Could the ingenuity of the people be the answer to the infirmities of the geriatric octopus of government?

July 3, 2008

In the last couple of days Nick Clegg and David Cameron have both published ghost-written articles in the national press of the why-I’m-good-and-everyone-else-is-bad variety. We’ve also had the same article written in the third person from Cameron’s puppyish auxiliary, Ed Vaizey, in a fastest-finger-first response to a brutish and deeply un-Finkelsteinian Times leader which told the Tories off for being nebulous protest-vote anglers.

I like these articles. They are remarkably revealing because they tend to distil everything which the leaders of the major parties want you to believe about the political universe before they wave you off to the polling booth. In these pieces they try to embed an account of their own party’s beliefs in an analysis of the broad features of the political environment which demonstrates the necessity of their victory and the ineffectuality or irrelevance of their components. Unfortunately Brown hasn’t obliged us with an 800-word Prime Ministerial précis of all of the indispensable facts of the political world. Perhaps he has writers’ block; or perhaps those over-fastidious Comment editors (bastards, every last one of them) have been rebuffing him.

What I find so striking about these articles is how much they share, if you ignore the (in any case fungible) sneers and calumnies they direct at their opponents. Clegg, Cameron and Vaizey all talk about giving families or service users the power to control their own lives, spreading power, empowering people. A great discovery has been made at Westminster: the people are ingenious, capable and practical. Everything government wishes that it was. Government is a great lumbering titan, with concrete legs, an anachronistic leviathan, a geriatric octopus which never learn to say no; the people are lithe, elfin and alacritous. We will all be better off if we entrust their future to them. Bottom-up is the new top-down. Just listen to Clegg:

‘The Liberal Democrats’ belief in personal empowerment, in localising our public services and in community control is grounded in our belief that it is by giving individuals real control over their lives that we can create opportunities for all.’

Or Vaizey:

‘the solutions to many of society’s problems come from the bottom up, not the top down; … people, not governments, are best placed to make the best choices for their own and their families’ future.’

Yes, Cameron too:

‘If you give people more opportunity and power over their lives, they will behave more responsibly. This is the driving force behind all our reforms.’

I can’t resist throwing Brown in there as well. This from a speech he gave the other day on a special someone’s 60th birthday:

‘And because we know that first class quality of care cannot be mandated from the centre but requires us instead to give NHS staff the opportunity to lead change themselves, Ara Darzi has also made recommendations for how we can empower and set free NHS staff.’

This is coincidence isn’t aberrant; it is just the best example of a wider phenomenon. I could do the same thing with social mobility, environmentalism, ethical foreign policy and (perhaps even) tax policy. The point here is not that the parties are all the same. They aren’t. Cowering underneath these rhetorical gambits with their sibling quality is the detail; and here the parties do differ – importantly. The thing to notice is the novel way in which the parties are carrying on the political war in the public domain.

In the traditional Gladstonian-Disraelian politics the parties were divided clearly on Ireland, Empire, Civil Service Reform and whatever else they argued about in those days of portrait-painting and hackney carriages. They took up fixed positions vis-à-vis each other and the electorate, fighting a sort of attritional trench warfare, all resolution and stoicism. There was no doubt about what the Liberals stood for and what their implacable antagonists the Conservatives stood for: the Liberals were of one belief, the Conservatives -they believed the opposite. Tyro MPs entered the House and retired from it florid and stout, their faces overgrown with whiskers, without this changing.

This politics of clear distinctions and static positions has been marginalized (it lingers on over Europe and civil liberties). Its place has been usurped by a dynamic political war of movement in which remarkably footloose, flexible parties jostle with each other to occupy the same territory. That privileged territory – ever-expanding, contracting and elusive – is the Archimedean point of politics, the space disclosed by the aggregate views of the lusted-for swing voters. Opinion-polling and focus-groups mean that politics is now more sensitive to the beliefs of this vanguard of the mainstream than it has ever been before. In a system of this sort politics ceases to be about the strident, forceful articulation of a stance on the issues arising organically from the prejudices of the party. It becomes instead a fight to convince the key portions of the electorate that your party is the most authentic representative of certain favoured positions and values. Every party wants to be the party of empowerment (so that they might be the party in power), the battle will be won by the side that can appear as its most plausible advocate.

Instead of a politics in which voters are expected to look at the parties and appraise the right- or wrong-headedness of their positions, we have a new politics in which the parties are energetically pursuing an ideal-typical voter. The key to winning is not to disclose yourself in your full distinctiveness, but to convince the voters that your party represents the most effective embodiment of the mainstream views of the country. Essentially politics becomes about identity, authenticity and empathy. Political success is vouchsafed to whichever politicians can convince the strategically crucial voters that they are like them, that they genuinely share their concerns and feel a vital emotional affinity with them. In some sense the party leaders have to convince the voters that they are the most authentic representatives of the wisdom and values of the nation.

This can’t be achieved by articulating policy detail; that comes largely as an unscrutinised appendage. Success in appealing to these voters depends upon the subtle arts of self-presentation. But this is a new species of presentation, one that recognizes that what voters really want is to look at their politicians and see an alienated representation of themselves, one which appears authentic enough to disarm their scepticism. The politicians have started to realize this and it is a dark art that Cameron and Clegg are both experimenting with.

