And so the General Election of 2015. I used to write a lot more about politics on these pages. In one of my last two posts on the topic, I said this: “it’s hard to argue with Dave Osler that the poor don’t have a party“; in the other, I said this: “When there is a political voice that will speak out against those sort of veering right-turns, expect more politics in these pages.” The absence of any such posts since should say the rest.
There is a palsied incapacity in our body politic to express any alternative to the preening austerity of the Coalition Government. The Tories have abandoned any One Nation credentials in their pursuit of a self-appointed task, pursued with temerity since the economic crisis of 2008, to conjure multiple excuses from that single event for various infringements upon the state. The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, emblazon their election literature with the words “stronger economy”, by which they unimaginatively mean “more cuts”. The Labour party, too – powered by Ed Balls’s increasingly macho face-off with George Osborne – are committed to the era’s standard-issue white-bread version of “fiscal responsibility”. The hyperventilation which greeted the election of Syriza in Greece reflects the dicky ticker of our late capitalist pessimism: there is no other way but retrenchment.
This was one of the topics of Adam Curtis’s latest documentary, Bitter Lake. In an interesting experiment, this was released only on the BBC iPlayer, negating the need to split it into a series of episodes, or to edit it into manageable length or conventional structure. I’m not sure this helped the film – it goes for long spells without adding to its own argument, instead focusing on lengthy tessellations of images which tend all to reflect the same contrasts between rhetoric and reality. Indeed, that gap is Curtis’s primary target in the film: he suggests that, following the oil crisis of the 1970s, Western democracies allowed big banks, reigned in since the reforms of the Great Depression, essentially to take charge of economic policy in exchange for social stability. Bitter Lake not entirely successfully splices this idea with the various wars in Afghanistan since the Second World War, arriving at the conclusion that our ruling elite knows its narrative makes no sense – but lacks the imagination to reshape the world as Franklin Roosevelt did.
It may be deeper than that, however. The current political malaise drills down to an issue of the language in which our politics – our identities – are expressed, not just the imaginative capacity of a few politicians. A month or so ago in an edition of the BBC’s horse-race-heavy This Week, the Green MP Caroline Lucas (who on the same programme made a terrible hash of attempting to describe why The Sun‘s Page Three is a bad thing) corrected Andrew Neil on the subject of the Chilcot Inquiry: “You are hoping for vindication, aren’t you?” Neil asked, suggesting that the primary interest of the pacifist Greens in an investigation into the Iraq War was the gaining of political capital. “Well, I rather hope it’s about learning lessons,” Lucas replied, rather nonplussed by the cynicism. As our politicians have become, or reframed themselves as, managers rather than directors of state policy, so the way in which we in turn analyse and assess their motivations and relations has migrated from the ideological to the positional.
This cynicism is present in our political literature: Anna and I have since the New Year burned through the first two seasons of the US remake of House of Cards. The original series, of course, also focused on a fairly venal and dispiriting stripe of politician; yet Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood lacks not only the original Francis Urquhart’s cultured airs and graces, but mostly importantly his political ideology: Underwood appears not to have anything approaching a political position, whilst Urquhart was always identifiably a member of the Tory right, with consistent policy aims that, whilst often presented as straight-forwardly villainous, at least suggested some form of point to holding power. In the US, as in the UK, it has become a governing assumption of our culture that politicians have no guiding principles, only a careerist approach to office-holding.
In this context, political language suffers. Lucas struggled to defend her position on Page Three because the vocabulary of belief is excluded from the discourse; in the days following that appearance on This Week, the Green leader, Natalie Bennet, was judged to have been savaged by Neil on The Sunday Politics when she failed to justify a range of positions he had more or less randomly selected from the more or less crowd-sourced Green website for scrutiny. There is an ideological underpinning to Green policy, even when a particular element has not been adopted by the party as a manifesto commitment; but ideology is either demonised (and not always, as is traditional, by the right) or, and this is something new, simply disbelieved in the way an unsophisticated historian might interpret medieval religion – as a figleaf for the real purpose, which is to hold power cynically and selfishly.
