Saying sorry

Saying sorry

Politicians and celebrities have developed a very special mode of apology. Routinely they say “I’m sorry for any offence I might have caused”. This is pretty offensive in itself. It shifts the burden of regret from whatever was said or done to the reactions of the offended, and of course apologies are always easy when the words are so cheap.

Incidentally there’s a common Protestant misunderstanding of the Catholic act of penance, a misplaced assumption that all you have to do is say you’re sorry and your sin is washed away. I’m not much of a Catholic these days but really the belief here deserves a bit more respect. For absolution to be given Catholic doctrine demands not only true repentance, but also restitution if this is possible.

Critics, and some priests, like to emphasise the sin, the burden of guilt but more enlightened Catholic thinking demands a bit of self-compassion, a little more understanding and a little less judgement.

This I guess is a good thing to bear in mind as we’re forced to regard the moral turpitude of so many in our political classes, and those who prop them up. Then again, since they’ve placed themselves in the public eye and since their actions and words can have serious consequences for so many people there are plenty of occasions when we should be demanding blood.

Oliver Letwin is the latest offender, called out for some obnoxious remarks written in a private memo 30 years ago about the moral qualities of black people in North London. Letwin is now an advisor to David Cameron, as well as an MP, and has as usual apologised for the offence these remarks may have caused. Opponents are calling for his resignation.

Others have argued that you shouldn’t be judged on things you said 30 years ago, but that’s where the nature of the apology matters. If Letwin had said something like “I apologise unreservedly for the stupid things I wrote 30 years ago and their baleful influence on public policy – I am now working with the Prime Minister and others to reverse those consequences”, then I think we should forgive him, and judge him on the work of restitution.

Instead of course not only did he attempt to shift attention to the sensibilities of the offended, but even tried to excuse himself by saying his words had simply been badly chosen. This is patent hogwash: Letwin may be many things but he’s not inarticulate, and there’s no reason to accept that he meant anything other than all he wrote.

He should be sacked, as an important gesture of disavowal but he won’t be, because Cameron believes in the power of weasel words and despite some public posturing probably doesn’t care too much about a bit of casual racism. So the debasement of public life continues.

Age cannot wither us

Age cannot wither us

A mosquito or something like it took me for a free lunch on Saturday night, leaving three lumps on the right side of my face. I might feel disfigured, but I suspect like most people, much as though I’d like to think I had such beauty to be marred, the reality is a little less exciting.

Age doesn’t help of course. It’s another common aspect of human experience, that we can look out on the world through the same (old) eyes and think we’re not much changed, until we catch sight of our reflection and are forced to acknowledge that, really we have.

This might not be the end of the world (that will come later). A female friend told me a few years ago, when we were both in our early 40s, that she thought young people had a glowing beauty which was unique to youth. Another remarked in a separate conversation that young faces had a blandness which made them uninteresting. Both statements seem true to me, though I’d always want to stand against the cultural fascism which seems to think that only those under 40 could be emotionally interesting for any audience.

Mid-life crises

Middle-aged men don’t help the situation, apparently needing to ratify their illusions of an enduring youthfulness by partnering with much younger women, as if women of their own age could no longer make them feel good about themselves. I’ve even heard it argued that once women hit the menopause they no longer have the hormonal capability to attract the Darwinian male. Men who think this way must have egos that are stronger than their sex drives, or they just don’t get out enough.

Women paradoxically don’t help these sad male illusions by privileging “personality” defensively over good looks. It seems too that the enduring puritanism of the 19th and 20th centuries still urges many women to play down their sexuality, as if it was something best minimised (while I think it’s entirely reasonable for any individual to have little interest in his or her sexuality, it seems to me there is no fundamental difference between men and women here, and any apparent differences have been culturally conditioned). Male sexism also sustains these guarded feelings, and it’s about time we all grew up.

Thinking fast and slow

So far, so conventionally liberal, but there is too an uncomfortable “fundamental” truth that we need to acknowledge, which is that good looks are influential, at any age. There has been some academic research which suggests that better looking individuals have better chances in job interviews. While this is clearly wrong in the sense that our looks have little bearing on our capacity to do a job, it’s more understandable when an interviewer or interview panel is faced with a 50/50 choice (all other things being equal).

I said it’s understandable rather than particularly defensible, but then we need to understand it better, because this appears to be a compelling aspect of human behaviour. This blog was prompted in part by a reflection from Alain de Botton on why we marry the wrong people, which among other things noted how important the way someone looks might be to our judgements. He’s not suggesting that matinee idol allure will overrule every other consideration, but noting how much we will extrapolate from features which (for whatever reason) we might find compelling. This chimes too with Daniel Kahneman’s ideas about our predilection for instinctive judgement, and how it might lead us astray.