Advertisements

Once the rabbits of anti-government sentiment start breeding – they can’t be stopped

July 2, 2008

The gargantuan poll leads that the Conservatives have been racking up in recent weeks have got me thinking. Theoretically polls are a reflection of the views of the voters. There might be technical problems to do with the framing of questions and sampling methods which can bias a poll or limit its reliability, but everyone understands what a poll is for: it tells us which party people support. But as disastrous ICM poll precedes look-away You-Gov poll and succeeds to I’ll-just-go-and-kill-myself-then MORI poll I’m starting to realize that that’s too simple. Polls aren’t just reflections of our views; they’re determinants of them. We don’t just tell the pollsters what we think, we get the pollsters to tell us what to think. A feedback loop exists. Polls become self-reinforcing because the media coverage of polls is so insistent that respondents are aware of the sorts of things that previous respondents have been telling pollsters. It might just be that the polls that we set up as tools to help us understand the political environment better have started to remake that political environment behind our backs.

The way in which this works is very simple. Social views are contagious. The model of politics that sees us all as detached, rational individuals who can disengage themselves from the hurly-burly of day-to-day politics and come up with a voting preference using some sort of hybrid calculation encompassing principle and self-interest is deeply flawed. The politics of each individual voter is formed in the crucible of the wider political culture. We do contribute something ourselves, but we are all decisively influenced by the background against which we make our political decisions. Wider expectations, collective memories and pressures weigh upon us whether we want them to or not.

Brace yourself: I’m about to attempt a Finkelstein. In the 1950’s an American social psychologist called Solomon Asch ran a series of experiments on conformity. Asch told his participants that they were going to participate in a ‘vision test.’ He then placed them in a room of confederates and showed them pictures of lines before asking them various questions about their relative lengths. The participants had to give their answers in front of the group after the confederates had answered. In the control condition, when they were on their own, participants got only 1 in 35 questions wrong; when they answered after the confederates deliberately and unanimously gave the wrong answer, participants got 37% of the questions wrong. (How did I do Danny?)

Asch found that even when the question at issue is very simple, people show a remarkable tendency to conform to their peer group. This pressure exerts itself through several different mechanisms. There is a positive attraction to conformity. People like to feel the sense of solidarity that comes from believing the same thing as everyone else. Call it the ‘cult effect.’ Then there is the disinclination to stand against the overwhelming will of the group. Most people don’t want to be seen as outsiders and find it traumatic to be labeled as cranks or eccentrics. If you hold a view which is preponderantly controverted then the social cost of sticking to that view increases. We can call this the ‘loneliness effect.’ Finally, conformity transmits itself via honest self-doubt. Particularly when the subject at issue is complicated if we see that everyone disagrees with us, we doubt ourselves. Unless we are absolutely certain that our position is the right one, we might choose to accept the majority position on authority – especially if a lot of people with a good claim to expertise are amongst this group. This is the ‘anxiety effect.’

So the political balance of power, although it responds to triggers and shocks, is partly determined by these self-sustaining, systemic movements of opinion. Just as with business growth you see the multiplier effect in operation; the rabbits of anti-government sentiment breed. And this sort of understanding of politics isn’t limited to polling.

Just as poll respondents aren’t coming to political identification in some sort of political state of grace, shorn of history and social pressures, we all form our political views from amidst a dense, holistic system of influences. Day after day we absorb the news stories chosen by a dozen pivotal political editors, form our views on the basis of what plausible, trustworthy Nick Robinson has to say, or get a sense of what’s going on behind closed-doors at Westminster by reading Jackie Ashley. There is a pervasive – if heterogeneous – media telling us via television, print, the internet and the radio what to make of the raw data of things happening in the political world. And then there are wider networks constituted by the asides of comedians, the gripes of work colleagues and the quips of friends: the politics half-concealed in the folds of communal life. We are so deeply embedded in all of this that it is impossible to imagine ourselves out of it. But the impossibility of stepping out of it means that we forget all too often the extent to which it makes our minds up for us, or to which it limits the views which we can acceptably or comfortably hold.

Coldplay finally released their new album on 12 June. Don’t tell anyone, but thanks to the good people at Mininova I had been able to procure a very reasonably priced electronic copy of the album at the start of the month. I listened to the album quite happily for about ten days, chain-listening to it at times, and thinking that it represented an honourable addition to a back catalogue that I was very fond of. But then I started to read the reviews. I learned that it was insipid and samey; that it wasn’t bold enough, didn’t experiment sufficiently; that there was no Trouble here, no Clocks: the album, in short, was a disappointment, a hype-puncturer. And after that I found it hard to listen to the album without thinking about the reviews, without thinking the things that I had read in the reviews. It became more and more difficult to hold onto my own favourable view of the album and not to surrender myself to the detractors. I’m not really listening to the album anymore.

I think this Coldplay phenomenon is at the heart of Labour’s current problems. When the newspaper columnists savage Brown day after day and Humphrys is so scornful to government ministers, when the Question Time audience is reflexively negative and the people at work badmouth the government in that tone of voice that invites (and expects) cheap acquiescence, it becomes very difficult to think of the government without thinking about the reviews. I have been a strong Labour supporter for a number of years now. For three months I even worked for the party. Without pay. In an unheated room. In mid-Winter. But even I am finding it very difficult to support the government. To snipe and moan and carp and sneer is so tempting. Part of me just wants to surrender to the join-in schadenfreude of the media. I think I would find it very satisfying to give in.

