Political debate turns to panto

Written by Total Politics has a free weekly Friday email bulletin. Follow this link to register. on 23 November 2012 in Diary
Sadie Smith bemoans the polemicist rants of panto-style political debates

I was watching Question Time last night.

Yes, I know, I know. I’ve tried to kick the habit, but within the first couple of minutes of Dimbers’ weekly bumblefest I’m on my feet, roaring at the television, causing a good deal of collateral damage to my carpets and red wine glasses. What can I say? I’ve got a problem.

Last night’s panel comprised of a woman from Dragon’s Den (who, for someone in the ‘Let’s Make It Relevant to Da Kidz’ slot was actually pretty good), the steely-eyed Yvette Cooper, Charles Kennedy, Iain Duncan Smith, and Independent columnist, professional socialist: the permanently outraged Owen Jones. And last night he encapsulated one of the many things that are wrong with political debate in this country.

Owen’s a former bag-carrier who managed to break free of Parliament, and I’ve met him a couple of times. I like him even though, apart from the basic business of staying alive, we have precisely nothing in common. That said, I find him sound on the Assange issue and, as the phrase goes, if he takes his work seriously, he doesn’t take himself seriously which is a commendable combination.

But on Question Time last night, I just couldn’t cope with the guy. Owen’s rather like a New Statesman editorial in that you can usually predict what he’s going to say on any given issue without actually having to listen to him. A nation should have been prepared for what transpired on Question Time last night, but it stuck in the craw nonetheless.

The main areas up for debate were the latest ramifications in Gaza, and welfare reform. It’s not like these are simple issues with easy solutions, right? Wrong! My friend Alex Diner wrote a very sensitive piece earlier in the week, which concluded that the Israel-Palestine conflict is one of those thorny buggers in that the more you try understand it, the more opaque it becomes but for Owen, it’s simple: Israel are the aggressors. They are in the wrong. Chucky K. said, reasonably in my view, that the violence on both sides needs to stop in order for talks to take place.

Oh no they don’t!

Owen’s reply: “Well obviously I am very disappointed with that response.” Why? Why in the name of all that’s holy or profane would you be disappointed with that? Because, it seemed in Smith Towers at least, that Owen wasn’t actually interested in nuance or a workable compromise, simply establishing that, in effect, Israel started it – a surprisingly confident distillation of many hundreds of years worth of conflict – and that the Palestinians were in the right. The western Israeli imperialists are the bad guys, the collectivist downtrodden Palestinians are the good guys.

Oh yes they are!

Then welfare reform. This was always going to be a thorny one. The Miliboy was recently booed by protestors by suggesting that, whatever happened, there would have to be cuts. Because obviously the reason he said this is because he is ‘evil’ or ‘just doesn’t get it’ and really wants to screw the life out of the VOTING punters for these reasons and not, in fact, because we’re in the middle of a bloody big recession and any government couldn’t afford to maintain the previous levels of boom-time public spending. Amirite?

Apparently, yes. Duncan Smith was accused of making this debate ‘toxic’ via a ‘cynical demonisation of people on benefits by this government.’

I’m with Owen on the probably certainty that David Cameron views on those who live on council estates with all the benign tolerance of Bill Cash at a camembert convention, but whatever you think about Duncan Smith’s policies, he is not – the Tories are not – ‘evil’. This is the demonisation that really boils my blood, not because I carry any particular brief for IDS, but because it reduces complex arguments and difficult situations into nothing more than a form of Trotskyite pantomime with Owen cast as Jack, and Duncan Smith as a malignant bloodthirtsty giant. This presumably makes Chucky Widow Twanky, Yvette the beanstalk and the Dragon’s Den woman the chorus and, predictably, the audience honked and clapped on cue.

The Israel-Gaza situation isn’t as simple as Owen presents.

Oh yes it is!

The reason that benefits are being cut is not because the government hates poor people and wants to humiliate them before flaying off their flesh in order to make filofaxes for the Coalition cabinet.

Oh no it’s not!

John Stuart Mill said, ‘the worst offence that can be committed by a polemic is to stigmatise those who hold a contrary opinion as bad and immoral men.’ And I reckon he said this, not because the practice is ungentlemanly, but because it makes the answer to the practical question, ‘What the hell do we do about this, then?’ harder to answer if people are labouring under the misapprehension that said answer is a simple one relating to the morality of the participants.

Disagree with what the government’s doing. Disagree with what Israel’s doing in Gaza. But if you think the answer lies in simplified polemicist rantings then you are emphatically not part of the solution.

Owen said that he doesn’t live in an ‘ivory tower’.

Probably not, but I bet the world looks massively more simple from atop that beanstalk, when you’re not troubled by involvement in the messy complexities on the ground.

[Thanks to @AlexDiner for helping me out with the quotes]

Tags: Gaza, Israel, Question Time, Sadie Smith

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