In praise of not being sensible

Written by Total Politics has a free weekly Friday email bulletin. Follow this link to register. on 17 November 2011 in Diary
Is politics just not as fun as it used to be? Tom Greeves has an idea why that might be

Psst. Just between us, do you ever find politics a bit, you know, boring? I mean obviously you find it less boring than the average person does, given that you read the Total Politics blog. But do you ever reflect that, having been bitten by the political bug many years ago, the disease just isn’t as fun as it used to be? Where once it invigorated you, is it now lethargy-inducing?

Certainly the main players are a lot duller these days. In 1994 I was captivated on my first visit to the Oxford Union by a debate featuring Michaels Foot and Heseltine. Each had remarkable hair – Heseltine’s teased into a leonine mane, Foot’s madly professorial – each was unapologetically strident, and they both spoke with dazzling brilliance. Also taking part were Dave Nellist - who made Foot look like a devotee of Ayn Rand - and a hugely engaging youngster called Alan Duncan.

I doubt that the equivalent debate next year will be as engrossing. How could it be? Politics is now all about process; media management trumps ideas every time. Anyone inclined to say anything remotely daring is dubbed a dangerous maverick. It is those identikit members of the political cadet class who prosper. What really depresses me is that so many people consider this to be progress.

‘Crusading’, ‘brave’, ‘inspiring’, brilliant, these are the sort of words we used to apply to politicians. Today there is no greater honour than to be dubbed ‘sensible’. Personal ambition is as evident as it ever was, but intellectual ambition has dimmed enormously. No-one dares rock the boat. Politics has morphed into the Art of the Plausible.

It is completely wrong-headed and precisely the opposite of what voters crave. They want clear choices at general elections. They admire the likes of Ann Widdecombe and Tony Benn for opining fearlessly. They are bored rigid by the anemic utterances that emanate from the front bench. Those who live outside the media bubble and Westminster Village are nothing like as sentimental about the NHS or the comprehensive school system as those within the Village and bubble imagine.

Here’s another word to conjure with: ‘leadership’. Do not all great politicians lead? I wonder how the notion of ending slavery would have gone down with a focus group in Abraham Lincoln’s day. Universal suffrage in the UK was initially a counter-cultural idea. No-one was remotely interested in American campaign finance reform until John McCain started banging on about it endlessly. An interest in carbon emissions used to be the exclusive preserve of curious men with beards. Politicians with real leadership qualities changed all that.

My greatest contempt is reserved for those who think that the truth is inevitably to be found by drawing a straight line from left to right and locating the centre. Firstly, if the left and right have got it wrong, why would you assume that splitting the difference between two inaccurate assessments will result in the truth? Secondly, Lord Harris of High Cross was quite right to distinguish between the centre ground and the common ground – the idea that politicians always have their collective finger on the nation’s pulse is almost-touchingly-but-in-fact-dangerously naïve. 

Not only was Barry Goldwater correct in his famous assessment of the merits of ‘extremism’ and ‘moderation’, but I suspect he would have something pithy to say about what contemporary politicians consider moderate. For example, I doubt he’d think that it was very moderate to continue to cede one’s national sovereignty to a trading bloc dominated by basket-case economies, deprive oneself of access to free trade arrangements with countries around the world, and seek to build a multinational powerbase in a vainglorious effort to recapture the spirit of the (far more successful) Empire regardless of the fact that doing so would help keep poor countries poor. Yet that is a fair summary of the mainstream, ‘sober’ and ‘moderate’ position on the European Union – albeit one that I freely admit the ‘moderates’ would dispute.

I suppose some politicians are genuinely centrist. I strongly suspect that many more lack the gumption to articulate socialist or capitalist values for fear of being shouted down. So instead they witter on about ‘The Squeezed Middle’ or ‘The Big Society’ or similarly wet and insubstantial philosophies, posing as original thinkers, occasionally asking mock-challenging questions of ministers that have in fact been teed up in advance and generally disgracing the once proud Parliament to which their constituents indifferently elected them.

Tags: Alan Duncan, Ann Widdecombe, Character, Dave Nellist, Michael Foot, Michael Heseltine, Personality, Tony Benn

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