And that’s Labour’s problem. As with the Conservatives in the 1990’s the psychological cost of supporting the government, of defending such a view to oneself and others against the almost irresistible strength of the consensus, is too great for most people. To actively support a Labour government which is being so universally condemned requires an incredibly robust and self-contained temperament. And that goes a long way towards explaining the 3% vote in Henley and the desertion of donors: the vast majority of people who are sympathetic to Labour do not have the strength to actively support them. Labour supporters, right the way up to the Cabinet, are falling into a self-questioning funk or surrendering themselves to despair, because they are being forced to operate within an environment in which their views are constantly challenged and undermined. At the moment it seems to have broken their will.

Clarke’s Constitutional Fix: Make Scottish MPs more like me

July 1, 2008

I’ve just realised what’s so funny about Ken Clarke’s surprisingly modest proposals to resolve the West Lothian problem. The changes he recommends are supposed to protect English people from colonial rule by technicality (the deliciously hyperbolic “Scottish Raj”) and Parliament from the criticism that it is illegitimate. But what they do instead is protect Scottish MPs from boring, humbrum Committee work.

The proposals preserve the right of Scottish MPs to vote on the Second and Third readings of Bills – the decisive votes on the broad principle of a piece of legislation. Clarke has designed a system in which Scottish MPs would still be privileged with the right to design the laws, but without actually having to go through the tedious process of making them clause by clause in the Parliamentary workshop. Clarke’s Parliament sans West Lothian punishes the Scottish MPs for the Holyrood Parliament by leaving all their important powers in place, whilst divesting their jobs of a great deal of ponderousness. Defying everything that we have learnt from superhero didacticism, he wants to allow these MPs to keep their great power, whilst disencumbering them of their great (but wearisome) responsibility.

This becomes funnier still when you think that this is exactly the sort of role that Ken Clarke has been playing in the Conservative Party for the last ten years. Since he left government in 1997 Clarke has remained one of the most respected Conservatives in the country and one of the most influential members of his own party, in spite of his reluctance to bestir himself from his corpulent Bagpuss-slumber to take on frontbench responsibilities.

Is it possible that Clarke has been tasked with solving this great constitutional problem by his leader, one which could at some point seriously delegitimise parliament, and that all he’s done is to decide that they should invent a new category of politician – the idling-Scotsmen – who ought to have the privilege of voting on matters of principle, whilst detachedly surveying the scene from a magisterial height like a hawk, swaying hearts and minds through sheer weight of presence in the tea rooms, swaggering through the lobbies on the way to the divisions on Second and Third readings – but without having to condescend to furrow their brows over the syntactical quagmire of lawyer-begotten legislation, draft unintelligible, irrelevant amendments, ask questions of expert witnesses to which no one wants to hear the answer, and sweat ignominiously through never-ending never-to-be-replaced afternoons in fetid Committee rooms like greenhorn MPs who are delighted when just anyone at all at Westminster remembers their name?

Well… is it?

I like the idea. If Cameron does accept Clarke’s plan – and apparently he thinks it ‘elegant’ (an ironic gibe aimed at Clarke’s dishevelled chic?) – then we might just get the two classes of politician that make the constitutional lawyers so nauseous. There will be the English mules, ridden to death across the ever-proliferating Andes of Criminal Justice Bills, and the idling-Scotsmen – a species of puttering, flaneur politicians ripe with the bonhomie that comes from knowing that whilst the mules can do things that they can’t, they don’t want to do them anyway. Not when they could have a nice nap, then a languid cup-of-tea, followed by a complacent tete-a-tete with an indulgent lobby journalist who finds their style of laid-back, raconteur politician altogether more appealing than that of their legislatively-addled colleagues in unhappy Albion.

60 Years on Labour is no longer the party of the NHS

June 30, 2008

If the results of a YouGov poll published in the Daily Telegraph this morning are anything to go by, Labour is no longer the party of the NHS. Only 1 in 5 respondents to the poll – commissioned to coincide with the publication of the Darzi Report – believed that Labour would improve the health service over the next ten years. Even more tellingly, 31% of voters now think that the Conservatives would do the best job of running the NHS, with only 23% nominating Labour.

These figures seem to reflect an underlying shift in the standard people are judging the parties against on the NHS. In the past people favoured Labour on the NHS because they needed someone who could be “trusted.” After eighteen years of Conservative neglect, people thought that Labour would run the NHS better because it had the political will to do whatever was necessary to “save the NHS” from middle-class flight and chronic under-investment. This faith came from the understanding that in some way a National Health Service free at the point of use was considered constitutive of the Labour Party; the two were so closely intertwined that one could hardly exist without the other.

Fast-forward ten years and that sense that the NHS is in mortal danger is gone. The challenges facing the health service are suddenly much more prosaic. Value, efficiency and quality are what people are looking to government for. 44% of poll respondents think “a great deal” of money is being wasted on the NHS; 38% more think that “a fair amount” is being wasted. 78% think that the NHS has too many managers. People don’t seem to want the party with the strongest emotional attachment to the NHS anymore. The NHS doesn’t need to be “saved,” it needs to be run more efficiently and less bureaucratically. After the Credit Crunch, Northern Rock and its bungled tax reforms, the voters no longer trust Labour to run things well. Labour has become the party of mismanagement. Instead when managerial efficiency is the country’s desideratum, people are increasingly turning to the Conservatives.

