Fascinated by politics, bored by policy

I’m fascinated by politics, utterly absorbed by it. I hoover up columns, yearn for the backbench pantomime shrieks of PMQs and lust (contra my usual sexual proclivities) for the BBC’s tireless, jug-earred Andrew Marr. But I have no interest in a lot of the subject matter of politics: much of policy just bores me.

You can probably infer as much from my list. It’s the bilious polemic of a columnist that I want, or the absurdly ritualised rhetorical gladitorialism of PMQs, or the mellifluous manner of Marr that I go to politics for. I want the war of ideas expressed in colourful language, the theatrical presentation of power battles, to spend time with a cast of shrewd but winning media characters whether it be the wry Jonathan Dimbleby or the sneering Andrew Neil. Politics for me is an intellectual playground, a partisan imbroglio, a personal struggle for supremacy. And therein lies the fascination.

Politics engages me in some of the same ways as sport does and some of the same ways as literature. Politics has fierce competition between viscerally opposed blocks of supporters; it has public personas with whom we can engage – the veteran streetfighter, the loveable rogue, the mercurial genius; it has the great set-piece occasions – the State Opening of Parliament, the budget, General Election day; and it has a whole mass of parasites and camp-followers in the punditocracy and the lobbyists and the trade unionists. Those basic, animalistic parts of us that want to band together with others like us, to compete and to win, but most importantly to belong and to care – politics satisfies that.

And like literature it provides us with a treasure trove of ideas and narratives and metaphors; with anecdotes and jokes and rumours; with complex psychological characters struggling in a world of realities to live out their ideals and their moralities; and it gives us a world not our own to escape to – somewhere that we can feel involved without feeling responsible.

That’s what politics is to me and that’s why I follow it. And because of what interests me about politics I follow it unevenly. Certain stories and certain modes of discussion have no interest for me whatsoever. I’m not interested in hearing about the worthy constituency work that an MP has done calling attention to the plight of exploited fruitpickers they represent. I can’t pretend to want to know about the details of the new government White Paper on integrated transport policy. I’m not even sure what that means. Select Committees and Commons Statements and high-minded discussion of – well, almost any aspect of policy bore me.

And in an information rich age with a media willing to respond to my every whim, I don’t have to pay any attention to these excrescences on politics. I am free to devote myself entirely to the voyeuristic perusal of stories about personality and power politics; no one is there to force me to look past the glossy surface of things or to penetrate the miasma of gossip. I can continue to follow politics with a cynical ironic detachment as if it didn’t determine the lives of everyone in the country in very important ways. As if it were rugby.

I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this aesthetic fascination with politics, but in finding the details, the substance that anchor it in the world uninteresting. I’m just a member of the herd, a paradigm example of an alarming alienation that has developed in our politics. And the class most heavily affected by this detachment, this facility for seeing politics as a game, is the media.

The media stand at one stage of removal from politics: they contemplate politics from outside, way things up, and write and talk to microphone or camera. Government – what it actually is to govern – is foreign to them. That distance and the sort of … egotism that we all fall into means that to much of the media politics has come to seem to exist to form the subject matter for their stories, rather than the media to exist to write stories about the practical implications of politics. The media now, driven by its own boredom, a result of the sheer amount of time that it has to watch politicians going about the dreary nonsense of legislating and governing, has started to confuse the political realm with a surface of personal struggles and divided parties. When it looks it is wilfully blind: it sees a part and takes it for the whole.

This concerns me. It concerns me because I’m worried that the relentless focus on the interesting part of politics may severely distort the practice of politics as a whole. We might vote for the wrong candidates, like Boris Johnson in London; and, perhaps even more seriously, politicians, unable to follow the political green-cross code, may be unable to look both ways and may stop paying attention to the tedious substance of their profession.

But perhaps this isn’t as serious as it sounds. Perhaps this is forgivable self-indulgence. Or perhaps it is a harmless, basically structural feature of our politics. Commentators often proclaim that ideology is dead; that might be going a bit far, but it is certainly an etiolated, sickly presence in our politics. Consensus is a stupid word for political parties that abuse each other so much, but mainstream politics is almost entirely lacking in truly fundamental dividing lines. And within such a political structure, you get a technocratic politics: we elect whoever we think will be best at operating the state machinery. That might be the most experienced people or the most trustworthy; those who seem freshest, those who seem smartest, or maybe even those who seem most like us. If that is all that is fundamentally at stake – if government is just being contracted out to the politicians who can make the strongest claim to competence – then a media and a public who don’t want to hear the details about the Common Agricultural Policy might not matter. Still – it’s a big risk to take.

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