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On levelling up and other fantasies

October 12, 2021

One glance at a news clip showing a politician flashing a manufactured smile at the camera that Melania Trump or Gordon Brown would have been proud of was enough. The annual political beauty parade was upon us.

It’s been interesting, in a grim kind of a way, to watch the posing and prattling of Britain’s politicians during the party conference season. Not as interesting, perhaps, as living through an energy shock and a bewildering array of new problems that seem to be surfacing every day. But it’s comforting to ask familiar questions, such as what works best in politics these days. I suppose that depends on what you’re looking to achieve.

A smiling face, twinkling eyes, a modicum of charm, real humour as opposed to speech-writers’ wit? A stream of clichés directed at a well-researched target audience, laced with familiar refrains that appeal to the half-considered beliefs that most of us are afraid to articulate in public?

Or righteous anger, directed in a volley of abuse towards a government, a segment of society or an economic class? Nothing like a bit of scum-chucking to get the blood boiling.

Perhaps the appearance of passion hits the spot – a self-portrait to illustrate personal principles and credentials, a laundry list of uncontroversial aspirations that carefully avoid subjects likely to cause storms on the social media and a desire to reach the most people with the least commitment. The projection of conviction without the risk of trial?

If you’re a voter, will you opt for a party led by a roundhead – full of virtue, modest yet determined, driven by a creed that transcends individuals and looks to the common good? Or will you choose a cavalier – a cuddly teddy bear with an overactive penis and a sense of fun?

Is the importance of the leader overestimated? Is it more desirable that the political team contains a range of personalities – from the opportunistic buffoon to the humourless keeper of the flame and every shade between?

Or do people vote with their tribe, those they feel are like-minded and whose loyalties to party transcend personalities and whose affiliation is built into their sense of who they are?

What happens when the tribe is threatened with extinction, or for reasons of changing personal motivation starts to fragment? Do new tribes form, or do the remnants of old ones launch bitter rearguard actions to protect their perceived wellbeing, driven by fear and resentment?

And how do politicians navigate the social media, which is the most powerful platform for influence and demagogy since Demosthenes and Alcibiades whipped up emotions in Ancient Athens? Do they take the high road of principle or walk down the gutter to the lowest common denominator?

We have seen all these phenomena in recent years, both in British politics and in other countries, most notably the United States.

The idea of a team of all the talents, however desirable, is dangerous for a leader who wishes to remain in office for a substantial term. Leaving aside actual competence, every team member with a talent for self-promotion is a potential rival. So the leader devotes considerable energy in neutralising or at least controlling those whom they see as a potential threat to their supremacy. Who does a prime minister or a president fear most: the enemy within or the enemy at the gates?

These thoughts kept flitting across my addled mind as Britain celebrated the return of the party conference season. A year ago, COVID forced these events online. Now they were back in the flesh. An opportunity for the faithful to convene, protest, plot, drink into the early hours and, who knows, fornicate, with the like-minded. Seeing opportunities to raise their profiles, ambitious nobodies were like ducks in a pond chasing after crumbs thrown by small children, scrabbling for media attention, best faces forward and lines to take at the ready.

Those of us who are unfaithful and uncommitted look on, reliant on such scraps as the media chose to share with us. In normal times, if such ever existed, we might shrug our shoulders and move on to more interesting stuff.

But these are not normal times. Supply chains are breaking down. No fuel, and the Great British Christmas might not be so happy. Energy prices rocketing, and COVID still rampant. Not forgetting, of course, the steady drumbeat of concern over climate change.

The problem for politicians is not that there are problems. There are always problems, great or small. It’s in the nature of politicians to promise solutions, to take credit for fortunate accidents and avoid blame for obvious mistakes.

So what is a politician to do if confronted by problems that will take decades to resolve? There’s little credit to be gained by taking baby steps, often costly and disruptive, that will not come to fruition until the instigators are well beyond their time in office, and perhaps well into their dotage.

Take the concept of levelling up, for example. Raising areas of the country out of poverty and deprivation has become a flagship policy of the current government. But turning towns and cities ravaged by the decline of manufacturing, the death of the coal industry and the demise of ship-building into localised economic powerhouses was a goal of successive governments long before some bright spark came up with the slogan of levelling up.

We’ve seen initiatives here and projects there, funded by grants and subsidies. Training, re-skilling and upskilling of the workforce in areas of economic blight. Money spent, some wisely, some less so. Grand strategies degenerating into piecemeal tactics based on inadequate forecasting and the impossibility of predicting future growth opportunities. Who, thirty years ago, anticipated the social media, online retail and the gig economy?