The government has implicitly recognised this change from a politics of emotion, to one based on cost-benefit analysis through its endorsement of Lord Darzai’s report. The report’s recommendations all aim squarely at delivering improved quality. Hospitals and GPs will be given incentives for good treatment; patient feedback will be published; choice will become a legislative right. The government’s focus is to be placed relentlessly on improved outcomes: an NHS that moves more quickly on approving drugs, that tailors its care to the individual needs of the patient, that minimises the danger of hospital-acquired infection. It all sounds very business-like, very efficient. One imagines that a management consultant would approve. Undoubtedly this is the smart approach politically, but – as an unavoidable corollary of the strengths of this approach – it resists neat media-friendly portrayal and could easily leave people in the weeks ahead without any clear sense of what it will involve. Johnson has memorably talked about this as ‘a once-in-a-generation opportunity,’ but I’m worried that there is too much disconnect between such rhetoric and the unglamorous substance of the report.

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

June 29, 2008

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.

Wimbledon is a theatre of cruelty; the European Championships, the crucible of chauvinism

June 28, 2008

One of the blessings of my life is the way in which the great sporting calendar disperses the monotony of undifferentiated time. In the same way in which the changing of the seasons saves us from a sense of stagnancy and changelessness, the procession of sporting gala events from the Snooker World Championships, to the US Open of golf, to the European Championships in football, to Wimbledon to the Olympics give local colour to lives that tend to stay broadly the same from one year to the next. We live in the same cities, work the same jobs, live in the same houses, make our lives with the same people; but sport embodies the variety principle, breaking in on the things that stubbornly resist change.

And so for the last couple of weeks I’ve been living and dying with that great artist of gesticulation, Fatih Terim; laughing familiarly at the wry wit of Martin Lawrenson; and singing along inanely to that song they place when someone scores. Even before the sporting Goddess of Plenty finishes feeding us the European Championships, she has already started urging us on to glorious super-satiety by offering us a fortnight of Wimbledon. This time it’s the charm of McEnroe’s yankee candour, the languid endlessness of the days and Nadal’s flashing Conan-the-barbarian arms.

This opening two paragraph paean is my attempt to atone for what I’m about to say. Whilst satisfying our gluttonous appetites for sport, Wimbledon and the European Championships have been busy showing us a very ugly picture of what we are like. They stand as twin testaments to our cruelty and our chauvinism. Embedded in, and inseparable from, these two great sporting events – seemingly so innocuous and children-friendly – are cruelty and chauvinism.

Wimbledon embodies the characteristic cruelty of the British which so often goes unseen, visible as it is only in the folds of life. The place that it shows itself nakedly, without disguise, is the drop-shot. By reflecting on the drop-shot – where cruelty imprudently gives itself away – you can see the motives of players and spectators which are submerged so effectively in the rest of the game.

The drop-shot is not a percentage shot. Even on the relatively low-bouncing grass of Wimbledon against a tired hobbledyhorse opponent, it is not a percentage shot. Andy Murray doesn’t persist in using the shot – Goran Ivanisevic didn’t insist on repeatedly utilising the shot – because he mistakenly believes that it will be a more efficacious shot than a stinging cross-court forehand or a deep backhand down the line. It doesn’t survive in tennis as a tool to hammer out victory; it isn’t a means to the prosaic end of accumulating points.

A tennis-player plays a drop-shot in an attempt to humiliate his (sic) opponent. By successfully playing a drop-shot you over-man your opponent, you castrate them, you mortify their virility. You do it to because you are cruel and because that cruelty overflows into the desire to inflict an injury on your opponent. There is something gratuitous in the drop-shot, somehow it has a superabundance of that which you need to claim the point – the disguise, the caressing movement of the forearm that seems to declare the rest of the body superfluous, the panicked realisation of the opponent, the frenetic stooped rush to the net, the plunged head and painfully helplessly outstretched racket, the twice-bouncing ball and the graceless exit from the point in shameful redundancy. It is almost as if one deliberately places oneself under a handicap by making use of such an unserviceable shot; there is a bravado of self-sabotage.

The key here, though, is that the shot isn’t played out of a will-to-win, or even a simple desire to demonstrate skill; drop-shots are played in a spirit of malice – we play them because we want to bring the other player low. The whole exchange enacts our power over them. We draw them with forced haste to the net and force them to bow their heads to us and slink away to the back of the court for the next point. And at Wimbledon it is ritualised still more by the presence of the crowd. It is a ritual of public humiliation that takes place in a theatre of cruelty. You can only see it clearly with the drop-shot, but it suffuses whole sport. Tennis players play not to win as such, but to inflict humiliating defeats on their opponents. They do it because of the secret – often unconscious – pleasure that they feel in cruelty. All those genteel supporters in Wimbledon’s Centre Court: they go because they want to participate vicariously in this near-Nietzschean battle for mastery.