I’m not suggesting that good looking idiots will continue to command our attention when they open their mouths, but only that in the many greyer areas before we’re faced with idiocy we generally give more credit than we should to the physically attractive.

We can’t simply discount these intuitions. We won’t begin to discard them by saying “appearances don’t matter”. We’ll only deal with them if we can notice how and when they operate in our own judgements. We’ll only deal with it too by acknowledging how and when superficial judgements are all we need. Prejudices about appearance can feed the snap judgements we make all the time, but that speed can be necessary to make the most of the limited time we have available. It’s wrong to demand that we consider the full humanity of every individual we encounter. Much of the time those encounters are simply functional, and while I’d agree that our default behaviour should always be at least polite and considerate, we usually don’t need to look much beyond the function (getting your hair cut, or a cup of coffee). Prejudice about appearances may well be operating in these encounters, but it doesn’t matter very much. It’s when we need to make finer or better judgements that we must look further.

Enduring love

Shakespeare as so often got there first. This blog’s title is from Antony and Cleopatra, that fine tragedy of two middle-aged people caught in a doting dotage. In a famous speech Enobarbus say of Cleopatra “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale/Her infinite variety”.

He’s not talking about the persistence of her famed physical beauty, but of the traits that make her captivating. Not least among the many prejudices that can skew our judgements we need to be open to the possibility that all people, including older people, have a vitality we can usefully attend to and value.

Talking of Shakespeare, de Botton’s chapter on marriage falls into a common error, suggesting that our more romantic ideas about the possibility of a lifelong coupling only appeared somewhere in the mid-18th century, as part of the rise of Romanticism. But there’s plenty of evidence against this, not least Romeo and Juliet (or Much Ado, As You Like It, Twelfth Night or indeed Othello, all written in the late 16th or early 17th centuries). It’s quite true to say that through most of western history marriage has been primarily a commercial or dynastic contract, but certainly since at least the Roman republic there have always been parallel narratives of emotional love.

de Botton’s right that our immediate feelings, shot through with the neuroses we carry from our childhoods, make a poor basis for such an important judgement about our future, but maybe the real answer is to dial down the importance of that judgement, to accept that we will almost certainly get it wrong, and there may be no other way to come to understand the neuroses and primal attractions that drive our judgements than to go through this process of trial and error.

If that’s the case, the best we can do socially is ensure that we minimise the pain of the fallout, equitably for both partners as well as any children. As individuals all we can do is learn from our mistakes, sometimes called the wisdom of age. Sadly I’m not sure the older are always much wiser, but at least their persisting beauty may be a little less superficial.

The age of unreason

The age of unreason

My mother is 79 today. I’m happy to say she’s fairly fit and well, as older people often are these days. Her family for the most part enjoyed long active lives, and she’s been lucky enough to sustain that genetic good fortune.

(The image is of my grandmother, I’d guess in 1937, holding my infant mother.)

In that life too she’s borne witness to the most extraordinary changes.

She’s just old enough to remember something of the Second World War. She was evacuated to Wales, her father posted as an officer to the desert battles in Africa. In the immediate aftermath of the conflict she joined him in the ruins of Berlin. She was part of a generation then who had come through fire and deprivation into a period of new prosperity, and a widespread belief in the possibility of building a better world from the ashes of the war.

She was a young mother to the four of us children through the 60s, and a full time social worker from the mid-70s, leaving behind the assumed Toryism of her upbringing to become a Labour activist, an understandable path for any woman or man of good will exposed to the persisting inequalities of society. She clung on to that faith through the Blair years, though Michael Foot and Tony Benn were her real heroes. She’s had to watch in unhappy disbelief as the general consensus around some form of social democratic progress was swept away by neoliberal dogma, and an increasingly naked plutocratic wealth grab, ironically cloaked in the name of Compassionate Conservatism.

There’s an old joke, that just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. It’s common for most generations to feel as they get older that the world is getting worse, but in the arc of my mother’s lifetime that downward trajectory is hard to ignore.

It’s hard not to look at our political class and see them either with their noses in the trough or their heads in the sand, getting just about every major decision or judgement wrong, from the catastrophe of the Iraq war to the dismemberment of public education and the health service at the altars of an illusory free market. My mother came to adulthood in a world where people, including the political class, believed we could do better than this. They would have seen the emergence of global interdependence as an opportunity to shape a better world rather than a blind mercantile power that needed to be bowed to. They would not have accepted that our new serfdom is the inevitable consequence of market forces, or suggested that we’re somehow all better off as we march cheerfully towards the precipice of ecological disaster.

