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In defence of politics

In defence of politics

🕔22.Nov 2012
Curated from Politics: Politics blog |, written by Chris Mullin, Michael White

Refusing to vote is generally no statement of principle, as a tale of two citizens has reminded me. Let’s call them Chris and Crisp’

I had the pleasure on Tuesday evening of listening to a former MP of impeccable independence, campaigning courage and widely noted integrity sticking it to a sizeable group of our fellow citizens who don’t get reproached half-often enough. We’re talking here about cynical, lazy and apathetic voters who don’t seem to know how well off most of them are, or why.

At one point, this splendid fellow said that long experience had caused him to notice that the kind of people who don’t vote were also the kind of people “who don’t put their bins out, who drop litter and don’t look after their dogs in the park, [and] who pay no attention to the education of their children”. When he meets such non-voters, he tells them “to snap out of it”.

I realise such sentiments will outrage self-styled libertarians of the right, who see themselves as model citizens who are never a burden on others. But the last time I met a room full of libertarians (it was at the Institute for Economic Affairs, the free-market thinktank) they turned out to be a bunch of spiteful whingers obsessed with abusing petty officialdom, especially customs officers, for some reason. They certainly burdened me.

Who dares to point out what you and I, but not enough other folk out there, know to be blindingly obvious? Why, Chris Mullin, former Labour MP for Sunderland South (1987-2010), fearless campaigning journalist, successful novelist and diary writer, and reformed Bennite. Why, he was even a junior minister under Tony Blair for a while. Needless to say, his expenses claims were found to be among the lowest.

Yet here was Mullin – 65 next month – delivering a lecture (entitled In Defence of Politics) to a great and good audience at St Thomas’ hospital, just across Westminster bridge from his former haunts. In it, he skewered familiar targets: bankers, greedy MPs and the relentless and hysterical 24/7 media. He also urged young people to take up the greatest challenge of our time: we urgently needed to modify our dangerously excessive lifestyle – one 1.5 billion Chinese people were seeking to copy – by adopting a more sustainable, probably poorer, model before mankind wiped out its own presence on our fragile planet.

Big-picture stuff, and hard to deny – except that we do. But what caught my imagination was a politician, admittedly one now freed from the need to win votes, saying that he often deliberately alienated voters who said stupid things such as “I never vote” – “as if it was a profound statement of principle|” – or demanded (as one offshore oil worker did) that the MP backed his demand to remain exempt from UK income tax.

Tax, said Mullin several times, is the price we all have to pay for living in a democracy where the government of the day can be thrown out and we – most of us – have decent health and education, a welfare system, a safe supply of food, water and heating, and the rule of law. “Democracy is not cheap,” he said, but it is vital if we are to sustain progress.

Those who imagine that the great scientific and social gains of the past 200 years or so would automatically have been widely shared without constant pressure from below – and resistance by large sections of the Tory party, he added, in a rare partisan lapse – are being very obtuse. Just look at other countries that don’t have functioning democracies. Go live in Africa for a bit, he told that greedy oil worker.

It’s not that Mullin is naive about the failings of politics and government. He always tells student audiences to challenge the official version of events (“it’s sometimes wrong”), and to be wary of simple solutions (because there aren’t any). When he was a young, ardent Bennite, during Bennism’s daft heyday, and briefly editor of Tribune – though he left that bit out – he thought compromise was a sign of weakness. It’s not, he now concludes: it is usually necessary.

Remember, we are talking about a key campaigner in the battle to overturn the bombing verdict on the Birmingham Six, and the MP whose expenses probe revealed he still owns a black-and-white TV set in his London flat: a backbencher who told Blair at PMQs – I remember it well – that Britain’s most dangerous enemies were not al-Qaida but poverty and injustice.

Politicians got things wrong; they inflicted wounds upon themselves, such as the expenses affair, Mullin said. But he added that it was also the Freedom of Info law they passed that had exposed that scandal and sent some MPs to jail. “But,” he added, “most politicians of my acquaintance, in all parties, are people of integrity.” Quite so. That is my experience, too: not geniuses – nor are most of us – just basically OK.