The European Championships – and football more generally – expose far more transparently our chauvinism. We are incorrigibly parochial: we prefer what is close and familiar and well-known. Everything else we are suspicious of. Watching Euro 2008 has brought this into such clear focus because of England’s failure to qualify. Instead of our whole response to the tournament being consumed by monomaniac immersion in the question of England’s progress or elimination, we have been forced to take up the stance of detached observers watching the European Championships as a sort of showcase of footballing talent, an assemblage of the most talented players in the continent. In thinking about this, it occurred to me just how perverse the conventional attitudes to football are. Loyalty, the need to tenaciously belong to a group, overwhelms everything else of value that we could find in the sport. Instead of demanding to see the most attractive, exciting football, all we want is to win. The most important thing is that our own group overmasters that of the other team – by (disreputable) hook or by (deadly dull) crook.

This made me think of Nabokov (a strange mental association, I know). Football fans must have appalled Nabokov, the purist, the aesthete. For him there could be no higher loyalty than to beauty. To prefer the efficacious over the beautiful, to cheer mediocrity because it is our mediocrity, would have been unthinkable to him. He was a connoisseur of art, a disinterested critic who was unwilling to have the fiat of his taste contradicted by the parochial concerns of morality or fidelity or any other extraneous concern. The Nabokovian football enthusiast, who doesn’t care which team wins only how good the game is, strikes me as a completely plausible figure. But you never meet them; they don’t exist. The standard question to ask of some new acquaintance if the conversation turns to football is: “Who do you support?” Either you support a team or you don’t know anything about football. The Nabokovian football supporter would baffle the conceptual apparatus of the normal football fan. Presumably they would be written off as a weirdo, an eccentric, some sort of foreign element (Nabokov, rather unhelpfully, was all three).

Perhaps you don’t mind what I’m calling chauvinism; perhaps you think that the matches have more vitality because everyone approaches them as partisans, attached passionately and indissolubly to their teams. Everything becomes personal that way. But just look at what it does to the game. It prevents the development of any rules of good conduct. It doesn’t just mean that we’re willing to trade beauty for efficacy; it means that we don’t care what squalid behaviour it takes to extort a victory. It’s a bit like the Hobbesian model of international relations: no one acknowledges any higher authority than the success of their own group, so there is no law to trump the law of necessity. The law of morality is localised; these inter-group matches stand outside of it. So everything is permitted. Just listen to the chauvinistic fans screaming their approval of the “gamesmanship” of their own team and howling in protest at the “cheating” of the other team. You can pull a Ballack (the time-wasting pseudo-injury); you can do a Rivaldo (the get-someone-sent-off pseudo-injury). You can cheat in any way at all so long as you are wily enough to get away with it. It is failure that is culpable, not cheating. There’s something deeply dissatisfying about this, but it is made still worse by the irony that it always seems to involve a pathetic unmanly theatricality and an appeal to the rod of the nanny-referee in an arena of testosterone and gladitorialism where it is plainly inappropriate. The incongruity of it should be sufficient for derision to kill it off.

Many people will respond to this, I’m sure, by saying that I am writing about football as if it were a game when in actual fact it is something far more serious than that. Maybe so. This might just be my dilettante, amateur attitude to something that consumes people’s whole lives, but it seems to me that if people are going to give their whole lives to following football that they might at least want to watch attractive games and ones which are honourably free of disfigurement by effete cheating.

Could social mobility destroy Britain as we know it?

June 27, 2008

There is probably no political goal more widely subscribed to in British politics than that of social mobility. Everyone professes to believe fervently in the creation of a “meritocratic” society of “equal opportunities” in which the life chances of every individual are independent of social class, race, religion and background. This isn’t a recent development in British politics. Politicians have paid homage to social mobility since the aristocratic Britain of orders and deference, in which everyone knew their right and proper place, was eclipsed. But it is a long-frustrated goal, something that government has not been able to realise in spite of decades of cross-party consensus and consistent public support.

Politicians and public haven’t just advocated this societal destination for decades, they have always assumed that it was compatible with a free, open, liberal society of broadly the sort that we have now. And that it could be achieved in a liberal society built on the ruins of institutions (public schools, the House of Lords, Oxbridge, the civil service) and traditions (noblesse oblige, deference, pervasive class awareness) belonging to a very different sort of society. Achieving social mobility was just a question of refinement, of finessing anomalies and redressing obvious abuses. A radical overhaul of our social and economic institutions wouldn’t be necessary, and our ways of thinking and doing things could be left largely intact. Britain could institute equality of opportunity, whilst remaining faithful to its liberal capitalistic ethos and whilst continuing to enjoy the indolent benevolence of its non-intrusive state. There would be no need to trample upon the world-famous tradition of English (sic) liberty in which people are left to themselves if they’re not hurting anyone.

But what if they are hurting someone? What if just by going about their own business and looking out for the welfare of their own, the are scuppering any chance that we might have of realising that universally subscribed ideal of social mobility? What if this twentieth-century value cannot be made to agree with revered nineteenth-century Millian values?