On Sunday, out for a celebratory birthday lunch, we walked around Bodiam Castle in the dusk, circling the moat and this gaunt 700 year old survival from harsher times. It stands as a redundant, evocative shell, a reminder I suppose that the exercise of power fluctuates through history, sometimes for good, sometimes for ill. We find ourselves it seems in one of those ill periods, where no amount of reason can counter the myopic greed of those who for the moment hold the levers of power. Change will come, as the contradictions of the way we live now force their own resolution, but whether this will happen in my mother’s lifetime, or for that matter mine, is impossible to say.

In the meantime happy birthday Mum, and here’s to the hope we may live in hope again.


Bombs, folly and lies

Bombs, folly and lies

Amid all the arguments about whether the UK should be bombing Syria there’s a big and critical question that’s not being asked.

The arguments for joining the bombing campaign are patently feeble; you’d have to be feeble-minded to be persuaded by them. Cameron himself at the beginning of October criticised the Russians by arguing exactly the opposite view about the likely effect of bombing on the fundamentalist lunatics. Hilary Benn also took the opposite stance only a couple of weeks ago.

I haven’t met anyone outside parliament who doesn’t understand this. I’ve seen a few comments on social media supporting the bombing. Their arguments have been pathetic, mostly along the lines of “we have to do something”; yes we do, but it’s not a binary choice between bombing and doing nothing. As I’ll suggest in a minute, this false dichotomy seems to be at the heart of what’s going on.

Not everyone in parliament can be feeble-minded. Some probably are, but not all of them. I’m not sure David Cameron actually believes in anything apart from winning the political game, but I don’t think he’s exactly feeble-minded.

So the big question is this: why if these arguments are as dumb as they clearly are, why when they’ve been ridiculed by military experts and anyone with any serious knowledge of the Syrian situation, is the government pushing this nonsense and launching such murderous action in our name? If they are not feeble-minded, then there must be a cynical calculation that enough of us are, that a majority will accept this bullshit, so the government can get on with its real agenda.

I have no insider knowledge of what that agenda might be. But we have been here before. I was never convinced that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, but to my shame I was ready to believe that Blair’s government must have known something that they could not tell us, that there must be a good reason for this apparently grievous action. It seems now that even the most paranoid conspiracy theorists were much closer to the truth, that the Iraq war was driven mostly by the financial interests of Dick Cheney and his friends (which I’m sure they’d equate, falsely, to energy security for the West), partly by the delusion within the State Department that Saddam’s fall would turn the Middle East into a network of friendly client states for the US. The present consequence of this delusion is Daesh.

Why did Blair go along with this? There are no good reasons. Really, there are none. It may have been the entrenched fear in the Foreign Office, fifty years after the event, that there should never be another Suez, that the UK should never again find itself out of step with the US. It may have been a malingering post-imperial pride. Whatever the reason, we would better have served our US ally by standing against its folly, as France did. That’s worth remembering, when we’re told that one reason for joining the bombing campaign is the need to show solidarity with our allies, including France. There is no question of appeasing Daesh, of being “terrorist sympathisers”. What matters is what will work, and even Cameron can have no illusion that stepping up the bombing via eight Tornado jets will have any helpful effect in destroying Daesh, and in the meantime innocent people will be killed, a hard fact we will hide from through the murderous euphemism of “collateral damage”.

I’m not easily sympathetic to conspiracy theories, but when we’re being asked to swallow an argument so weak, so obviously wrong, we have to ask why.

In particular we have to ask why this feeble argument has been presented as our only option, when there are some pretty obvious alternatives.
It is not controversial to suggest that rather than trying to bomb Daesh into submission, it would be more promising to starve them of resources, at the same time as working single-mindedly to unite Syria’s warring factions against them (bombing, it’s widely acknowledged, will have the opposite effect).

But this could only be done by addressing the tacit support for Daesh in the Gulf States, and maybe Turkey. That would mean upsetting nominal allies, and more importantly, key players in energy supply to the West. None of this has been properly discussed in parliament, and although I’m congenitally disposed to be suspicious of conspiracy theories, it’s hard not to conclude that the real reason for putting everything into a debate about bombing is to bury these harder questions about alternative, more effective action against Daesh, an alternative that would go against other aspects of US-led policy which have been deemed more important than removing Daesh. In a truly grim, murderous way, this bombing is a displacement activity.

Perhaps Cameron and his friends can convince themselves they they are serving deeper national interests by playing these games. The experience in Iraq tells us otherwise. Since 1945 US foreign policy has, with only a few exceptions, been an unmitigated disaster. The British record has hardly been much better.