This is the reason, it seems to me, that the Labour Party under Ed Miliband have struggled so thoroughly to offer an alternative to the Coalition’s slash-and-burn narrative. When Miliband suggested in 2011 that capitalists can be split into ‘predators’ and ‘producers’, he risked, as any dichotomy does, reductive thinking; but he also touched on a sense of an unjust capitalism, a need to reign in its wilder excesses, which is felt across the political spectrum. Without the capacity to express that feeling in ideological terms, however, Labour have been left tacking from one tactical formulation to another, adding up to an appearance (and sometimes a reality) of incoherence – and, finally, defaulting to a sort of austerity-lite, which only buys into and reinforces the dominant and destructive managerial paradigm of our political age.
In his defence, in last week’s televised Q&A (if we’re being critical of our political language, let us not hide David Cameron’s frit-ness beneath the word ‘debate’), Miliband reached for some of That Vision Thing: he talked about general directions, opposing Cameron’s statistics-heavy delivery with a sense of passion and vision. Though a snap ICM poll for the Guardian gave the Q&A to the Prime Minister, Miliband’s low-boil attempt to begin to break out of the technocratic strait-jacket had a more lasting effect: more considered polls with larger samples in the days following last Thursday put him ahead, and on Sunday a YouGov poll for the Times put Labour four points ahead.
A ComRes poll today, however, gives the same advantage to the Tories. If we lack a new language to reframe an increasingly sterile political debate (a point of frustration on the right as much as the left, where there is fury that no apparent means of communicating a Tory message for the 21st-century is available to the Conservative leadership), we also lack the means to think about the reasons for this weirdly wheeling public opinion. In the Guardian, Paul Mason suggests that this is due to a fracturing of the British electorate into three tribes: a financialised one residing in the south-east; a Scandinavian one in Scotland; and a more amorphous, ‘post-industrial’ tribe residing in the north of England and in most major cities. These don’t seem entirely convincing – UKIP surely straddles at least two of those groups, whilst what is going on in Scotland seems rather more complicated than a continental drift towards Oslo. But the theory that the tensions of the early 21st century have shaken out the last vestiges of the twentieth, and have left our political classes adrift amid a proliferation of new, baggier identities, feels about right.
Identity politics is a matter of controversy. In the LRB, Jackson Lears recently wrote, as part of a sad assessment of Hilary Clinton’s inevitable ascendancy to the Democratic nomination for President:
The rise of identity politics in America was a tragic necessity. No one can deny the legitimacy or urgency of the need felt by women and minorities to have equality on their own terms, to reject the assumption that full participation in society required acceptance of the norms set by straight white males. Yet even as the public sphere grew more inclusive, the boundaries of permissible debate were narrowing. Critiques of concentrated power, imperial or plutocratic, became less common. Indeed, the preoccupation with racial and gender identity has hollowed out political language, the void filled by an apparently apolitical alternative – the neoliberal discourse of antiseptic intervention abroad and efficient productivity at home.
The danger of identity is that it is so fissiparous that it reduces all ability for publics to join forces in pursuit of something greater. This is the phenomenon of breaking-down described insufficiently by Mason; it is the fracturing that threatens the Tory vote from the right and the Labour vote from the left; and yet it represents the single greatest challenge of this general election campaign. If a new language can be found, and a new narrative acceptable to a unity of interest groups expressed, a breakthrough will be had. If not, we will spend the campaign, its aftermath and potentially another five years of a fractious parliament, playing instead to our increasingly segmented national gallery. Should that be the case, the debate around electoral reform – for the introduction of a system which can at least better reflect, channel and make sense of this Disunited Kingdom – should surely be renewed. It is hard to develop a new language without the appropriate grammar.