So why were so many people alienated from politics, so ignorant and hostile, Mullin asked himself. Was it our consumer culture, built on instant gratification, that prompted charges of betrayal when that promise was unfulfilled? A bit, he seemed to say.

Was it the weakening of national politics in a globalised world where multinational firms had so much power, and the EU or UN was needed to right a wrong? Certainly, that awkward fact of life diminished respect.

As for Britain’s tabloid culture – adopted by the TV and, alas, sometimes by the broadsheet press – was that to blame, too ? Yes: 24/7 TV required viewers to stay in a frenzy of anxiety, fed by a steady supply of victims. It was all a marketing strategy. Even Channel 4 News and the posh papers had succumbed to “news with attitude”, in which straight reporting was marginalised by commentary, Mullin observed.

In an age of apathy across the developed world, with voters fed on a “diet of trivia”, their attention spans atrophied by social media, people were encouraged to have a highly developed sense of rights but not of responsibilities, he said. Stop. Remember again that we are not listening here to a bishop or a Telegraph editorialist but to a veteran leftie who for 23 years represented Sunderland, a place that has seen tough times. He’s right, though.

The paradox of our time, said Mullin, was that we had so much more than our grandparents, let alone most people in the developing world (who were busy repeating our mistakes as they destroyed their own cities) yet we seemed less happy than them. After watching the first of the 2010 election debates between the three party leaders Mullin could bear no more, so he switched over to a programme about people who live by scavenging on a huge rubbish tip in Lagos. Their cheerful optimism and ambition shamed us all in the mollycoddled west, he concluded.

I’m sure he’s right about that, too. Britons live in a rich and prosperous state so stable it has been unconquered for 1,000 years, yet which is endangered by corrosive cynicism. That’s a disease, says Mullin, quoting an Iraqi as saying: “Some are born in the light, some in the dark. I would like to live in the light for a few days, to see what it is like.”

Travelling home in the light, I happened to read an interview in the London Evening Standard with Crispin Odey, a wealthy hedge fund manager (“contrarian genius”, in Standardspeak) who likes to make waves occasionally by saying provocative or foolish things.

You may have heard of him: his CV borders on self-caricature. This is the man who said he would emigrate rather than pay 50% on his upper millions of income. He was also criticised for aggressive short-selling as the credit crunch loomed.

Anyway, the contrast between Chris and Crispin was a comic one. Odey is clearly clever, an investor who has got lucky a few times (unlucky, too: he briefly married a Murdoch) and drawn a few bold conclusions. In his interview, he says he doesn’t think much of David Cameron – “not a leader” – and even less of George Osborne. He disapproves of gay marriage, and wants mass management sackings at the BBC (“they’re not Conservatives”) over Jimmy Savile.

He thinks banker-bashing has gone too far (what a surprise – we’ll stop when they pay the money back) and that what the country needs is zero interest rates (after inflation we already have them, Crisp’) and a housing boom, though before that happens the overheated London property market needs to collapse.

To which Homer Simpson would, rightly, answer: “D’oh!”

Never mind. Crispin, who is married to Nichola Pease, Barclays Bank dynast and failed Northern Rock non-exec – doesn’t plan to do much about it personally. No rolled up sleeves for him. He’ll be busy increasing the couple’s fine old collection of banknotes, currently estimated at £450m. Wits call them the City’s Posh and Becks.

Sooner or later, climate change will upset Odey’s passions for shooting and fishing; that London home of his in Chelsea sounds a bit too close to the rising Thames for comfort, too. We’ll all have to face some tough decisions – or not face them, if we don’t vote. Does Crisp’ vote, or is he just too grand for such humble tasks? He doesn’t say.

Even people with less money to insulate themselves from harsh realities no longer feel they ought to vote, a pollster reminds me. They also feel free to vote against both Labour and the Tories, to vote for whom they want. It’s called dealignment, and it’s fine – as long as you think Ukip, the Greens or assorted nats – Scots and Welsh, Irish and English – have the answer. In my long experience, they don’t, though they can all make legitimate contributions.

Either way, so Mullin reminds us, the ultimate decisions on life and taxes will have to be made by politicians, hard pressed and despised though they are. They need to be cherished a bit more. They deserve it, too. But don’t overdo it – not that there’s much chance of that. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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