I don’t know whether the “allied” stance on Syria is in reality being driven by power games about energy security. Perhaps it really is just incompetence and arrogance. (If Iraq is anything to go by it’s both.) But when you’re asked to believe a story which won’t stand five seconds’ scrutiny, you have to ask what’s really going on.

Whatever the truth, we can say with confidence that here is yet another lie woven into the fabric of deceit which shrouds government action, certainly here in the UK, and probably the US too. That fabric makes a mockery of democracy, the value which above all we’re supposed to be upholding and evangelising. Daesh is monstrous, but such certainty is little comfort when we’re apparently led by such knaves or fools, and probably both.

Pumpkins and poppies

Pumpkins and poppies

On Saturday morning I was sitting in a coffee shop with the music from John Carpenter’s Hallowe’en playing on the sound system. Here in Folkestone we have an annual Zombie Walk, where people dress as zombies and parade through town (raising money for charity) and so there were a few around in preliminary versions of their fancy dress while the café staff too had been decked out in bloodstained shirts and some basic makeup (nothing that was going to scare the children of of course).

The fancy dress was just part of the background but I found the music strangely disturbing. Part of the genius of Carpenter’s original film is the way it injects threat back into what in the US has been a thorough normalisation of the grotesque, of our worst fears of death and monsters. Because music can be so powerfully evocative, can (if you know the film, and I’ve seen it many times) transport you to specific scenes, for a few moments it seemed possible that the cappuccino in front of me might become a prop in an extraordinary turning of events. Then again you can think of the joke in Shaun of the Dead, that for a while nobody really notices the zombies in Crouch End because they look, well, normal enough.

When I was child Hallowe’en was barely acknowledged. We’d do some apple bobbing perhaps, but that was about it. Everything’s changed in the last ten or fifteen years, to the point where I think it’s fair to say Hallowe’en now completely overshadows “bonfire night”.

That’s not necessarily something to regret. Raised as a Catholic (and instinctively republican) I’ve never been particularly keen on celebrating the failure of the Gunpowder Plot, and the consequent butchering of Guy Fawkes. I’m not suggesting that a Catholic ascendancy would have been any better, but it’s always seemed to me a depressing reflection of our respective prevailing cultures that in France (and even the US) people publicly celebrated the historic overthrow of an oppressive regime, while here in the UK we celebrated its survival.

I digress. The likely reasons for the new ascendancy of Hallowe’en are not all pleasing. It must be partly and simply the influence of US TV and cinema, but it’s probably mostly the fact that Hallowe’en offers more of a merchandising opportunity to retailers. Bonfire night opened the door only to fireworks, and even there the migration of firework displays from back gardens to larger more public events has probably reduced potential sales. From pumpkins to skeleton masks Hallowe’en promises more profit.

Its origins of course go much deeper than the imaginations of retailers, and from a tenable perspective what it highlights most is how far we’ve banished death from our normal experiences. Before the second half of the last century death was a regular physical presence. When people died (and they generally died younger) they often did so in a more visible way, rather than locked securely away in a hospital or care home. Disease and death were on the streets, in your bedrooms. I don’t suppose that made death any less frightening but it demanded more acknowledgement.

Creative work, including the street traditions of Hallowe’en and related celebrations like the Day of the Dead, has proved a natural way of handling that acknowledgement, and to some extent the fear. At the end of Plotted, Robert Lowell echoed Wittgenstein writing “Death’s not an event in life ― it’s not lived through.” It’s a tricky moment, the end of a poem which has been thinking about how art and the imagination influence our experience, how they affect our sense of meaning. Death ends those efforts, but the poem’s ending is not our ending, and it needs to be said that in a sense Wittgenstein did not mean, we do live through death, if only other people’s.

Religion plays its part here, and it seems it has more power to comfort us in the face of others’ loss than it does for the prospect of our own death. It seems decent to think of those we’ve loved “in a better place”, but religion gets more contrary when it comes to the confidence we could have in our own future bliss.

It’s interesting too that in our generally non-religious society the zombie should have come to the fore as our most disturbing monster, (while vampires have been romanticised and sexualised into safety).

Zombies were little more than a footnote in the horror canon till George Romero came up with Night of the Living Dead (though Hammer’s Plague of the Zombies, released in 1966 arguably anticipated it). Zombies morphed from the victims of dark magic into something more fundamental and chilling, a gruesome parody of our natural desire to survive death; better surely to be properly dead than be like that, which becomes a strange comfort.