There is an intellectual slackness and shallowness to most popular thinking about social mobility. At first glance the commonly accepted paradigm seems so eminently right and to run in such clear parallel to our ways of going about things, as to require no deeper reflection. But it is important to try and get behind the calcified terms in which the debate is carried on to grasp the true radicalism of this goal that has become so obscured by repetition. Equality of opportunity means that whatever it is that does not belong to the individual but which impacts differentially on their life chances has to be equalized. The whole social matrix of determinants in which the individual is embedded needs to be reconfigured so that there are no longer individuals who are given more exposure to the enabling factors and less to the disabling ones. You would have to find some way of engineering the early lives of every individual so as to protect them from the all the varied, alien social influences that stamp us with our peculiarities of background.

Just try to think for a moment about all of the things which you would have to neutralise. Everything that comes from parents and family background, first of all. That means the social background of the parents, their educational histories, their income, their language skills, their emotional intelligence, how conscientiousness they are, how ambitious they are, the nature of their relationship (assuming that they are still together and indeed living), the household diet – and everything which parents might do to privilege their children. It means education as well, both primary and secondary. It encompasses peer-group determinants too: whether at school, in churches, via parental networks, in local neighbourhoods or extracurricular settings. Genuine equality of opportunity would involve the neutralisation – probably the standardisation – of every aspect of our early lives which wasn’t entirely attributable to the individual themselves. And it is impossible even to inventory all of these things; the impact of the social on us is so pervasive and ineliminable, we are so inextricably caught up in fabric of the social world, that we can’t even hope to get a grasp of it

When it is elaborated in such a way, I don’t know that I can sustain belief in the goal of equality of opportunity. Certainly even if I continue to will the end, I cannot consent to will the means. An inheritance tax of 100% would have to be instituted. Private schools would have to be abolished. Grammar schools would have to go in favour of total comprehensivization and standardisation. The government would have to radically escalate early years education. We’d practically be forced to throw our children into the Spartan agoge – and even then the children would probably be taken away from the parents too late. Unless children belong to the state and unless their treatment is radically and undesirably homogenised then I don’t see how we can hope to do more than approximate slightly better the ideal of social mobility, whilst monitoring vigilantly the damage which it does to the sort of liberal society that we want to live in.

The privileging of this goal of a completely fluid social system also has to be questioned because of the values that it enshrines. I find it hard to conceive of equality of opportunity as being anything other than an economistic goal. Does social mobility mean anything more than amassing a greater quanitity of money than your parents (adjusted for growth in the intervening period)? Is equality of opportunity anything more than the opportunity to sit upon a bigger pile of gold, like some idolatrous dragon? Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps the the ideal represents some sort of transcendence of particular, parochial backgrounds. Maybe it is about emancipation from the fetters of circumstance that have in the past denied people the right to live lives of their own choosing and to construct identities that are peculiarly their own. But I’m stretching here. At the heart of this goal is the idea that poor children do not deserve to be excluded from the capitalistic bonanza; they too should have the chance to make a worldly success of themselves and become rich.

The popular understanding of social mobility is also tainted by another obtuseness. It is very easy to endorse upward social mobility. The idea of children from disadvantaged backgrounds making good is an edifying one – and one which somehow seems to reflect positively back upon the society that propounds it as an aim. The same cannot be said for downward social mobility. Downward social mobility is the evil twin of upward social mobility, locked in the basement of this discussion. Politicians and mainstream commentators consistently make the mistake of conflating social mobility with upward social mobility, talking about the family as if it had only one son and heir. What they are arguing for – and what we are actually attached to – is the sort of structural upward mobility that Britain saw between the 1950’s and 1970’s when a massive increase in the number of white collar jobs presented Britain’s working-class with a one-time opportunity to achieve social advancement without displacing parts of the middle-class. Social mobility in twenty-first century Britain would have to be a reciprocal process, a zero-sum game: for working-class children to advance socially, we would have to be willing to accept the corollary of middle-class children coming down in the world.

That brings me to my final critique of the way that social mobility is dealt with in Britain today. I am worried that the current paradigm for social mobility has become so corrupted that it has been transformed into a vehicle for ensuring the evermore effective reproduction of the current social structure. That is, its practical effect may well have come to be the opposite of its stated intentions.

The great panacea of most mainstream politicians is education. The key, they say, to greater social mobility is to widen access to University. University education must be open to everyone; it is the silver bullet that will kill the werewolf of privilege. The problem with this is that the pro-University propaganda is so strong, and student numbers so high, that employers are starting to make a fetish of qualifications. Increasingly it is becoming impossible to break into the golden circles of the more favoured professions without visa-like qualifications; there is no longer any place for the virtuoso interviewee or the plucky upstart in this culture of pedantic exclusivity.

This is supposed to favour anyone with merit, but the people it actually favours are the children of the middle-class who – for material and cultural, as well as educational reasons – are more likely to go to University. Cultural expectations (both at home and at school), fear of debt, and differences in the strength of relationship between schools and universities combine to keep down the number of people from working-class backgrounds who make it to good universities. And after graduation, if anything, the system comes to favour children of privilege still more strongly. An increasing number of careers require one either to obtain postgraduate qualifications or to endure the rites-of-passage of unpaid internships. Forget about being a journalist, a social worker or a teacher without postgraduate qualifications. Want to work in publishing? Or for an MP? You’d better hope that you have parents who can afford to support you whilst you intern. It is just possible that this ostensibly progressive focus of education and qualifications has perversely become the great bulwark of the existing class structure. It might just be that an apparently open, “meritocratic” system is the best way for the middle-classes to inure their own against the dangers of downward social mobility.

