Thursday, October 11, 2007

White (Brown) lies and the stupidity of politics

I’ve just had an offer accepted on a flat in north London (one of the less trendy parts), which is all very exciting. There are still a lot of steps to go, but it’s looking like I might just be settled in by Christmas. One phrase from the process made me think of Gordon Brown, though. No, not ‘this is going to cost me’. Rather, it was ‘subject to survey’.

I think this flat is pretty decent. But possibly a closer look at the detail will reveal that it isn’t, in which case I’ll have to walk away from the deal. If so, will I have ‘bottled it’? Would that be cowardice?

Of course not. If something you’d provisionally planned to do suddenly turns out to look like a worse idea than you’d expected, it’s perfectly good sense to back out. Hence Brown: his early election plans were, naturally, subject to surveys of public opinion.

What actually reflected badly on Brown was not deciding against the election, but instead the thing that prompted him to do so: the sudden Tory poll boost from their party conference. But that, clearly, is something that would have been bad for him in any circumstances.

The other thing that reflected badly on him was his obviously untrue explanation for not calling an election. I won’t even bother to quote it, so piss-poor was the blather, but here’s a thing: was it really a reprehensible piece of deception?

I remember in the 1997 election campaign, Michael Heseltine went around saying he was confident of a Tory majority of around 60. In the final few days, he amended this to “60, nudging up”. In the face of Labour’s massive leads, everyone knew he didn’t really think this.

But nobody cared. It was just one of those things politicians say that aren’t true in order to keep a certain narrative officially alive. It was a move in the political-media game, which – while inane – was in accordance with the informal rules and not something that actually harmed anyone or constituted impropriety. Heseltine’s lie wasn’t reprehensible, because it wasn’t actually an attempt to deceive. He knew it was false; we knew that he knew this; he knew that we knew that he knew…

And so to Brown. David Cameron taunted him yesterday, saying: “The Prime Minister was asked, ‘Hand on heart, if the polls showed a 100-seat majority, would you still have called off the election?’ and he said yes. Does he expect anyone to believe that?”

But that’s exactly the point: Brown’s explanation was literally unbelievable – and he knew it. And we knew that he knew, and so forth. It wasn’t an attempt to deceive but just a declarative holding position from which to have rotten fruit thrown at him for a while. It made him look bad, of course, but the alternative would have been worse.

Much political debate – whether between opposition and government or between media interviewer and politician – has become a matter of ‘trying to trip the other guy up’ vs ‘trying not to give anything away that would trip me up’. It’s largely a charade, and all involved know it’s largely a charade, but they can’t give it up: whoever blinks first gets ritually flayed.

One aspect of this ridiculous game is that politicians are supposed to maintain the line that they don’t pay any attention to opinion polls or even really care about popularity at all. We all know that this is weapons-grade balderdash, of course. Every political leader pays close attention to polls, and hopes for good ratings. All politicians want to be popular and win elections. Only if we expect them to be heroically selfless, noble philosopher-kings is that a fault. We don’t, I think, really demand that, but there somehow seems to be a collective expectation that they should talk as though they are.

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