weaker sense of the political weather than when we started”.
It was a penetrating point. I spent most of last week in Brighton for the Liberal Democrat conference and left with a general sense – gleaned from fringe meetings and chats with activists – that things weren’t as bad as they once were for Britain’s third party. That might still be true, but then in the real world, where most people presumably weren’t watching televised coverage of the conference, would that impression be the same? Of course not.
Noting the gap (or perhaps yawning chasm would be more accurate) between the political classes and the electorate is not, of course, an original observation, but it is a sobering one. Parris quoted his fellow Times columnist Danny Finkelstein’s insistence that 95 per cent of what politicians say and do never registers with the electorate. In other words, some people might be aware that Nick Clegg made a speech on Wednesday, but it’s highly unlikely they’d be able to tell you anything about its content.
Yet in print, on air and online, people like me scrutinized every word of Clegg’s peroration and pontificated about what it might mean. It’s what’s known in the trade as a “bubble” mentality, where otherwise unimportant political events assume greater significance simply because a bunch of journalists and politicians talk about it.
Very little breaks out of the bubble. Andrew Mitchell verbally abusing some police officers did because it was a great tabloid story which most people could relate to. Likewise with the Westminster expenses scandal. Both stories reinforced pre-existing perceptions of the Conservative Party and Parliament; chiefly that all Tories are snobs and all MPs have their snouts in the trough.
Things are little different in Scotland. The SNP won in 2011 because of a general sense – cleverly exploited by a slick campaign – that the party had been “competent” in government (a word I’ve always found damning with faint praise), while the referendum debate preoccupies everyone except normal Scots, who most likely read little of the endless analysis of questions, wording, timing and franchise.
Does this disconnect matter? It does for politicians, who have to hope and pray that the five per cent of what they say that actually registers with voters is a beneficial five per cent. Johann Lamont is a case in point. Her speech last week was arguably correct but clumsily executed and could go one of two ways: if she can convince people that she’s not talking about cuts but redistributing the same amount of money more fairly then she might be on to a winner, but if the SNP succeeds in depicting her strategy as a neoliberal “cuts” platform then she’s done for.
All of which reminds me of the late Bernard Crick, a shrewd observer of the “bubble” gap and indeed the British political system in general. In the 1960s he published a fine tract called In Defence of Politics (it says something that it needed defending even in the 1960s), which I read as a student and still resonates with me today.
In it, Crick asserted that politics, with all its compromises and power struggles, remains the only tested alternative to government by coercion, allowing scope for both freedom and order to coexist in democratic societies. For Crick, politics was necessarily imperfect, messy and complex. (Incidentally, he’s also scathing about those who would reduce politics to nationalism or populist democracy – Alex Salmond take note.)
That remains true today, Parliamentary democracy being the best – to paraphrase Winston Churchill – of a bad bunch. That voters ignore most of what politicians say and do is not a reason in itself for not analyzing what they say and do. It is not, however, an end in itself. Journalists might have a responsibility to try and engage people in politics but – call me a Tory – voters also have a responsibility to engage with politics.
Ever-declining turnout is evidence of how difficult that two-way process is, but responsibility for lack of engagement – I would contend – has to be more evenly spread. A lot of political journalism is certainly self-indulgent, intended for one’s peers and no one else (Crick was rightly critical of this habit among political scientists), but equally the cry that “if voting changed anything they’d abolish it” is a cop out, a lazy justification for voter apathy.