04 February 2013
I commented on Twitter ‘What’s wrong with politics is not the sins of Chris Huhne, it’s the gloating and sneering that will ensue.’ The gloating and sneering ensued and I was criticised for suggesting Huhne did not deserve this treatment. That’s not quite what I said, but we’ll let that pass. Either way, what I meant was not that Huhne was not culpable but that the g & s had certain effects which I shall come to in a moment.
The first and most obvious point to make is that justice will be adequately served without the sniping of the Twitter tricoteuses who, let’s face it, were only piling in either for traffic or, priggishly, to feel good about themselves by agreeing with what the mob was saying. The second point is that, foolish as Huhne may have been, the disaster that has overwhelmed him should inspire a degree of compassion. That, I know, in the present climate is laughable.
But it’s the third point about the wider effects of gloating and sneering which is the most important. Such is the savage attention now devoted to politicians that no wise person would think of entering that profession. This has been true for twenty years or more and, as a result, we now suffer under the leadership of mediocrities. There is no Gladstone or Disraeli among the present crop, no Thatcher or Churchill, and there never will be again if we go on like this. Perhaps it doesn’t matter, perhaps we just need bloodless, pale-faced party managers who think it’s all about competitive g & s. One of the most disturbing things Peter Mandelson ever said to me was that Westminster was “exactly” like The Thick of It. So Mandy, apparently, was intensely relaxed not just about people getting rich but also about a political class that cared only for self-advancement and for whom the good of the country was nothing more than press release boiler plate.
Maybe, just maybe, if we started treating these people with respect we might, in, say, twenty years, acquire people of substance at the top. It has to be worth a try.
There was a further twist to the attack on my position. @CharlesCrawford said g & s “send a vital market signal to all politicians not to cheat and lie”. This draws attention to one of the prime superstitions of our age. It is always handy to impose an ideological reductionism on debate – handy and harmless so long as we remember the reduced term is a metaphor. So, for example, Heraclitus may well have literally believed that nature was an ‘ever-living fire’ but that becomes, on examination, absurd. But Buddha, in the Fire Sermon, said the world of desire and suffering was fire, which was a great truth precisely because it was a metaphor.
Fire, in our time, is the market. Everything, we are told, is reducible to a market. This, in part, arises from a very strange reading of Darwin but also from the triumph of neo-liberalism in the seventies and eighties. It can be made to work as an idea if you stretch the meaning of ‘market’ to the point where it becomes, in fact, meaningless. This is fine as long as you remember it’s a metaphor with certain very limited explanatory powers. It obviously isn’t literally true that natural selection works like a market and it certainly isn’t meaningful to see human behaviour as a market – unless you’re a psychopath and, admittedly, there are more of them than one would like. In this context the use of gloating and sneering can be seen as a prime example of market failure. We’ve been doing it for twenty or more years and out politicos are more badly behaved and less competent than ever. Again, being nice to them might be worth a try……