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UK General Election: Demented already? Help is at hand if you know where to look!

April 16, 2015

UK Election Graph

Here in jolly old Britain we’re halfway through the periodic bout of insanity otherwise known as a general election campaign. Way back when, the political parties, of which there were only two that counted instead of seven (how we used to look down on the Italians, who never seemed able to elect a stable government!) would announce their manifestos, appear in a few party political broadcasts and set off into the country for their once-in-a-blue-moon encounters with the voters.

These days the parties, or rather the leaders (because nobody counts but them, do they?) unleash a carefully choreographed cascade of announcements, photo opportunities, tweets and factory visits. And that’s before they launch their manifestos! The manifestos themselves are carefully timed so that everybody has their turn in the spotlight. Yesterday, it was the turn of the UK Independence Party, from somewhere in Tonbridge, and the Social Democratic Labour Party of Northern Ireland. Or was it the Democratic Social Labour Party, or the Popular Front for the Liberation of Judea?

Anyway, thank goodness for that. At least we know where all the parties stand, don’t we? Not without the assistance of a swarm of media analysts, we don’t. We need them to tell us of the gaping holes in logic, and warn us which policies are or are not properly costed. The empty promises, in other words.

All this desperate nonsense from well-meaning people – because yes, most British politicians are well-meaning – causes me to reflect on what a bewildering world we find ourselves in, especially if, like me, we grew up in simpler times. Not better, by the way, because I don’t buy UKIP’s bitter attempts to turn back the clock to an age when husbands beat wives with impunity, landlords banned blacks and the Irish, and stockbrokers like Nigel Farage worked two hours a day, sandwiched between boozy train rides between Brighton and the City. Just simpler.

Take the family, for example, or more specifically those in the upper strata of society.

Once upon a time the offspring of well-to-do families would have followed highly predictable career paths. The oldest male would inherit the estate or the family business. The next son would become a priest. Younger sons ones would work for a living as stockbrokers, doctors or lawyers. Alternatively they would head east (or west) to make their fortunes within the Empire or the New World. The women would be married off. Those who failed to find a match would become maiden aunts who cared for their parents as they grew elderly. If they happened to be Catholic, the nunnery also awaited.

These days – thanks to better education and the housing boom, there are many more people who would be described as well-to-do by the standards of the 19th Century. The really wealthy still hire people to do everything for them. The rest of us have to fend for ourselves. We can do the shopping without a concierge. We can look after our kids without a nanny. We can do our own cleaning without a maid from Ethiopia. We can mow the lawn, buy things online, go on holidays in ordinary aircraft, drive ordinary cars.

Career opportunities for today’s reasonably well-to-do are also more diverse. Choices of university courses are far wider. This doesn’t go down well with everyone. Graduates in the more traditional disciplines – engineering, law, accountancy and the liberal arts – might sniff at some of the newer degrees.

Media studies, for example. Don’t we have enough media types queueing up to be smacked by Jeremy Clarkson? Then there’s leisure and hospitality. I suppose you could argue that golf clubs, hotels and gyms contribute somewhat to Britain’s GDP.

But psychologists? A parasitical profession if ever there was one, busy putting chocolates at the check-out counters to pile the pressure on harassed mums, watching monkeys copulate and creating yet more “conditions” to fuel our mental hypochondria.

IT graduates? More cannon fodder to propel into ill-conceived government projects that cost the taxpayer billions but achieve little more than to compound the frustrations of the long-suffering public who have to deal with online as well as human bureaucracy.  Or clambering on board Apple, Google and the myriad start-ups churning out products and apps that nobody really needs.

But in the Big Society – much touted by the Conservatives in the last election campaign – in which people help each other for free, there’s an opportunity for some of these much maligned folks to do something worthwhile. Not least to help out doddering old parents in return for their inheritances.

In the old days it was handy to have a lawyer in your family to protect your wealth, a doctor to keep you alive and a priest to see to your spiritual well-being.

If we assume that modern families still rely on the younger generation for support and expertise that they might otherwise have to pay for, nowadays very different skills are needed to keep us from going insane with worry, and enable us to spend our newly-liberated pension funds in peace and serenity. These days it seems to me that whether we know it or not are three types of person that every family should be able to call upon for help if needed: a media studies graduate, a psychologist and a techno-geek.

