Nation of self-haters desperately seeks scapegoat with power, privilege and GSOH

I’m not angry about Wendy Alexander’s resignation, I’m saddened by it. Sometimes things that happen in the political world disclose us to ourselves in our full hideous transparency – and this is one of those times. I’m ashamed to be a part of that politics today. A people which treats its politicians in this way deserves to be unequivocally condemned. Wendy Alexander didn’t resign because she technically, but insignificantly, breached the rules – she resigned because ours is a political culture in which a politician cannot expect to be disinterestedly appraised and fairly treated. The unscrupulous media and its mean-spirited, malicious constituency have combined to create an invidious political culture of suspicion, in which the worst is thought of everyone who contaminates themselves by coming into contact with politics.

In this skewed, dystopian vision of our politics politicians are greedy, lazy, corrupt, mendacious and self-interested. Crucially, they are not like you and I. Don’t think for a moment that they are a disparate collection of people brought up in all sorts of different backgrounds, with their varying aptitudes, conflicting views and heterogeneous motives; some of them good people, some of them bad; some hacks and bunglers, others people of indisputable talent. No, they are part of a completely different category of person, homogenous in their crucial characteristics, and different in kind from the ordinary people of this country. As a body of men and women they cannot be trusted. Unless we subject them to the tightest controls, and the most demeaning scrutiny, then they will lie to us and steal from us.

Britain hates its politicians. As a class of people we hold them in complete contempt and that’s what I want to try and explain. The British don’t really hate their politicians, they hate themselves. All of the blanket accusations and the cynical statements represent a projected self-hatred. The British people don’t know their politicians well enough to hate them; hate is something intimate and particular, full of insistent details and claustrophobic knowledge. Our politicians are distant figures, an army of abstractions glimpsed in the media, the great majority of their behaviour unseen and their actual motives impenetrable. When we growl at the Question Time panellists or write a bilious email to a newspaper editor about MPs and their scandalous expenses, we aren’t engaging with a fully manifest reality. We’re creating fictional characters, ciphers on whom we hang characteristics. How the hell we would we know? We don’t. We assume. We create the type of the corrupt politician because it serves our purposes and then we extrapolate back from that to characterise the behaviour of MPs.

Just look at the way that the things that we accuse our politicians of: greed, corruption, self-interest, mendacity: Our politicians are composite figures of all of the worst things that we think about ourselves, all the thing that we are secretly concerned that we might be. Britain is worried that it has sold out, that it will do anything for money. It is tortured by the sense that morality has been dissolved by egoism and hedonism. In a godless world, leached of ideology, saturated with irony, beguiled by relativism, when we try to think what we should do, everything seems permissible. The calculating, greedy, lying man without fixed principles or scruples is the pathological personality of the age – the person that each of us is terrified of becoming.

All the loathing that we feel for this type is concentrated therapeutically on our political leaders: the first men and women of the country, the most obvious bearers for its self-accusation. Politicians are apt for the role because they are figures of unquestioned privilege and power. Through Parliament politicians wield the supreme power in the land – remarkably untrammelled power in this land of the imaginary constitution – and we resent them as every slave resents his master, as every subaltern resents his superaltern. Except that in Britain this resentment is swollen by a venerable tradition of suspicion directed against government, a jealousy felt towards those in power. When we want to celebrate this trait we say that we are great lovers of liberty. One could just as well say that we have a touchy over-sensitiveness that makes it difficult to look up to anyone.

And so we have sacrificed Wendy Alexander to the anxiety we feel about our own corruption. In doing so we have revealed ourselves as a nation of self-haters desperately seeking scapegoats, ever-ready to lash-out at the privileged, feeling relief only when we can humiliate someone and glut ourselves on schadenfreude.