The new zombie myths are not just about death. In Romero’s hands particularly they’ve become metaphors for mindless consumerism, and (in Land of the Dead) for a kind of righteous rebellious decency. In a surprising, ironic way they line up with the Jack O’Lanterns, witches’ hats and glowing skulls to normalise and neutralise our terrors.

This seems to be how institutionalised metaphors and symbols are supposed to work on us, and I think it explains why I’ve never felt comfortable with other big public symbol of this October/November period, the poppy.

Let me stress that I think it proper and important to honour and remember the sacrifice of those who have given their lives in war. My problem is with those who dishonour that memory while standing solemnly before the Cenotaph. My problem is with the hypocrite politicians and other Establishment representatives who will intone their pious platitudes about death, sacrifice and honour while cheerfully continuing to embrace murder as a legitimate means to advance notions of national interest.

The use of symbols and informal ritual matters here because, like the the trappings of Hallowe’en, it distances and sanitises. It also absolves. In the same light I struggle with the way that recently all members of the armed forces are routinely called “heroes”. This diminishes real heroism, but it also (and ironically in the name of charity) pushes the military into a special space, a space beyond our normal experience, a space which might involve sudden and brutal death. It renders this aspect of life or policy extraordinary and so marginalises moral issues which ought to concern us more.

Last year Folkestone’s Conservative mayor tried to stir public outrage against the Zombie Walk, and happily failed. Apparently not a thoughtful person she argued that dressing as the undead was somehow twisted and disturbing, when it’s part of a tradition which is the exact opposite, a benign impulse to live with the reality of death in our lives. I’m sure she’s got a poppy in her lapel right now. I wish wearing a poppy was as simple and decent as the fun and games of Hallowe’en, but as long as the likes of Blair and Cameron sport them, I will not.

The good old days

The good old days

As I write my father is in an operating theatre having a pacemaker fitted. I’m a little worried of course, but I know it’s a straightforward operation, and promises him a new lease of life. He’s 83 and for much of the last year has been struggling to catch his breath, increasingly incapable of any exertion. He was diagnosed with an enlarged heart, which they have already treated successfully with drugs. The pacemaker should be the last step towards a full recovery.

He’s been lucky. He’s smoked heavily since he was a teenager, drunk too much, eats what he wants and hasn’t done any formal exercise since he finished his National Service. And yet this is the first bout of serious illness he’s suffered in his life.

Maybe it helps that he hasn’t worked for thirty years. He was the deputy borough architect in Medway when Margaret Thatcher decided local authorities didn’t need any retained expertise in building design, and so was made redundant. He had a good pension and has lived on it ever since.

It can be hard watching a parent age. About twenty five years ago after the end of his second marriage Dad became depressed and suffered panic attacks. He’d come to visit us in London and had an attack just after we’d all gone to bed. He was sitting on the edge of the bed in his underpants, struggling to breathe. It was the first time I’d seen him looking vulnerable, and the shock of it is vivid to me even now.

Still he’s kept his good looks. He’s shrunk a bit, his hair thinner and white, but he’s slim and is instantly recognisable from his younger self. He came to see me last week (he’s still very mobile) and though his heart problem meant there was little point in going to the pub to drink beer (he can only consume a litre and a half of liquid in a day) we stayed up late as usual, drinking brandy, arguing about unimportant things.

Age creeps up on you. Like most people who’ve ever got this far I don’t feel much different from the way I was in my 20s. My eyesight has deteriorated, my hair gone grey, and a knackered knee has stopped me running, but otherwise I feel ok. It’s only when you look around that you realise that life is filling up in your wake, that the ads built around stories of young families and nest building represent a stage you’ve already passed through.

Courtesy of my long time friend Emma on Facebook yesterday I watched a music video featuring an 89 year old Dick Van Dyke dancing vigorously, trying to coax his 43 year old wife from the stove to join him (which she does). I went through a predictable gamut of responses, thinking he looked great, that it was heartening to see his refusal to slow down, wondering what a woman 46 years younger was doing with him.

Such responses reflect an uncomfortable conjunction of realism and prejudice, prejudices that we should all be letting go (me included). Although male film stars frequently have much younger partners we tend to assume that the attraction of power and money probably has something to do with it. Moreover, when younger people marry the very old we will assume (with some reason) that they’re looking forward to the reading of the will. I went on to read an interview with the newish Mrs Van Dyke, and she told a different, convincing story. Though I was never a fan of his screen persona (least of all in Mary Poppins) seeing Dick Van Dyke in the video, like my father still very recognisable from his younger self, it was easy to believe he could still be charming and delightful, and that she might simply have fallen in love with him.