Britain needs to think with greater rigour about its concept of social mobility, to consider clear-headedly what the realisation of such an ideal would require us to sacrifice and then to decide exactly what to do. The vagueness and half-heartedness of the present cannot be allowed to continue.

Big sandwich, little sandwich: the delicatessens of the unconscious

June 27, 2008

I had a dream last night where I spent forty-five minutes trying to attract the attention of a fat café-owner so that he would sell me a sandwich. The sandwich, which I was eventually able to buy, had been made using a whole family-sized bloomer. It was big – inappropriately big. But when I got the sandwich back to my table to eat it, I found that it had shrunk. Suddenly it was no bigger than a small hotdog bun.

Can a (dream) sandwich be a microcosm of your whole life?

Tolstoy’s response to the divided Russian soul

June 26, 2008

Tolstoy knew the depressive mind. Both Andrey Bolkonsky and Pierre Bezuchov, the protagonists, of War and Peace are full, vivid embodiments of a bifurcated response to the world that finds one pole in a very modern depression and the other in a quintissentially Russian mysticism. Tolstoyan happiness is an attempt to transcend or reconcile this polarity through an ascetic recognition that the needs these poles offer to satisfy are artificial.

Tolstoy’s conception of happiness – his peasant happiness – is a response to this modern Russian development, to the divided soul. On the one hand this protagonists are inflicted with this sense of meaningless, of relativism, of the futility of all things – an alien, but irresistible presence, that pulls them down from without. At these moments of psychological malady the world is disclosed in its pettiness, worldliness, and senselessness.’ On the other hand they find these moments of clarity, these epiphanic moments when they almost feel their metaphysical longing satisfied: when the desire for order in the world, for majesty, for a connection with ‘that great inscrutable infite something’ is almost satisfied. Bolkonsky is overcome with sort of feeling on the field of Austerlitz and Pierre during a moonlit sleigh ride through the snow.

So throughout you see a striving to resist anguish and despair – a striving that makes itself manifest for Pierre in the constructive universalistic benevolence of his masonism, through his desire for a great historical role as the assassin of Napolen and through his love of Natasha. These are attempts to implicate or embed oneself in the world and to bind ourselves to other people in such a way as to sustain a sense of meaningfulness. The Christianity of Princess Marya also, albeit with superabundant placidity, this same defensive function against dissolution. In some sense they all enact that need to see behind and through things, that treacherous ache for the meaningful.

Tolstoy’s attempt to break out of the cycle is sentimental and unworkable, but what it expresses more than anything is a skepticism about human potential, a sort of sad humility. Tolstoy wants to blame civilization and artifice and learning and abstract-learning; statecraft, war, institutionalised churches; idleness, luxuriance and probably urban as well as metropolitan living. Tolstoyan happiness is to be reached through a stripping away of layers; it is a return and a renunciation. During his captivity Pierre realises ‘that man is created for happiness, that happiness is within him, in the satisfaction of simple human needs, and that all unhappiness arises not from privation but from superfluity.’ The peasant happiness is limited; it is a negative happiness. Happiness is not connection with the infinite or the sham power of world historical figures; nor is it great wealth and the supersatisfaction of human wants. It certainly isn’t polish and learning, wit or beauty. Instead it is simplicity and spontanaeity. To be happy is to be busy and useful; to be connected to the land and to one’s past; to be manually skilful; to take pleasure in the satisfaction of basic needs; but it is also to be independent and detached. As I said, it is an ideal of renunciation. A general small-scale benevolence is to be practiced with all of the people with whom we come into contact, but particular attachments are to be deprecated. To implicate ourselves in the world in that way is to surrender a necessary detachment and autonomy. Love is dangerous; exclusive attachments make us vulnerable in an unsentimentally deterministic world and one characterised by powerful alienating passions and discontinuous, unstable selves.

The temptation to call Tolstoy’s a coward’s happiness is very strong, but I don’t think that’s right. I think it is the happiness of someone who has suffered. When one reads the pages written about Bolkonsky’s and Pierre’s despair that’s what one feels: Tolstoy is writing his own pain. To think abstractly and to try and see our way behind the world so as to orient ourselves within it, is a very costly folly for which we will be made to suffer. The quest for love and glory and virtue are futile enterprises in an alien world of determinism. All that is left us is to have sufficient humility to accept our limitations and to pursue happiness in the very limited sense that is open to us. Ultimately, Tolstoy’s is a counsel of resignation.

A by-election is an over-sized poll with one crucial difference: the politicians can cheat

June 25, 2008

The electors of Henley have for the last couple of weeks been suffering under the collective affliction of a by-election, an affliction which is going to reach fever pitch in the next 72-hours as they go to the polls and the media strain their blood-shot eyes to try and see right into the very depths of their souls. I always feel sorry for people who are forced to endure a by-election. They must feel ever so slightly like a field of corn set upon by a swarm of locusts or a cultured continental city swamped by the bacchanalian philistinism of travelling bands of football followers. All of a sudden their part of the world – at least what was their part of the world – is taken over by carpet-bagging politicians-cum-activists who have come to make them do as they’re told and the Panopticon-media come to watch the people who have come to make them do as they’re told. It is a strange, slightly unreal Russian doll scenario.