Levelling up, a fantasy concocted by a party determined to consolidate electoral gains in areas not previously considered its natural territory, will come and go like the seasons. It will be replaced by new promises, new initiatives. In thirty years’ time, there will still be poverty, depressed areas and inequality, though perhaps in different parts of the country. The difference between now and then, at least in bald statistical terms, will only be a matter of the degree of improvement, or otherwise.

While our politicians – best exemplified by one in particular – try to bathe us in a tingling jacuzzi of optimism, at what point will the electorate in sufficient numbers see through the bullshit? While optimism and hope are often enough to keep us afloat during hard times, there comes a point at which people start comparing the promises with the reality of their own lives.

If increased hardship thanks to spiralling energy costs and decreased state benefits forces a few million under the poverty line, that might not be enough to unseat the current government, as long as there enough voters who are prepared to buy into the Dunkirk Spirit in the expectation that current difficulties are merely the result of adjusting to Brexit. But if those difficulties turn into chronic problems, it’s surely only a matter of time before the patience of the faithful runs out.

And then, perhaps over the next couple of years, with another general election looming, it will once again be fantasy time. Boris Johnson’s election team, which he has never disbanded by the way, will again crank up into high gear and attempt to convince us that good times are just around the corner, as long as we keep the faith and don’t allow the doom merchants on the other side to return to power.

So once again Johnson will try and keep the balloon inflated, and Keir Starmer, if he remains in place, will attempt to deflate it by reminding us how dire things have become. We will be promised blood sweat and tears by one side, and the beginning of the end by the other.

If things do go from bad to worse, nothing is likely to convince the Brexit faithful that leaving the EU was a terrible mistake. They will simply blame the government for screwing it up. And the government will defend itself by citing COVID and other circumstances, such as supply chain problems and energy shortages, as factors beyond its control.

All of which makes the job of Labour and the other opposition parties fiendishly difficult. Forensic arguments pinning the blame on government incompetence will cut little ice with voters. For them the diagnosis will be less important than the cure. And the cure will have to be accompanied with a modicum of hope. Which probably means that the lies of the ruling party will have to be fought, if not with alternative lies, at least with gilded lilies.

But if Labour continues to be hopelessly fragmented, with different factions peddling alternative nirvanas, it’s hard to see them returning to power, unless it’s on the back of widespread disgust at the performance of the ruling party, or in the wake of some unforeseen disaster.

The problem for all parties is that positive change often comes at a snail’s pace. There’s little short-term political dividend to be gained from measures that will take years to come to fruition. Negative change, on the other hand, can send us slithering into anxiety and despair in short order, as we’re seeing at the moment.

So where are the forces for long-term change? Who creates the waves for the politicians to ride? It’s certainly not the politicians themselves. Back in the day, before the social media, “protest movements” found their voices through music, because radio and TV were the most effective ways to reach a mass audience. Yet it’s arguable that in the 60s the likes of Bob Dylan were more effective in bringing about cultural rather than political change. Woodstock didn’t stop the Vietnam war.

But in the same decade, Lyndon Johnson presided over game-changing civil rights legislation. Were it not for the efforts of Martin Luther King, Johnson might not have succeeded, or even felt the need to fight the fight. Here in the UK, Roy Jenkins was responding to cultural change when he introduced measures as Britain’s Home Secretary that created what was collectively known as the “permissive society”. (Remember the days when a minister earned more credit for landmark legislation than the Prime Minister of the time?)

Whether the cultural chicken or the political egg comes first is debatable – a perennial essay question perhaps.

Either way, at least within functioning democracies, positive change can come about both via grassroots pressure and top-down intervention. But since a large portion of the planet’s population is not governed through a functioning democracy, there is little that the people of China or Russia can do from the ground up. They’re reliant on their leaders to make the right calls. And if those leaders deem that national interest or their desire to remain in power dictates that certain actions – such as building new coal-fire power plants – take priority over longer-term necessities, no amount of diplomacy or trade sanctions will deter them.

However we stumble our way towards solutions to seemingly intractable problems, one thing seems certain. A levelling up of sorts has taken place. Over the past decade, bullshit and lies have come to sit squarely alongside reason and facts in driving public opinion in many countries, including my own.

That is unlikely to change in the current decade for as long as we continue to elect charming fools or angry ideologues to govern us. For now, as winter approaches, if I decide to camp out in the middle of a motorway, I shall make sure I bring a thick duvet.

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