Why so? Well, let’s take the current election season. To start with, it should be absolutely obvious to any voter that you need to spend about eight hours a day watching TV and reading the print and online media to figure out what the hell the politicians are raving on about. Should you therefore back off, shut your eyes to the stuff coming at you from all angles and vote by your gut feeling, or according to family tradition (as in “I’ve always voted conservative”)?

Then how do you ensure you and your fellow voters are not being taken for a ride? That’s where the family helpers come in. Your media studies graduate should be able tell you what is spin and what isn’t. She will be able to help you distinguish between contrived stories and genuine ones. And if it’s not already blindingly obvious, she may be able to help you tell the difference between scare stories and real problems.

And your psychologist son may know something about micro-expressions, and be able to help you detect the transient facial tics which indicate that the very plausible politician staring at the camera with a piously sincere expression is actually lying between his or her teeth. He might also be able to point you to phrases they use that have absolutely no meaning whatsoever but are designed to send the seratonin coursing through your veins. Either that, or lull you into a contented sleep on the couch in front of Newsnight.

All that emotional stuff like assurance, well-being and security gives you the feeling that you’ll be in safe hands with this or that politician, despite the grim reality that no government – can control more than, say, 25% of the outcomes they promise. Why? Because there’s little any individual government can do to mitigate a natural catastrophe like a super-volcano, or man-made disasters like the collapse of the Chinese economy, the implosion of the euro-zone or war with Russia. Be afraid. Be very afraid, then call on your family psychologist, psychiatrist or therapist for help.

I haven’t mentioned the geeks yet have I? Apart from helping you to block unwanted emails from political parties, their use in an election is of limited value unless you’re an election geek yourself, in which case he can direct you to opinion on the social media, or help you to decipher the opinion polls that predict the outcome of the election based on the opinion of one man and his dog from Luton.

The geeks have other uses, which we’ll come to in a while.

Once the election is over, things will return to normal, and we’ll return to normal nightmares. The problem for middle-aged citizens of the 21st century like me, is that many of us are ravenous users of the internet. We’re blessed with always-on broadband. We who shop for 50% of what we buy online. We’re partial to the odd tweet and we like keeping tabs on our kids on Facebook. We suffer through hours of ads on telly, on the radio and on the web. Unless we switch off al devices and run to a monastery where we can moulder away in our final years, we cannot escape from people trying to sell us stuff – directly or indirectly.

This weekend I watched the coverage of the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race – a feature of British heritage that most foreigners find utterly inexplicable. Not so long ago you would have had to sit through 15 minutes of nonsense about the teams, and then straight into the race. These days the whole thing is sponsored up to the eyeballs. Interminable pre-race coverage, interviews with the stroke’s granddad and the cox’s cousin, pictures of the coach’s dog. A pre-race tableau withthe teams lined up in front of – you guessed it – the sponsor’s logo. And a trophy, as if the glory of crushing the other buggers in blue wasn’t enough. For what? For the viewer? No way. For the crews, maybe. I guess the money goes towards technology that shaves a few seconds off the race time. So rowing is heading in the same direction as Formula One, where the kit rather the knucklehead behind the wheel determines the outcome. What happened to Chariots of Fire?

And has anyone noticed how smart and pervasive the online media has become? I make a search on a flight to Riyadh, and seemingly until the end of time I will get emails telling me about cheap flights to just about every city in the Middle East. I look at Amazon to check out lawnmowers, and for some reason Jeff Bezos has become convinced that I’m looking for enough equipment to maintain the gardens of Hampton Court Palace.

This is not to mention all the spam you get from people who have stolen your details from some online vendor with useless security, or because you agreed that your details could be shared with others by pressing the Agree button to terms and conditions longer than the Encyclopaedia Britannica (the very fact that I mention that august publication shows my age, doesn’t it?).