At one point in the interview a different sadder reality kicked back in. She spoke of her hope that her husband might live to be 110, but in truth every year they have together now has to be counted a bonus. Perhaps he could last another ten years, but it’s more likely he won’t.

When you’re young it’s natural to fear death. It seems remote, impossible even. Age can bring some consolation here, especially if you have children and they themselves have grown to maturity, a feeling of the biological job being done. Death becomes a more reasonable presence in our lives. All the same I suspect that one of the defining differences between my current middle age and older age is that death moves from being an increased possibility to become an ever-present probability, a probability you have to learn to live with.

The possibility forces itself on you. As a teenager there were a few contemporaries around me who died, killed in accidents or in one case by illness. But these things register as exceptional, freakish even. Last week I learned my old BT mate Alan Brough had died from oesophageal cancer. He was only a few years older than me, and though I can tell myself that he smoked a lot, while I never have, I know in reality that this kind of fatal illness is no longer freakish in my age group.

We need realism. Patterns of mortality might have changed in the developed nations, but they still define the arc of our lives in one way or another, and it’s good if we can adapt to the changes brought by age with dignity. But we also need to acknowledge how much has changed, and look critically at the prejudices about ageing that are themselves unrealistic or misplaced.

We are living longer lives in good health. The median age has moved upwards. This has happened in the space of a generation so perhaps it’s not surprising that cultural attitudes have not kept pace. We still live in a culture that routinely venerates youth and undervalues experience. There are better ways of looking at all of life’s stages. Finding new pleasures in maturity, as I have with music performance, cannot sensibly be understood as a mid-life crisis (I’m a much better player now than I was in teenage bands). We need a corresponding shift in our attitudes to working lives (I’ve written about this at greater length here), and for the sake of our general well being we need to enjoy whatever we can do, for as long as we can do it. Perhaps the Van Dykes’ marriage will prove a relatively short one, but dear God if you’re lucky enough to find love you have to take it for all it can be.

I’ll end this with the lyrics to a song I wrote last year. Its roots are in an Irish air I’ve known since my teens, a lovely melody called The Lark in the Clear Air. The title inspired the words, though they demanded a different complementary tune, which I duly wrote. My father hated most of the music his teenage children brought into the house, but he liked this Irish stuff, perhaps because it spoke to him of his own childhood and he would whistle the Lark melody as he went about his chores.

When I was just a dreaming child
I’d rise with the light, the warming air
I felt as clear as the brightening day
Untouched by doubt or faith’s despair.
Older now I hold my ground
The earth beneath my freckled hands
The sky still hangs like hope above
The dream of distant untouched lands.

A bird can rise and sing, its song
Is not like words but beating wings
It comes from something out of mind
The call of unimagined things.
And now I know I’ll never fly
Will never reach what seemed so near
It’s only time that beat me down.
As feathers thicken the falling air.

In my dreams if I clenched my thoughts
Shut out the world, and closed my eyes
My feet would leave the earth
Breathing the skies.

I don’t suppose he’ll ever read this because he doesn’t do computers, but I’ll dedicate it to him now with love: be well again Dad.

The long con

The long con

The success of the Conservatives in the UK’s general election could be seen as a triumph of spin, or its last dying thrash. The future will depend on how well the progressive parties understand their failure, and how a more compelling and realistic narrative of the last forty years could better serve them.

The UK media will be awash for the next few days with political post-mortems, following the surprise election of David Cameron’s Conservatives. Not least because these blogs have a substantial US readership I don’t want to go too far along the same road, but I do want to reflect on some of the implications for political conduct generally in a representative democracy, and specifically what all this might mean for spin culture and its relation to political narratives.

Ignorance as virtue

The English are not a particularly well-educated nation. We’re no worse than the Americans perhaps, but we have to live here with a cultural suspicion of knowledge and learning, as well as a mainstream belief that politics is really for nerds and wonks, and that decent ordinary people for the most part keep away from it. I’m not suggesting that other countries are somehow more intelligent than the English, just that there’s a strong strain in English culture that sees political ignorance as a virtue rather than a problem.

The stereotype is benignly embodied in Clive Candy, Powell and Pressburger’s Colonel Blimp: decent, honourable, likeable and dim, he would have seen voting Tory not so much as a political act as simply what you do. This as I say is the benign view, though Powell and Pressburger’s immediate point was to suggest that such amiable buffoonery was not up to the horror of the Nazi threat.

It’s not like this in most other European countries: politicians might be seen as easily corrupt and venal everywhere, but most Europeans are not so detached from or ignorant about political issues as the English (I’m carefully not writing “British” because it’s become all too clear that the Scots are in a different position).

