Ayesha Hazarika: Let's call time on contempt for politics
Even the comedians agree that it's time to stop trashing politicians
With the exception of Ed Balls, politicians are still the most hated people in society (apart from high court judges with a penchant for fencing).
It’s still so easy to lay into politicians. It’s the lazy way to show you’re a bit political. It’s the magic glue that binds this fractured society. Want to show that you’re a bit edgy on social media? Slag off an MP!
If I had a pound for every time everyone made an oh so original expenses gag when I they found out I worked for an MP, I could probably pay off the deficit and have a bit left over for that yacht.
We’re a country which has never had a great deference to political authority and we pride ourselves on a healthy disrespect for the rich and powerful through our parliamentary democracy, our ferocious, free press and our cultural expression be it dramatic, comical or satirical.
But what happens when political scepticism sours and mutates into contempt?
As someone who has worked closely with politicians for almost 20 years and who is also a stand up comic who makes jokes at their expense, I have been pondering this question with increasing unease.
I recently chaired a panel in parliament which posed the timely question: “Why do they hate us? Politicians in fiction” - and in reality of course.
We heard from Gloria de Piero who toured the country as a newly elected MP asking this very question although she is one of the most likeable politicians you could meet; Alistair Beaton a leading satirist who wrote the Trial of Tony Blair; successful political stand up Matt Forde and Professor Steven Fielding of the University of Nottingham who has carried out extensive research about how politicians have been depicted in fiction over the last 30 years.
Prof. Fielding took us through some fascinating research which showed how drama has changed the way it depicted politicians and how this impacted on how the public felt about them.
There used to be depictions of politicians being basically decent people struggling to do the best job they could, but since the 1980’s this narrative began to change.
The central political insiders were no longer benign, they became bad. The insider was essentially corrupt, self serving and poisonous. We only need to look to the brilliant but brutal House of Cards – both the British original and American remake. Most commissioning editors aren’t looking for politics but when they do, they want simple primary colour characters. The malevolent insider or the plucky, innocent outsider – someone who almost by accident falls into politics and cleans it all up. The accidental “good” candidate is a popular cliché from Robert Redford in The Candidate to Marty Huggins/Zac Galifianakis in The Campaign to Jane Horrocks in the Amazing Mrs Pritchard.
There is very little drama or fiction which captures the reality of most political life or which tries to reflect the fact that most politicians are pretty ordinary, mean well, try to make their constituencies better and struggle with a lot of low level drama and logistical crap on a daily basis while being hated by most people. Special Advisers and political hacks like to think they’re someone off the West Wing but I’m afraid The Thick Of It captured the absurdity of everyday politics and the fragility of the egos involved in the most painfully accurate manner. It made us weep with laughter although it didn’t exactly help endear MPs to its audience. The most human moment it captured was when the ever harassed Peter Mannion is trying to go the loo. “Where are going?” demands his adviser. “For a shit… I need some me time.”
None of us want to see our politicians escape the sharpest of satire and ridicule, indeed many of us wish something as good as Spitting Imagine would return to provide some kind of post Brexit accountability.
But anyone who cares about the state of our politics - and comics, satirists, playwrights, writers and creative folk generally do – does need to recognise that when healthy scepticism veers into utter contempt, that spells danger.
When people lose faith in politics, they reach for easy simplistic solutions. Populism becomes very attractive. And when people are told everyday that all politicians are corrupt bad people, things can get very dark.
We were all sickened by the murder of Jo Cox. It made us gasp for breath and reassess things. We took a moment to thank our MP on Twitter. But months down the track vitriol is back and coursing through our social media feeds and our political discourse.
A female MP recently told me she was going to have to move house because of the threats of violence. Gina Miller’s death threats aren’t even hidden – they pollute our timelines whether you want to see them or not. And the contempt for politicians is becoming so commonplace people don’t even realise they’re doing it. I called out someone on Twitter for sending a series of abusive tweets to Labour MPs and he said he didn’t use Twitter that often and that he couldn’t understand why I was calling him a bully. He thought what he was doing was normal. It was so casual.
Politics is serious, passionate and the decisions are often life and death. Our MPs must be held robustly to account whether it’s to expose a scandal like the expenses or to scrutinise them over their decision making or even just to take the piss. But if you feed a nation a diet of political hate and contempt and you depict every politician as inherently rotten and ignoble, you create a dangerous vacuum.
We need to restore trust in our politics. We need far better politics – there is no doubt there. But every one of us who cares about the need for good politics, has also got a responsibility to not do the lazy, predictable thing of trashing all politicians all the time. They are human. They do try to do good. Well most of them anyway.
By the way, that was also the view of Matt Forde and Alistair Beaton. And when the stand ups and the satirists are saying that, you know things are pretty bad out there.