I wonder, though, why we’ve looked past that other obvious target for our displaced hatred: the bankers, the hedge fund managers, the City Men. We know even less about these Square-Milers than we do about the bubble-dwellers of Westminster, but don’t we know enough? They are inexhaustibly, improbably rich (rich enough to pay for the importation of the luxury German-made prefix uber). They are about as powerful as anyone else in the world gets to be. And in recent years they have used their riches and their powers so irresponsibly that they have prompted a global financial cataclysm from which we are all now suffering. They seem to fit the profile perfectly to me. If our self-hatred has to be directed somewhere, and we can’t stand the force of it ourselves, perhaps we should start hating the financiers instead? That way we could salve our neurotic egos without destroying our politics.

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5 Responses to “Nation of self-haters desperately seeks scapegoat with power, privilege and GSOH”

  1. Trooper Thompson Says:

    Upon what do you base this self-hatred hypothesis? Personally, I don’t hate anyone

  2. adammcnestrie Says:

    I can’t prove it. It is a plausible conjecture. The popular attitude to politicians seems to be under-determined by the evidence of malbehaviour, so something else has to be going on. This is my theory…

  3. Silas Says:

    “Wendy Alexander didn’t resign because she technically, but insignificantly, breached the rules”

    No, you’re quite right there. She resigned because she breached the rules and the spirit of the rules, lied about it, lied about the lie and then was suspended. Being leader of the party and being suspended from the house is poor form in politics. Lying and then being caught out lying is worse form – qv Spelman.

    I recommend you read Guido’s series of posts about Ms Alexander before suggesting this was anything other than a deliberate and pre-meditated breach.

    YMMV, it’d be wrong, but it may vary.

  4. Neil Craig Says:

    But the financiers don’t tax us, they don’t tell us not to smoke or eat salt, they don’t try to frighten us with fake scare stories like global warming or WMDs arriving in 45 minutes. All they do is make enormous amounts of money by whatever it is they do.

    It is therefrore quite right that we hold politicians more accountable.

    That said most of the stuff about expenses is token nastiness. Wendy clearly was not making money out of this silliness, though the need for money in a campaign against nobody & the arrogance of not bothering about the rules suggests less than the enormous ability she was so often credited with. The real, but legal, corruption is that she & Labour generally were long time recipients of largesse from a property developer whose fortunes depended on getting lots of planning permission from Glasgow’s Labour rulers in a country where propoerty prices are up to 12/13ths regulatory rather than the cost of actual building.

    And sometimes politicians get a good press – look at Saint Donald, who blew £400 million of our hard earned on a memorial for himself.

  5. Tim Mason Says:

    People have always hated other people, and particularly so if they see little of them other than their distant representation. This seems to have become increasingly the case in so far as politicians are concerned; they now inhabit the same flickering world as minor television personalities and this week’s pop stars. They are on the other side of the screen, rather than in the real world.

    This is part of a general process which has led to much lamenting; football players no longer drink in the local pub, and Wifred Pickles will not be laying the money on the table at any town hall close to your home any time now. The big divide is not to be found between the super-rich and the ordinary, as one might expect or even hope it to be, but between those who are on one side of the screen and those who are on the other. Hence the multiple studies that have found that watching television makes people unhappy.

    The feelings of impotence and discontent are only exacerbated by reactions such as yours when one or another of the Great and Good are found to be acting dishonourably. The very fact that you or Jackie Ashley cannot see that Alexander’s behaviour took her beyond the Pale – beyond that magic land where politicians and their camp followers live their charmed lives – is itself a spur to further indignation. It signals that they – the politicians – are in that other place where ordinary rules are felt not to apply. (And they are ordinary rules ; if i were to play fast and loose with the moneys that I oversee at work, I’d be out on my ear if found out).

    You try to lay the blame on us. We try to lay the blame on politicians. But the processes – disembedding, the Iron Law of Oligarchy, and routinization – are well known enough. Although they may have some effect on the collective psyche (I use the term as a short-cut) it is the processes themselves that you need to understand if you and those on the other side of the screen are ever to find a way of reconnecting.

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