Our political system both reflects and reinforces this culture. “First past the post” developed in quite different conditions from where we find ourselves now and has proved itself repeatedly dysfunctional (if you believe that the purpose of democracy is to make governments accountable to public opinion). Both Labour and Tory governments have enjoyed large majorities on the back of minority shares of the vote. Minority views are routinely under-represented or excluded completely. Apologists for FPP argue strangely that it produces strong government, as if strong government could only occur by marginalising all but an unrepresentative single party’s voice, as if there would always be a problem if you demanded that politicians sought areas of agreement in the national interest.

It’s a reflection of Britain’s anti-political culture that a referendum four years ago on whether we should move to a fairer electoral system was met with substantial voter indifference. The British it seemed didn’t care to think too much about such technicalities: that’s one for the political wonks. Labour’s self-interested ambivalence about reform didn’t help.

The Scottish independence referendum marked a sea change in political activism, a change that has spilt out into this election. But the change is a Scottish rather than English phenomenon (the rise and falter of UKIP’s regressive nationalism is not comparable) and in any case beyond my scope here.

Tribalism and soundbites

For most of the last century Britain operated a two party system governed largely by tribal allegiances, again reflecting a political culture where people didn’t want to think too hard about the choices in front of them. This has proved a fertile breeding ground for spin, for the reduction of serious questions to trivial soundbites and slogans, fed by a populist (if patronising) media heavily entrenched on the Right. There are parallels with the US in all this, though I’ll leave it to others with more specific knowledge to explore them.

This was the political culture that the Blair project, drawing inspiration from Bill Clinton, sought to exploit by outplaying the hostile media at their own game. It was a project that sought to grab the parts of a right wing agenda that might be confusingly reassuring to its media, while sneaking social democratic reform beneath the radar. In electoral terms it was clearly successful, but it had two dire consequences. The first was that it drew those Labour administrations into such close continuity with their Conservative predecessors that they hardly scratched the surface of the structural reform we really needed (the upshot was Britain’s exposure to the fallout from the catastrophic failure of neoliberal market policies in the crash of 2008, an abject failure still barely acknowledged in British political narratives). The second was that winning elections became a game of spin, soundbites and story manipulation, lessons quickly understood by that ex-PR man and Blair admirer David Cameron.

Truth be told

It’s axiomatic both in political life, and in wider professional communication circles, that every political party needs to find its narrative. It’s a lesson that to some extent politicians have learned from businesses, even if businesses themselves don’t face the same pressure to simplify that has fallen on politicians. Also in the commercial world the growth of the internet, of uncontrollable scrutiny in social media and alternative commentary has created a real pressure on business narratives to ground themselves in truth rather than wishful thinking and the platitudes of spin. It’s an idea businesses are still exploring, however hard it is for them to let go of old habits.

This change is overdue in politics. The English are not just often ignorant about politics. They are also generally cynical, with some justice feeling that life in the Westminster village is completely detached from their own. That cynicism is fuelled by politicians’ own apparent readiness to treat the idea of truth as a matter of interpretation.

Politicians have long been blamed for making promises they don’t keep, and then being evasive when challenged. But this election campaign hit new lows in the way the Tories peddled downright lies about Labour, and Labour’s failure to counter the biggest lie of all is almost certainly the reason why they failed to regain the support of middle England.

Tony Blair and his supporters are already saying that Labour’s failure lay in their abandonment of the centre ground, and their lurch to the left. This is dangerous claptrap, partly because their centrist position clearly didn’t help the Liberal Democrats at all, partly because Miliband’s flagship populist policies (raising the minimum wage, clamping down on energy prices, ending the non-dom tax anomaly) were only “red” in the hysterical doublespeak of right wing media.

For their part it has to be said that the Tory campaign was a shambles, pitching around for any idea that might lift their apparently frozen approval rating, even throwing in an unfunded pledge to protect NHS spending which undermined whatever claims they were making for fiscal rectitude (and with it what little they have in the way of a positive narrative for their programme).

But none of this mattered because they were able to draw on a single, overarching idea, historically and apparently still currently fatal to Labour.

It’s the economy, stupid.

And it’s also the biggest lie in post war British politics, but there you go. It’s quite true that Labour is always likely to favour more state involvement in national life than the Tories, and so are ideologically inclined to favour higher public spending than any party on the Right, but the consequent and pervasive notion that every time Labour takes power the Tories have to clean up their mess is the mirror opposite of the truth. In the 1960s Roy Jenkins and in the 1970s Denis Healey were far more competent chancellors than their Tory predecessors, though both took the rap for the hard decisions they had to make to rectify the mistakes of those predecessors. To be fair in the 90s it was the Tory Kenneth Clarke who began to pick up the pieces from the failures of his party colleagues Nigel Lawson and Norman Lamont, a job continued by Gordon Brown.

