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Monday, 17 November 2008

Political Apathy? No: Quiet Desperation

14 November 2008

Partly by accident and partly for reasons we mischievously prefer not to disclose, we found ourselves landing on a wee-small-hours discussion on TV between Andrew Neil and historian David Marquand. The latter had some quite implausibly nice things to say about Mr Tony Blair, but at least recognized that the man – a history graduate – had no sense of history. Yet he seemed as puzzled as anyone else by his finding (apparently, he has piles of data on this in his new book, Britain Since 1918: The Strange Career Of British Democracy) that over the last decade or more the British people have learned to trust politicians less and less, and now distrust them as never before. The result has been a kind – and I must stress that word – of political apathy. To counter it, politicians have come up from time to time with bright ideas, none of which work.
            Quite why this state of affairs is a puzzle to politicians is itself a puzzle, at least for as long as one forgets how few of today’s British politicians have done much in the world outside politics. As David Marquand remarked, Mr Blair (for example) had never managed anything or anyone until he became Prime Minister and had to manage not just a country but (as far as anyone can) its allies and enemies. From such a position it must be difficult to see that in the last half-century politicians have mattered, and influenced, less and less in the matter of how the country is actually run, and even more difficult to admit it even if one suspected as much.
             Government as we know it down on the street has nothing to do with politicians. It has everything to do with bureaucrats and jobsworths: this is where real people encounter real government. The actuality of this new faceless politics manifests itself everywhere, from encounters with officious parking wardens, to the outlandish exploitation of anti-terrorist laws to watch how we dispose of household rubbish, to the spread of ‘managers’ like a cancer throughout the National Health Service. Here is a gem that we treasure as we do the AIDS virus and the curly red hair we hope never to find floating in our G&T: Elfin Safety, innit. Hawkers of Remembrance Day poppies are now prohibited from giving one a pin with which to attach the poppy to one’s raiment unless they deem one an “appropriate person”. By some bizarre loophole one is still permitted to take a pin for oneself, should it be proffered. This privilege will doubtless have been withdrawn in time for next year’s commemoration of those who died for our…er, liberty.
            In a less dreamlike world this would be funny. But it is of a piece with the grotesque spectacle of a civil servant, the amazing Sharon Shoesmith (under whose administration the 17-month-old ‘Baby P’ was slowly tortured to death) blithely refusing to take responsibility for what happened on her watch and even more carelessly remarking that “You cannot stop people who are determined to kill children”. Nothing could more chillingly reveal the arrogant insulation of the bureaucratic mind – not just from real life, which is bad enough, but from any notion of the public service they and their staff are supposed to perform. We had – well, pardon our presumption – thought that people like Ms Shoesmith were permitted to adorn our age so prosperously precisely in order to prevent such horrors as this, and with at least a modest sense of urgency. If Ms Shoesmith had any contact with the meaning of the words that dripped so easily from her mouth, she would already have fired all her staff and then decently shot herself. Her remark condemns the lot of them, and herself, as redundant, ineffectual, otiose, pointless, and a waste of public funds. And who could disagree?
            But what we know (and fear), and the politicians apparently don’t, is that politicians don’t and won’t make any difference to any of this. So of course people are apathetic about politics: they see, daily, where the real power lies, and know that nothing can be done about the leeches and parasites who wield it. This makes people dumbly, cumulatively, sourly angry. Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way. It is what we talk about in pubs, at corner-shop tills and in service-station forecourts, over brandy and cigars after dinner. If politicians want us to be less apathetic – before we stick their heads on pikes on London Bridge, or whatever nasty form the eventual backlash takes – they would do well to reimpose the authority we naïvely elect them to assert over their – and more to the point, our – minions.

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