And what’s more they have to relinquish any preposterous notion they might have to the effect that they are the voters of Henley – particular people with specific concerns like vandalism on Edwards Street or the over-subscription of St. Barnabus’ specialist school – and submit to their new role of symbolic representatives of the nation. In by-elections people cease to be individuals; instead they have to form a new understanding of themselves as types, exemplars and weathervanes. Henley – no matter how bad the fit, no matter now risible the notion – becomes the paradigm of the nation. They can’t expect to be treated in their own terms or allowed to go about the drab, but important, business of choosing their parliamentary representative; they have to resign themselves to be exploited, fought over and (although it is counterintuitive) ignored. Henley, like Vietnam, isn’t important in itself. It is a piece of inhospitable jungle in South-Eastern Asia full of rice and people with a yellowed complexion; no one would ever want to go there. It matters because the wider world is watching. And defeat in Henley (whatever that might mean) could cause all of the neighbouring dominoes to fall as well as vividly demonstrating the vulnerability of the loser.

This seems to me ample reason to feel sorry for by-electors, but in this instance there are additional reasons to be sympathetic. After all, this is the by-election to replace Boris Johnson. Just read back that previous sentence; it scarcely even makes sense. How could anyone replace Boris Johnson? Johnson is sui generis; he has an appeal to voters rooted in his aristo-ironic bonhomie that no one else presenting themselves for election is going to be able to reproduce. And so this is the ultimate hangover by-election for them; a dreary Groundhog Day Monday in which they are forced to choose between nondescript and banal politicians, haunted as if through a nostalgic haze by ethereal glimpses of Johnson. The sense of disappointment that attends their choice will be made more pointed still by the fact that they cannot console themselves with the thought that Johnson is incapacitated, incarcerated, mad or dead. Johnson is fine. In fact, he’s better than fine: he’s the nation’s most powerful Tory; the capital’s most feted man; the politician with the second biggest direct political mandate in Europe after that pesky President of Portugal. Johnson left because he became too big and too important for Henley. He needed a more exciting stomping group, a more historic backdrop for his political tomfoolery. The people of Henley were betrayed; Johnson would condescend no longer to be their mere MP.

By-elections seem to bore ordinary people: people in the constituency being polled and people elsewhere. Presumably it’s because they know that nothing real is at stake. Most people have no direct contact with their MP and are sceptical about what they can achieve as a local lobbyist, so they only care about their election when it feels like a contribution towards the election of the government. Political elites and their camp-followers feel differently. For politicians, media-types, think-tankers, party agents, volunteer activists and their ilk by-elections are festival occasions. By-elections are political carnivals – and the political elites are carnies and carnival-goers all wrapped up in one.

Everyone likes to get out on the road; everyone likes to go toe-to-toe with their hated opposite numbers, but those aren’t the fundamental reasons why the people who live for politics love to by-electioneer. Political types love by-elections because they are institutionally-sponsored, taxpayer-funded, prestige-added polls. With one crucial difference: the politicians can cheat.

You might hear politicians telling you on the radio or television that ‘They don’t read the polls.’ But what they mean when they say that is: they do read the polls. Everyone involved in politics reads the polls. In fact, they read them obsessively, think about, talk about and pray to them obsessively. The polls are their Gods; they worship them as if they (not the voters) were the source of supreme power in the political universe. The power of the polls is not deific, though; it is the power of astrological calendars and runes. That is, they can tell the future. There is even a slight suspicion that they don’t so much forecast the electoral future as determine it. The people will support who the polls tell them they support…

But no matter how important they are to you, you cannot rig the polls. ICM, Ipsos Mori and Populus look after their own. So you can’t discover who the randomly-selected, hallowed ten-thousand are and find out ways venal, devious or violent to help them along the path to political enlightenment. They are untouchable. All you can do is perform better: govern better, oppose better, soundbite better, lie better, insult your opponents better, trick the electorate better. There is no direct way to coerce the polls; politicians are compelled to rely entirely on that motley collection of indirect and unreliable methods.

By-elections are different. Magnificently, deliciously different. The normal rules of polling do not apply. You know who the sample is and that means you can cheat. Outrageously. Like a mob boss on trial you have the chance to tamper with the jury. You can unleash a horde of button-men on the town, train a cadres of Question Time-profile politicians on the electorate, overwhelm the populace with a flood of rosette-wearing sycophants. Armed with the finest ideas of the party’s wonkiest eggheads, the filthy lucre of its most disreputable financiers, and the honeyed words of its suavest propagandists you and your army can go to work on the electorate. You can charm them, indoctrinate them, bore them, suffocate them, appal them, threaten them, out-fox them, hoodwink them, pulverize them – anything to make them promise to vote the right way. Nothing is forbidden, everything is permissible so long as it produces the desired result. Get the vote out if that’s going to help; if it isn’t, keep them at home – lock them in their homes, tell them that the election has been cancelled, turn the arrow pointing to the polling station round Wacky Races-style.

Can you see the dirty, saturnine beauty of it now? The beguiling genius of the by-election? You don’t have to be more popular than your opponent, you don’t have to be better. You can simply fight the more adept, artful, brutal campaign. The Liberal Democrats have been doing it for years…