I have a Gmail account which readers of this blog can use to communicate with me if you so chose. The trouble is that a thousand social media geeks have hovered up my details, so that for every single email I get from a reader, I have to skip over a countless offerings from publicists who want to tell me that there’s a very good hospital in Abu Dhabi that specialises in repairing anal fistulas. And before you ask, no, I have never suffered from that dire affliction, nor have I ever done an online search for an elderly relative whose world is coming out of his bottom, so to speak.

So send me a media studies graduate who can tell me why I’m being bombarded with all this ordure. Give me a psychologist who can help me come to terms with this loathsome new world in which everything coming at me has a price or an ulterior motive attached to it. Call a geek to show me how I can protect myself from and army of phishers and fraudsters that want to rob and exploit me. I may be wise to the cyber-robbers now, but what about decades from now when my marbles are going but I still retain enough savvy to use the internet, and when the internet of things offers perennial temptation to press a button and buy what I don’t need?

Watching those fine athletes posing and preening before rowing their guts out down the Thames makes me wonder where the sponsors will go from here. Will we have sponsored war? Will celebrities invite magazines to be present at the birth of their children? What about funerals – sponsored by Goodbye Magazine? Will logos be genetically engineered to appear on the backsides of elephants? People are already renting their bodies for tattoos of logos, so why not embed the logo in your DNA?

It seems to me that we are in an age when the media is more important than the people it serves. When Lynton Crosby, the Conservative Party’s Aussie spin doctor virtually orders David Cameron to demote Michael Gove from his high profile job as Education Minister because the Gove brand is not playing well with the customers – aka the voters. When a star journalist like Nick Kristof of the New York Times has the audacity to tweet about the detention of a Bahraini political activist: “Bahrain’s government is enraged by @NABEELRAJAB’s post on my blog. If they really want to show Bahrain is inclusive, just give me a visa!” Yes Nick, and why don’t they make you King of Bahrain while they’re at it?

Let’s not even talk about product placements in film and TV shows, about websites that take an age to load because because of the ads, about the rubbish that adulterates social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, about brain-rotting lists from Buzzfeed and inane videos that tell you that you won’t believe what Grandma did next, and the ten calls a day from robots trying to convince you that your bank has ripped you off or that tiny dink you had in your car has given you a life-changing whiplash injury. The Mad Men now seem to rule a Mad World.

You might think of this as a dyspeptic rant of a grumpy old man. And yes, we’re all being bombarded with ads, manipulated by spin doctors and saturated with sponsors. It’s life. We should be used to it by now. But consider the role the dark arts have played in the rise of Isis, and in the capture of the Russian media by Vladimir Putin that has resulted in 87% of the population thinking he walks on water. Consider also British newspapers that are alleged to back off from incriminating stories about their advertisers; the diet industry that leads us up hill and down dale to persuade us to use products that end up discredited next week; the sustainable energy industry that rips out the rain forest in pursuit of bio-fuels; the fashion industry that clothes us on the back of slave labour; the IT and telecoms industry that sells us products with features most of us never use. I could go on, but you’d go to sleep if you haven’t started nodding already.

There are a few heroes out there who resist the temptation of squeezing every drop of commercial benefit from what they do.

Andy Murray, who got married last weekend without the benefit of a million pound fee from Hello Magazine or its analogues. Jordan Speith, who won the US Masters golf tournament at the age of 21, and has already set up a charitable foundation to help kids with special needs and injured veterans. And there are a few members of the super-rich fraternity who do some good. People like Bill Gates who, despite his company’s questionable business tactics, redeems himself by ploughing vast sums into medical research. Whereas other plutocrats pour their wealth into political campaigns that leave you wondering if any politician in the US can succeed without being hopelessly compromised by the money they receive from 0.01 percent of the population.

As for me, I will never be able to influence more than the flight of a butterfly. But rest assured that my humble efforts in this blog to inform, amuse and provoke will never be underpinned by anyone’s money. You will never see a paid ad on these pages (unless I get desperate of course!).

When it’s time to shuffle off, assuming it’s to the next world, a part of me wonders if the decision to send me to heaven or hell will have been outsourced to some celestial service company, and will, as some religions promise, be based on a gigantic database that has recorded our every thought and deed – also outsourced no doubt. After all, who knows what Steve Jobs and Margaret Thatcher are up to these days?

From → Politics, Social, UK

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