Sunday, October 09, 2005

God Help Us All

Simon Jenkins argues in today's Sunday Times that personality is absolutely vital; that in politics, policy might as well be left behind. Hence his support of David Cameron - and, given the vacuousness of Cameron's policy pronouncements, his presentation seems to be just about the only way in which a thinking person would support him.

Recent experience shows that people want a political leader with whom they can feel comfortable, irrespective of party allegiance or parliamentary popularity. When Blair departs the scene I doubt if anyone will remember a policy to link with his name (other than Iraq). In this he is like Bill Clinton. Yet both men passed the charisma test. They rose above the artifice of political salesmanship.

To that list he should add George Bush - but that's probably too much of an uncomfortable truth to Sir Simon. What depresses me most is that this should be printed as a seemingly unremarkable piece. Where do we stand if the ability to become Prime Minister depends on little more than your ability to come across on TV as a nice, personable bloke who feels the nations pain? We stand looking over the precipice, with Home Office pet projects like ID cards about to become a reality, that's where.

If anyone perpetuates the myth of the personality above all, then it is the media - a media which, I might add, is far more pernicious to politics than the US media. In America, if a politician tries to evade a question, the interviewer will usually respond by saying something along the lines of "that's a very interesting point you raise, and we can come back to that later. But it doesn't answer the question that I've asked". Far less confrontational, and far more effective than the hostility and faux-horror espoused by the Paxmans and Humphrys of the world.

There's a good reason you only see the party leaders on Newsnight once in a blue moon - because they know there is absolutely no point to being there unless they have to be. A question is never answered because there's no intelligent debate. In America, an absence of ideas can steal the show in an interview: that's been the problem facing the Democrats. And it's the problem facing the Tories in Britain, too, however much they like to pretend otherwise. A party taken in so forcefully by so vacuous and forced a speech hasn't woken up to the fact it is sadly lacking in ideas.

That's the sort of atmosphere where demagogues like Blair and Cameron can turn on the glitzy lights and make thinking people turn weak-kneed at the prospect of their becoming leader. And it fundamentally cheapens politics when it happens. It turns schools and hospitals into political pawns; being used as battering rams for one party against another, rather than actually trying to find a way of treating someones family "better and faster". Politics isn't a sport of the blue team against the red team - it's supposed to be about what's doing the best thing for the progression of the country, and for the well-being of its citizens. If, as Jenkins says, "Blair was not the means by which Labour gained power in 1997. Labour was the means by which Blair gained power", then we're in incredibly deep shit.

Of course, it's not right. Blair was able to make Labour a political force, and he's certainly charmed and slimed his way to far larger majorities than the charmless Kinnocks, Smiths and Browns of this world could have done. But let's not forget how abject the Tories were - how much they seemed to abuse the public's trust, how meekly they appeared to respond to recession; how they destroyed their own reputation for economic competence through Black Wednesday and the ERM. Policies, not personalities, causing the collapse of a government.

A leader like Blair can mask governmental defects, simply by being better at the despatch box. But William Hague was brilliant at the despatch box, and look where it got him. Not just because of the Labour spin machine, but because a campaign based on asylum and saving the pound didn't actually appeal to Britain. Because there wasn't anything to stand on, to build an image across, to portray a view of competence to run the country.

Chicken Yoghurt has the right idea. Let's make the two parties boring, cheerless brands. Let's expose the media cycle for the charade it is. Let's reclaim politics and actually have an engagement based on ideas, rather than fashionable stop-the-war slogans and a soundbite or two from a speech. It's a sad state of affairs when Nick Robinson's opinion, or the view of a couple of headline writers, makes or breaks a conference speech.

There's a lot going wrong with this country, no matter what action you think should be taken to remedy it. The education system is in a politically-meddled-with mess, our standing in the world has rarely been lower, we fail to take any leadership in Europe, our police wants to lock people up for three months without a trial, whilst our economy is about to head south if experts are to be believed. And the papers aren't full of discussions on how to solve this. They're talking about what David Cameron did at university and quoting Frank Luntz saying that Cameron "re-invented politics for him". Bloody hell.

Where have all the ideas gone? There are so many things that could be done, could be advocated, and they are sacrificed on the altar of a headline. On the altar of a fifteen second slot on the news. And we wonder why the country seems to lurch from bad news to bad news.