The return to form

The critical change for Labour in the Blair years was that they seemed to upend this core (and false) narrative about economic competence. In this they were probably lucky: Britain’s exit from the EU exchange rate mechanism under Norman Lamont in 1992 had taken on a totemic importance. I doubt many people understood its real causes or what it meant, but it offered a ready peg on which to hang an accusation of Tory economic incompetence, and until the crash of 2008 that accusation stuck.

Until the crash the Tories’ ideas about the economy had barely deviated from Gordon Brown’s. It’s hard for politicians to argue with what looked like a successful formula. If pushed (though no one has even tried to do that) I don’t suppose David Cameron or George Osborne would really argue that Brown’s government had caused the banking crisis. What they would say is that his policies had weakened the UK’s ability to withstand such a shock. Never mind that before the crash the Tories themselves had put forward no ideas or policies that would have made any difference, or the inconvenient truth that between the crash and the 2010 election Brown and his chancellor Alistair Darling had already achieved the first movement towards a recovery, a movement quickly squashed by the Coalition’s own incompetent economic management.

We were back with the familiar story. In fact, the Coalition leaders were quite happy to imply that the crash had been caused by Labour incompetence, by Gordon Brown’s reckless spending, and the public seemed to revert to the default view of Labour as wreckers of the British economy, even if (as usual) the policies then being pursued by the Tory led coalition have demonstrably hampered recovery.

Astonishingly the Labour front bench seemed unwilling to counter. Perhaps they lacked faith in themselves. Perhaps they believed the standard PR idea that to engage with such a false argument would only give it credence. It was a catastrophic misjudgement, giving the Coalition ample opportunity to turn a lie into received wisdom. It seems then with hindsight, that Labour lost the 2015 election somewhere around 2011.

Simple, clear, and wrong

There’s a miserable paradox at work here. Electoral appeal really is about the economy (stupid), but the English don’t have a political culture in which economic issues can be intelligently or adequately discussed. By swinging to the Tories last week did the English prove that on the whole they are as selfish and vicious as the ideology of the party they have just elected? I doubt they thought about it that deeply, being led (and inevitably misled) by an instinctive reaching for managerial reassurance.

Changing that core narrative once more is going to be tough. Blair and Brown were able to capitalise on the memory of Black Wednesday and the ERM exit. Such a totemic failure may well crop up again in the next five years, or it may not, and in its absence progressive parties are going need to find a better and more enduring way than in the past of showing that their ideas offer a more reliable route to sustainable prosperity.

Doing this probably means moving beyond distinctive party political narratives. Arguably it’s about putting over and embedding a more truthful narrative about what’s happened in the UK and beyond in the last forty years. It’s a narrative in which inequality is not seen as an inevitable and necessary by-product of sensible political behaviour, but as an economic problem in itself, a problem that threatens both social cohesion and commercial productivity, a sign that capital itself is no longer supporting productivity and competitiveness.

Does it matter that this narrative is strictly truthful? After all, respect for veracity has hardly held the Tories back. Having truth on your side is clearly not enough, but then it seems that putting a progressive case against the grain of England’s embedded political culture is going to need all the help it can get.

Ironically I think Miliband’s camp was well aware of the need to push this different narrative, but never found the means or created the space to articulate it in terms that the politically indifferent English would understand and accept. It’s apparent too that a leader needs more than decency and integrity (qualities Miliband had in spades) to put such a narrative across. It needs charisma too. Such charisma was Bill Clinton’s special gift. Obama is probably the better orator, but he’s never been as liked, and therefore trusted. Blair too had some of the same gift, though his political vision was so narrow that it never served anything but his desire to win.

Old ideas die slowly. The fact that the English have clambered onto what they mistakenly see as safe ground doesn’t mean they will be able to stay there. An old lie has served David Cameron well, but the next five years are going to be turbulent to say the least. The big electoral issue in five years’ time will still be the economy, but at this stage it’s impossible to say how much that issue will have been reshaped or indeed further distorted by the resurgent nationalist forces witlessly unleashed by the Tories in their campaign. But just as businesses are having to learn to deal with reality in how they see and speak of themselves, so too will the pressure of political reality (and a more grounded narrative about the state we’re in) assert itself. The question for progressive parties is whether they want to sit around waiting for that to happen, in the meantime indulging themselves with old and irrelevant factional battles, or whether they work to take hold of that real narrative, make it their own, and somehow lead the English to understand it’s their story too.