Our politics is a hodgepodge of self-contradiction

British politics rests on the foundation of a series of platitudes that almost everyone holds to be true. Britain should have a universal health service free at the point of use. Britain shouldn’t go to war without the acquiescence of the United Nations. British sovereignty should not be surrendered to the European Union. Criminals should be punished for their crimes.

All of these platitudes, these should-shouldn’t statements, are considered self-evident. They are their own argument. If you state your belief in the platitude and are then asked ‘Why?’ you will have no non-circular response. And it is this sort of belief that drives the party political battle, the media coverage and, ultimately, voter preferences. The party that succeeds is the party that does the best job of convincing the electorate that it is identifiable with these statements. If a party is associated with these things in the popular mind and it is not utterly contaminated by the impression of incompetence or corruption, then it will win elections.

That describes the mechanism of our politics; we also have to ask whether such a politics is flawed or not. The answer is: not necessarily. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with this way of doing politics, but it does represent a threat to political coherence. People treat these platitudes, these should-shouldn’t statements, very much in isolation. Seeing as we either agree with these simple formulations or disagree, the tendency is to allow ourselves to be governed by our immediate impulse. The difficult job of trying to plot these different platitudes against each other, to identify cross-linkages and potential conflicts, to see the political life of the country as a complex, organic whole is not often performed.

The politics of platitudes is a politics of isolated and frequently contradictory beliefs. Now, it isn’t necessarily a problem if a voter’s political beliefs lack coherence, unless politicians acquiesce in that incoherence by lapsing into a cynical populism. The contradictory beliefs of the voter are supposed to be filtered out and allowed for by the political resistance of the politicians, but if politicians are unwilling to perform this mediating function then at best you will have an incoherent political discourse, and at worse an incoherent government policy.

And we can see both of those things happening at the moment. Let’s set two widely held platitudes alongside each other:

  1. The power to run hospitals and schools should be in the hands of doctors, nurses and teaches, not those of politicians and civil servants.
  2. If there is a media story about something that has gone wrong in the provision of our public services then the Prime Minister and the Cabinet should take decisive action to solve the problem.

Voters of all different political persuasions if prompted to talk about politics will often express these views and politicians of all parties can be heard intoning these things constantly on radio and television programmes. Devolution of power to our devoted doctors and nurses has become one of the clichés of our times – always good for a loud cheer on Question Time. We should leave them to get on with their jobs, to carry out their training, and to deliver world-class care to patients rather than allowing the ignorant, know-it-all man at Whitehall to tie them up in knots as if he knew better how to do their job than they did. But then you hear of a scandal with hospital cleanliness and infection in a hospital in Kent and every politician – every member of the public too – wants decisive central action from the government to ensure that this sort of thing can never happen again.

The obvious inconsistency goes unreported and apparently unnoticed. The fact that devolving power to public service professionals is incompatible with this sort of knee-jerk executive response to failure seems to be the ungraspable fact of politics. Because the voters believe these two different things it becomes politically impossible to discard the rhetoric of decentralisation and empowerment of public service professionals; and impossible to stand austerely still and quiet whilst the media recycles endless stories about incompetence. Incoherence is sacrificed to the exigency of satisfying competing imperatives.

Two possible solutions present themselves. A better educated, more nuanced, more holistic public who are better able to understand the frequent incompatibility of political beliefs is one. The other is a franker, more sophisticated, braver political class which is unafraid to frustrate the media or to explain to the public that political contradictions mean that they cannot always gain immediate satisfaction on all fronts.

I hold out little hope for either. It seems much more likely that we will have to continue to put up with people cheering for both sides and the politicians cheerleading for both.

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2 Responses to “Our politics is a hodgepodge of self-contradiction”

  1. M T Fury Says:

    “A better educated, more nuanced, more holistic public who are better able to understand the frequent incompatibility of political beliefs is one.”

    You’ll be lucky. The British public have been purposefully socially and philosophically castrated, on the whole by liberal-left-elitists, to fit in with the authoritarian equalitarianism so beloved of them. The Permanent Revolutionist ideology of the neo-Trotskyists now in power (not in No. 10 and Parliament but in the halls of academia and the NGO’s) means that their is a complete fug in the minds of most people in the UK, an inability to make a rational choice because at anymoment a word phrase or behaviour might fall foul of the PC thought police; the average Joe Sixpacks, much like the characters in 1984, spend their time hoping to God we are still at war with Eastasia, not whether war is right or wrong.

    “The other is a franker, more sophisticated, braver political class which is unafraid to frustrate the media or to explain to the public that political contradictions mean that they cannot always gain immediate satisfaction on all fronts.”

    Hahahahahahahah – have you been sniffing glue? The entire problem for people is the post 1945 political class, the libertine, deviant, liberal, interfering, tyrannical demagogues whose petty interference in the most minuscule matters of peoples personal thoughts feelings and feelings has driven us to the point we are at today.
    This collection of ersatz Mussolinis and Stalins – who are the paid up bitches of the media elites- are maintained in power by the mentally stultified, broken down sheeple you believe could be better informed. They needed an educated mass for the purposes of work. They no longer do, simply passive consumers.
    The notion that an overfed overpaid pig like Brown could ever tell the masses that “Daddy need to take away baby’s toys”, that the consumerist society is heading down the tubes etc is laughable. They – the political class – wont tell us publicly the end is near until 2 minutes before the end.

    What a joke.

    ‘We control life, Winston, at all its levels. You are imagining that there is something called human nature
    which will be outraged by what we do and will turn against us. But we create human nature. Men are infinitely malleable. Or perhaps you have returned to your old idea that the proletarians or the slaves will
    arise and overthrow us
    . Put it out of your mind. They are helpless, like the animals. Humanity is the Party.
    The others are outside , irrelevant.

    ‘I don’t care. In the end they will beat you. Sooner or later they will see you for what you are, and then theywill tear you to pieces.’
    ‘Do you see any evidence that that is happening? Or any reason why it should?’
    ‘No. I believe it. I know that you will fail. There is something in the universe, I don’t know, some spirit, some principle, that you will never overcome.’
    ‘Do you believe in God, Winston?’
    ‘No.’
    ‘Then what is it, this principle that will defeat us?’
    ‘I don’t know. The spirit of Man.’
    ‘And do you consider yourself a man?.’
    ‘Yes.’
    If you are a man, Winston, you are the last man. Your kind is extinct; we are the inheritors. Do you understand that you are alone? You are outside history, you are non−existent.’
    1984

  2. adammcnestrie Says:

    First of all, the article does make the point that I don’t think either of those ameliorations is likely.

    Second of all, you seem to have attacked almost every possible political designation. You are against Trotskyists and liberals, and then you go on to imply that Orwell’s totalitarian nightmare has come true. That in spite of the fact that ours is a democratic regime completely at odds with the sort of modernist totalitarianism that Orwell was warning us against. I am quite cynical myself and my own politics is a confused critique of almost as many other political views as you attack, but I think that you take your cynicism too far and make your attack too indiscriminant.

    Is the more relevant dystopian fiction not Huxley’s Brave New World where control is much subtler and where no one – but savage man – realises that everything is deeply wrong?

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